Massively Overthinking: How should MMOs make money in a world without lockboxes?


Earlier this week, MOP’s Justin expressed frustration over lockboxes, feeling especially provoked. “As both a player and a journalist, I find it insulting when an MMO studio wants me to get excited about its lockboxes,” he tweeted. “They are poison.”

MOP reader and gamer Iain (@ossianos) wants to hear more about poison! “I’d be interested to read an article on your thoughts, and those of the MassivelyOP staff, on how MMOs could otherwise make money,” he tweeted back.

Challenge accepted! And perfectly timed for this week’s Massively Overthinking topic. Imagine (or just remember) a world without lockboxes. How would MMOs and other online games survive without lockboxes here in 2017? What should they be doing instead, and what might they have to do when the inevitable gachapon regulation comes westward?

Everything comes around again.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think you can make lockboxes work, but it’s hard. I think Blizzard’s starting to figure it out. Skins, instanced housing, non-combat pets, and story-based DLC seem like fair game. It’s not an MMO, but look at Overwatch. It adds new characters, maps, gameplay options, and there’s no subscription.

But let’s say we scrap boxes entirely. Skins, instanced housing, and DLC are still pretty good. Guild advertising space in game might be interesting, as the high-end raiding guilds could still make a name for themselves through established communities and progression, but people wanting to start something new could boost themselves with a little cash instead of elbow grease. I’m not saying guild perks or something social should involve a paywall, just have the game selling space to advertise. The same could go for PvP ladder teams, raid groups, or alliances.

These may not make the same kind of cash as lockboxes, but they’d bring more goodwill. Again noting Overwatch, one of the things it really has going for it is personality. If developers actually make a good game before monetizing, it makes it easier for people to appreciate the game, and that makes moving merchandise easier. What’s great about merch is that it also works as advertising, which helps give you more customers.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I am of a mind that if the only way a studio can imagine to convince people to give it money is by tricking the dumbest, laziest, or richest among us with lockboxes designed to exploit their desires and math-incompetence by granting mere chances at digital loot in a video game, then it doesn’t deserve to exist anyway, both because its purveyors are awful and because it must not be that great a game to start with.

I get that the market has squeezed every penny it can out of subscriptions and free-to-play and microtransactions and early access and moved on to triple- and quadruple-dipping and now actual literal gambling, and it will keep doing these things until it’s forced to stop, either by your refusing to participate or your government’s intervention. Maybe I’d forgive lockboxes as a necessary evil if they were keeping great games online or creating great new MMORPGs for all of us. But they aren’t. They’re just padding the pockets of mega-corporations, from Blizzard and Bethsoft to Tencent and NCsoft. You want to feel sorry for indies? I do too, but indies aren’t at all the worst offenders. Supporting this model is just helping the rich get richer at your expense and the expense of the health and reputation of the genre.

So how do you make money without being unethical grossness? Make games that don’t suck and sell those games. Sell access, sell content, work your DLC and expansion magic — all the things games already do, without the lockboxes. Raise the sub to what it should be in 2017. Sell the cosmetics in the lockboxes directly without gamblebox shenanigans — in limited batches, or by auction, if need be.

A lot of games will never be made if they can’t exploit lockboxes. And dammit, that might actually be for the best if we really want a revolution in how these games are made and how we pay for them. If not, then we deserve exactly the garbage we get.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Part of me wants to be a little snippy at having to solve a studio’s problem for them. I mean, it’s not my problem. It’s not my business. I just call them out on their bad business practices and urge them to figure out a better way.

But I’ll take this topic head-on and give it some serious thought. First of all, I fully acknowledge that lockboxes are a proven revenue stream, a massive money maker, and a relatively easy way to generate repeat sales. And while there is some strong sentiment against them, there’s also a lot of acquiescence about their presence with phrases like “necessary evil” and “they finance the game for the other free players.” So studios don’t have a lot of incentive to stop making money when they’re not getting unified pushback from the community.

I stand by my words, though. They are poison, they are insulting, and they are gambling. I wasted enough money as a kid buying packs of trading cards hoping I’d get the ones I wanted before I realized that it was a losing proposition and that it was preying on people who didn’t know better. I think that’s why I get the most upset out of lockboxes, because they exploit weaknesses in human psychology and prey upon the most vulnerable. For profit.

So what should they be doing instead? Anything. Pretty much anything. They already have been. Lockboxes might be the most profitable revenue stream in an MMO, but they’re usually just one of many, and most of the rest of those streams are not as gross. Subscriptions, real money transfers, dungeon keys, cosmetics, rentals, housing, unlocks, classes, races, boosters, mounts, dyes, exclusive areas, pets, purchasable content, and so on. Free-to-play is most vulnerable to the lockbox invasion, while subscription-only is the most resilient. An “easy” solution to lockboxes would be to create a premium MMO that is popular, contains a lot of value and entertainment, and rests upon a subscription model.

In F2P games, I think that the key to eliminating lockboxes is to come up with something to sell that is repeatable and doesn’t cost the studio too much in time and resources to develop. Something small enough to tempt players into indulging without too much guilt and something they’ll want to purchase more often than not. And that thing is… I honestly don’t know. But just because I don’t have a perfect solution that has never been thought up before doesn’t mean lockboxes are OK as a fallback.

Perhaps a game needs to be created around a business model instead of having one foisted on it for a solution to present itself. Maybe studios need to come up with faster and more efficient ways to get new sellable items out to players. I thought Daybreak’s idea of letting players design in-game skins for PlanetSide 2 and profit sharing an interesting way for both parties to make money and Daybreak to harness player creativity to make assets on its behalf. Trove does something a little similar to that too, and I know that virtual worlds such as Second Life have thrived for years with this concept. I could really see this sort of model taking off in other games if the studios gave players the tools to mod and submit their own cosmetics, mounts, pets, and housing decor.

Another great and more recent example is what ROBLOX is doing by roping in players and turning them into “indie devs” who can create content on a faster scale and then make money for themselves and for the game at the same time. I’d rather be a creator than a sucker any day of the week.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The usual fallback I hear here is “subscriptions,” neglecting the fact that as a revenue stream, it turns out subscriptions are not actually one of the most productive ways of getting money. They work, but not for every game, and we need to just accept that as a reality. A free-to-play or partially free-to-play game is going to need something else. And Justin has the right of it; random item packs are about as much fun as ripping open a new pack of Magic cards only to find yourself rewarded with utter garbage, most of which you can’t even do anything with; in games like Star Wars: The Old Republic you can resell it, except you really can’t because the markets are flooded with garbage no one wants.

Of course, the reason lockboxes serve as a big revenue stream is because they essentially combine the frustration of boss loot with a price tag. It’s like watching the boss drop without dropping your dang sword, except instead of having to run the dungeon again, you need to spend five bucks. But it’s pretty dang predatory, however good your odds might be to get the things you want. It’s why I like the various currency-conversion systems available in some games, as I can’t help but see many of them as occupying the same design “slot,” so to speak. They’re stuff for you to spend money on repeatedly because you’ll need them again.

However, I think that’s also part of the problem. Lockboxes are designed in such a way that you need to buy them over and over. Currency tokens or exchanges, same thing. It’s these elements designed to make you spend money over and over instead of just getting what you want, and at its heart that’s why nothing matches the allure of the lockbox. However high you price an item (say, a monocle), it’s always going to be something you buy a fixed number of times. You could buy that same lockbox seven dozen times and still wind up without the thing you want.

Thus, there’s no incentive not to have them except to avoid that predatory label. The problem isn’t that other means of making money don’t exist; we see them. Plenty of games, including ones that sell lockboxes, sell things directly so you can just buy what you want. It’s just that there’s no good way to make you buy the same thing over and over outside of making it be a limited-time addition (which feels kind of crappy) or making it a lockbox (far crappier). And the obvious solution is to just have a fixed fee where you get certain stuff on a regular basis, but… that’s just describing a subscription again.

So there are plenty of ways to make money without lockboxes, there are plenty of ways to make lockboxes less skeevy, and there are plenty of ways to make sure you’re spending money on a game on a regular basis. Is there a better way to make a specific item just sell to someone over and over ad infinitum? Not really.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Because I like the anticipation and surprise of “What did I get?!” when collecting shinies in EverQuest II, I also like opening lockboxes. But there’s a catch: I like opening these little gifts when getting them and the means to open them are both obtained in the game! Basically, it’s just opening a loot chest to me that took a little more work to get open. When it becomes a matter of having to buy keys with money, I am no longer interested in opening them. I appreciate how Secret World Legends gives a cache lockbox key to subscribers every day (if they claim it), so I have the chance to open one a day. Unfortunately, I can collect more than 10 a day, so these items sit in my inventory and bank, beckoning me to open them. Willpower is definitely needed! The desire to open them all (or at least enough to get the item I want) is pretty strong at times, especially since I have yet to get the top item, even with the so-called increased chances.

Lockboxes that can be acquired or opened for cash, however, are problematic to me. Yes, I want companies to make money, but this system really encourages gambling addictions! That hope to get lucky while sacrificing what you may or may not be able to afford can lead to serious troubles. Sadly, that problem of “just one more” crops up in SWL as well; I feel it and have to resist! I don’t know that I have the answer because I definitely want games to succeed and lockboxes do generate funds, but there are too many negatives to me — negatives that are truly damaging to people. I still prefer subscription models that give everything for one known monthly fee. Leave lockboxes as a special loot that isn’t tied to real money.

Your turn!


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Joe Seabreeze

How about bringing some innovation and making a game that’s fun and exciting? I see a lot of talk about how to put a price tag on a game. Wouldn’t it be less of a risk if the game was actually good?


I am less interested in elminating lockboxes (they work, and they basically fund the whole free to play economy which is itself, I think, a good thing for MMOs – subs distort the design process as well, after all, in fairly pernicious ways that we don’t notice as much because they were the original norm) than in making them better. Less exploitive, more fun.

I think the first key to that is to drastically reduce how often people look at the outcome of opening a box and think to themselves, “I lost.” Make the non-top-tier prizes fun and interesting and unique and have enough of them that a player has to open a lot of boxes before they start regularly repeating them. After that, maybe eliminate recurrant numerical awards (STO’s XP and mark boosters, SWL’s weapon distillates) from the boxes themselves entirely and instead add a merchant somewhere (or, better still, a UI function so the player doesn’t have to go to that merchant) that will let the player exchange lockbox prizes they don’t want for those numerical boosts.

I enjoy lockboxes, but to enjoy them – to have them be worth my money when I open them even if I don’t pull the grand prize – there has to be somethng at least potentiall exciting in each lockbox I open. Too many games fail at that, and THAT, not the presence of lockboxes in the first place, is the real problem. It ain’t gambling if I always win.


Why can’t we just buy games or subscriptions any more. It used to be if you wanted a game you bought it, and then you had access to the game. Nothing was missing, you got what you paid for. If there was extra content made after release maybe you bought that too.

For f2p games obviously some business structure in the game is needed, we all understand that. But just why did we allow games companies to infest the rest of their paid products with this stuff? Why don’t players simply resist it? I don’t get it.

Blazing Coconut
Kickstarter Donor
Blazing Coconut

I think that buy to play is likely the best method for both gamers and players.

The problem with a lot of subscription games is that studios forget that they are supposed to be delivering content for that subscription. Gamers get disillusioned when they are paying for a service and getting low value in return. I was a fan of a lot of sub based games, but if they don’t have a regular release schedule, then the game gets stale and people leave if there isn’t enough new things to do.

Let me buy the game for the devs to recoup their development costs and give them some operating cash. For that fee, I should be able to play the main storyline and have access to all of the at launch features. I have no problem buying a game and perhaps they could even have the old concept of a starter area to give people a feel of the game to see if they want to play.

Then, release content and charge for what you release.

I can think of a number of ways for that to work. For cosmetics and vanity items, the cash shop is fair and a good way to make money without people claiming PTW. The same works with classes and other content which is easily gated from some of your population (zones would be another good way to do this).

The main point is that developers are incentivised to make real content that people want to buy. Players are motivated to buy if they like the game and want to progress through it.

If they want to have a small monthly fee to give some bonuses, I’m neutral about that. Something small to cover the costs of keeping the lights on even if the devs aren’t actively working on the game and a respectively small bonus for either leveling or in game currency or whatever.

That’s how I think I would want to see the next game I really play charge for its services.


If only mining for a cryptocurrency in exchange for playing a game would work better together…

But one can hope, that it will be only a matter of time, when all has been settled, even by law. And the exchange rate is high enough too! One day… maybe… ;P

Edit: Or forget cryptocurrencies! Maybe another type of service exchange! Spitballing here: lending server space, processing power for scientific calculations, A.I. improvement processes,… There must be other services, that are more expensive than the kWh you’re spending for!

PlayCator .

Well when ESO added lockboxes, I quit the game because I just got sad that I couldn’t have the things I wanted without gambling. I’ve given ESO a lot of money before they added in those lockboxes. Way more than I’ve ever given a free MMO and I’ve subbed to ESO numerous times! All that stopped when they added lockboxes.

I am okay with the way Wildstar handled Madame Fay since it was tradable stuff. If you didn’t get what you wanted, you could sell it, you weren’t just out the money with nothing to show for it. Granted, it might take you a while to get any decent plat for it, but still.

Kevin McCaughey

By having smaller subs. Stop this $15 shit. $5 would sell more and people would be far more likely to pull the trigger on it.

Malcolm Swoboda

THIS! This is a world of a cheaper sub for Netflix, etc. $15? For ONE video game? Maybe for a host of them, but even then, you’d have to have people interested in most of those games.


I disagree strongly. MMOs are mainstream now, they don’t offer robust sustems anymore, elaborate character customization, restrictive mechanics, … They need to cater to as many different people as possible and as such lose character. Creativity has made room for… well, thís.

WoW managed to make billions and it didn’t have 5€ subs, it didn’t have a cash shop. Yet somehow it lead to this.
I’d be willing to pay 50€ per month for an exclusive game where character creation takes time, community is small but loyal, integrity is key. A game able to bring back the glorious moments some of us experienced in the age pre-WoW clones, pre-cash shop F2P stupidity.

The subscription price is not the issue, it’s the greed of a developer combined with the kind of players MMO communities are now comprised of.

Tom R

I agree, I might sub to multiple mmos if they were 5 a month and your game doesn’t feel stupid because all the cool stuff you actually need to work.

Jeffery Witman

I think this is largely a problem of greed. There’s lots of revenue streams in MMOs that don’t involve gambling. I’ve always preferred subscription games, but the catch there is you have to make a game worth playing for months on end in order to keep getting sub money. Why is that so hard to do for most developers and game studios? I think there’s a few reasons:

1) They’re trying to appeal to people who are used to single-player console titles with multiplayer co-op or PvP as options. This is diametrically opposed to the core principles of an MMO persistent world.

2) All the focus is on telling a story TO the players rather than telling a story WITH the players. This is a core principle in tabletop gaming, which is probably the closest analog analogue to an MMO. Theme parks are easier to code and maintain with a tiny maintenance team, obviously, but a complex, interactive, player-directed story that’s part of a larger world (of which they’re only one part) is going to keep people playing longer than a simple follow-the-waypoints that takes you from newb to epic in about 50 hours of gameplay and then dumps you in the grind/pvp endgame most titles have.

3) Related to 2; if you don’t have a larger world outside of the main story line, what is there to come back for until the next new content update releases? Gear grinding only gets you so many players. PvP is niche at best in MMOs (and, honestly, at this point it’s being done better by MOBA titles). If there’s no larger, persistent world outside the main story, why am I playing an MMO instead of Mass Effect or the newest Halo? You need a place that facilitates actual play and socializing outside of combat. SWG did this beautifully when it was around. Player built cities; events hosted by players with all kinds of props, effects, and real mob spawns; actual faction battles over control of open-world locations; player designed missions and bounties with rewards; lots of places to hang out with other people; classes that were built to be entertainers and exist in social areas (okay, they gave buffs, too, but still); a fully functional resource and crafting system that allowed players to, again, exist outside of combat and still contribute to the game; both ground and space combat (could be naval combat, or air combat, or armed cars racing through wastelands, whatever) that have you a completely different experience separate from the usual holy Trinity of MMO combat. That’s just one example.

4) Related to 3; actually make them social and multiplayer, not just single player games. Second Life exists almost solely as a socialization medium and does very okay. And yet most modern MMOs seem to throw in a few multiplayer dungeons and raids as the only truly multiplayer option. I know lots of people didn’t like it, but I always found DDO’s system of dungeon quests and the absolute need to group up for most things to be really good because they made an LFG interface that let the players choose how they wanted to play. No auto-grouping without some half-assed AI the devs threw in. You posted what dungeon and difficulty you were doing and what classes you needed. People signed up to join, the group/raid leader could talk to them, inspect them, or just let them in after seeing that they meet the requirements. It made PUGs enjoyable most of the time, even for big raids because it forced everyone to rely on each other.

Now, if you can do some of this stuff more often, maybe people would be willing to spend 150% of their Netflix bill on your game each month, or even, gasp, pay full retail price for an MMO once again!

Oh, and a quick addendum:

5) If the players think you’ll go Free 2 Play at the first sign of trouble, they absolutely won’t be giving you any money up front because they know it will be a waste. Commit to your business model and stop treating your players/customers like leftover meat scraps that you’re trying to grind down for a little extra low quality revenue. Just because you can get money by doing something doesn’t mean it’s good for business overall.

Loyal Patron
Patreon Donor

An MMO can make money out of different sources:

– Buy to Play; you have to buy the original game and every expansion
– Sub based games. Yeah it’s not cool in these days but having a game with a lower sub but delivering content, fun, good devs and a community may counterbalance it. Don’t charge 15$ but maybe 6$. A coffee at some stores cost more than that. Additionally server costs are no longer a big issue in comparison to 15 years ago. We have cloud technology and server farms are more efficient than in former times.
– Item Shop with no game enhancing features. You can sell skins, pets, additional character slots, costumes, dyes and even lockboxes with items that have no impact on gameplay.
– Home made real money trade. Guild Wars 2 does it. You can buy ingame cash shop currency with RL money which you can exchange in game super official into ingame gold. I have no idea what I need tons of money in GW2 but .. anyway.
– (and the worst of all) Free to play but pay for fun. Either with a Freemium model (suuuuure you don’t have to pay but look at all the features you miss *wink* .. as example the EU version of AION) or with a real hard cash shop. Either you buy stuff or you can’t even reach max level. Maybe you can reach max level but it will be a PITA and you’d rather kick your PC than logging into the game. Do you have a moment to talk about our lord and savior grinding?

My personal favorites are Sub based games or item shop w/o any game changing features.

The Weeb formerly known as Sray
The Weeb formerly known as Sray

Stop trying to make the damn things last forever. Launch a game, actively support it for a couple years, then replace it with a successor product.

Seriously, it makes more sense from a financial perspective to get the infusuon of box sales plus a couple DLC expansions every three or four years over attempting to keep up with the insatiable demand for content. The overall cost developing and maintaining a game drops while profitability rises.

Imagine if WoW was a literal series of games in which each era was a separate title where you could transfer characters forward like a Mass Effect save. It would allow for much greater freedom on the part of the dev teams to innovate, and move away from the endless vertical progression. At that same time, no additional corporate hands in your wallet extracting $15 a month for a sibscription of dubious value, and/or double/triple dipping with microtransactions.

Buy the game. Buy additional expansions (if you want). Then buy the sequels (if you want). Literally, dozens -actually hundreds- of video games manage to make a lot of money on that model: I think MMORPGs can too.

Jeffery Witman

This might be the most sensible option, but I would think you’d have to make concessions for new players. Let’s say you played WoW 1 and 2, then at WoW 3 launch your wife or friend or dad, whoever, wants to start playing with you. Do you want to send them back to WoW 1 and 2, pay for both full games, and wait for them to play through all of that before getting to WoW 3? No way. If you give new players a decent starting position that lets them play the newest title without feeling like they’re starting off with nothing compared to vets, then you could have a winning setup.

Having played SWL Beta and being a Patron since early launch, I have to say that rehashing the old content is the worst part of it. Yeah, the story is awesome, but it’s also very familiar and that lessens the enjoyment. If they had just released Season 2 and had the same kind of vanity items, cash shop, and other benefits for owners of the previous game I think it would be going way, way better for Funcom right now.

You still have the issue of content consumption, but at least with new titles coming out on a regular basis you would get cash for each new one, justifying the initial investment. This is a really good way to think about it going forward. MOBAs have worked this way in the past, and TSW worked that way for a long while, and it works.

The Weeb formerly known as Sray
The Weeb formerly known as Sray

For my proposal to work, you’d probably have to have set up like Elder Scrolls Online’s “One Tamriel” where character level is largely meaningless as all characters can do any content, allowing new players to jump in at any point; although levels still play a role in the variety of skills available and quality of gear, which in turn does make a difference to the difficulty. Combine that idea with the Mass Effect style of “having level X and stuff Y in the previous game gives you level Z plus bonus cash in the current one” so as to make a veteran’s game to game progress still have meaning.