The Daily Grind: Are MMO lockboxes actually even worse than gambling?


MMO blogger Ethan “Isarii” Macfie made an interesting point in one of his recent Critical Writ videos that I think deserves some amplification and debate. He argues that lockboxes are fairly compared to gambling — but in fact, they’re far worse.

In a traditional gambling setup, he notes, you might have 99 losers in a group of 100. The payment provided by the losers literally pays the winners (as well as pays for the infrastructure behind the casino). Without the losers’ cash, the casinos would have nothing to give to the winners – the risk is the only thing the casinos have to trade on.

In video gaming, however, that’s not how it works. A video game company is capable of selling gameplay as a product. There’s no fundamental scarcity of pixels in a digital game, and the profits from lockboxes aren’t going back to the winners in any sort of tangible way. Lockboxes merely allow the studio to create losers from pure greed. As he puts it, “They choose to introduce these goods in a way that creates losers out of their customers who don’t get what they want and have to take more chances possibly still not getting what they want to really purchase what they’re trying to purchase.”

Do you agree with Isarii? Is he right that MMO lockboxes are even worse than gambling?

Every morning, the Massively Overpowered writers team up with mascot Mo to ask MMORPG players pointed questions about the massively multiplayer online roleplaying genre. Grab a mug of your preferred beverage and take a stab at answering the question posed in today’s Daily Grind!

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Fortunately, I never get into this loot-boxes stuff. But I agree that it’s even worse than casino gambling.


I believe that Counter Strike:Global Offensive gambling is the worst addiction anyone can get into. I certainly regret my addiction….

David ward

They serve the same purpose, allowing game companies to stay in business. They’re both shady cause they work best on people’s need to win. The few times I’ve purchased a lockbox however I’ve won more times then I would ever have gambling. So the chances are much better. Of course that could depend on the game.

Is it worse? Not in my eyes, any business that depends on a negative human trait for its success is simply wrong, lockboxes and gambling both have a good chance of triggering an addiction type of play from the player and I hate companies who make money by helping another person loose everything.

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Andy McAdams

The thing that gets me about MMO lockboxes is the complete black-box (see what I did there?) feeling of the whole thing. There’s only a degree of ‘pseudo-random number generation’, which is all handled server side that the publisher can tweak and manipulate to their hearts content.

And they do. When they talk about increasing drop rates of something in a drop box, they are showing they can manipulate the rules of game without any input from you, or any over-sight from anyone else. More than that, we have no way of verifying if the alleged drop rates are true or not, and the publisher sure isn’t sharing that information. We are basically beholden to them pinky-swearing they wouldn’t manipulate the data to get more money. They have a fiduciary responsibility to separate you from as much of your money with as little cost as possible.

Moreover, as these are algorithmically handled and can take in a huge number of factors on a player-by-player basis to manipulate drop rates of desirable pixel. Maybe your profile says that you generally open 3 lockboxes and then stop if you don’t get anything. But if you get a desirable item within those 3 lockboxes, you are more likely to purchase an additional 6 to get more. So the game can then automatically adjust to give you a greater chance of medium quality item in the first 3 because it increases the likelihood that you’ll purchase an additional 6, regardless of whether you get a big payout or not.

Publishers / developers have this kind of data, and they use it in this exact way all the time. Lockbox gambling is personalized — the publisher is absolutely building a profile of you to determine on a player-by-player basis the most effective way to get you to pay more while they have to do less.

Artificial pixel-scarcity is understandable to me because in a game we can’t recreate the scenario of true scarity because the limitations in meatspace don’t apply in virtual space and scarcity drives desirability (hence, a big reason that rewards tied to raids are still popular – it’s a lazy way to create scarcity in a game).

Robert Mann

It depends on the game. I do still think that LOTRO at the least (maybe DDO given the developer tie in?) isn’t so bad (given that they allow you to earn with new dailies, or get keys as random drops with at least a moderate frequency.) There’s more lockboxes, sure, but you can open probably half of what you get with random drops… at least in my experience.

Which is why I don’t mind them having the lockboxes, unlike just about every other game, where I would agree it is purely a greed mechanic.


not only do you get 1 key almost every day through dailies, you can also trade them on the AH, which means there’s another route to get them via ordinary in-game currency.

Personally, I still avoid lockboxes in LOTRO (selling all my keys on the AH, atm), because I just dislike the concept in principle. When I realized the best way of farming Ashes of Gorgoroth is via lockboxes, I decided to not go for best-in-slot for the 4 gear slots where you need Ashes for the best items, but instead content myself with 2nd-best-in-slot in these cases.

Sally Bowls

It is a distinction without a difference between lockbox gambling and the rest of the RNG-loot gambling in MMOs. Are the emotional highs & hormones of winning, the addictive “damn I lost, let me bet again” significantly different between opening a lockbox or opening an unlocked box at the end of a dungeon you are chain running to see if you got a legendary? While morally equivalent, lockboxes tend to be more player friendly than MMO RNG loot gambling since you can wager mere money instead of wagering your more valuable time.

I can not believe this is really about gambling. As the Helen Lovejoy pleads “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” about gamble boxes with addictively random, delicious loot purchased with RL$; clearly, the children should strive for gamble boxes with addictively random, delicious loot purchased with their time. Ofc, if someone with a straight face says people speed chain run dungeons/fractals/raids for fun, well a few do but I ask you what would be the MMO player reaction if the devs said “since everyone is running this content for funsies, in the next expansion we have decided to remove the loot”

Is it OK for the child to take the $5 they were going to spend on those evil lockboxes, buy gems then gold, buy items off the TP and then use those items to buy ectoplasm gambling boxes? throw the items into the Mystic Forge and see if their gamble paid off? Buy some WoW ore and hope the prospecting gamble pays off by giving valuable enough gems? What about someone who spends $150 on WoW tokens to hire a guild to run him through a mythic raid, gambling that his random loot drops will be worth it? All of these scenarios are about turning RL$ into random in game items – i.e. also gambling. Are these sins the children should also be protected against? Isn’t the Mystic Forge even more evil than lockboxes; gateway gambling? Teaching children you can risk valuable stuff and sometimes there is the thrill of getting back something far more valuable back.

My two favorite gambling experiences in MMOs have unsurprisingly been crafting related. In WoW wrath, I would buy a gem for 1g and cut it; 90% of the time the output vendored for .75, 10% it sold for 50g. In STO, you could craft mats worth 7,000 and about 157 of 160 times the output vendored for 4,000 about 1 in 160 times the output sold for 10,000,000. I netting approaching $200 worth of in-game currency queueing these up over a couple of weekends. I got all the thrill of gambling and turned a profit.

Robert Mann

But time spent gaming is what games are for… where as money put in is a different story. Where a person can devalue their own money all they want, the two have a huge fundamental difference:

The one you should be enjoying doing in it’s own regard. The second you are doing out of hope for a winner’s reward.

Sure, some games fail hard at making the first fun in and of itself. Sure, we don’t have to have RNG systems (games have been slowly minimizing those in some games, while others double down.) If the purpose of the play is only about the reward, you might be correct… but then I would suggest just having a bag of snacks over head and every half hour having your ‘reward timer’ ding and you get a treat, if that’s all a person is looking for.

Sally Bowls

There is certainly an element of truth in what you say. I am sure you believe it; not trying to make a personal attack. But IMO those sort of arguments tend to be more straw man proposals in forums than real world.

There is huge pushback when the rewards that drop from the random Skinner boxes in a dungeon or raid are nerfed. A lot of the talk in WoW about burnout was from people doing so many runs of the same dungeon for random Skinner boxes of AP & legendaries. If people were enjoying it instead of for loot, there would not be burnout.

I am skeptical that all the people doing gear checked, skip the cut scene, DPS metered speed runs are doing it for the joy of gaming.

What would be the reaction if the devs told the raiders that since they were running the raids for fun, there should no objection to letting casual solo people craft the same stuff that was in their random Skinner box reward?

I absolutely agree that you described is the ideal we would wish for. My opinion is that in 2017 so many MMOs and MMO players have strayed so very far from that. I see it as a lot of MMO players Pavlovian conditioned to run around getting a gambling fix from opening Skinner boxes with random contents. Their lockbox complaints aren’t really complaining about the greed impelling them to seek the Skinner boxes. Their lockbox complaints aren’t companing about the gambling endorphins from random Skinner Box loot (remember how they had to add more rng loot to D3 1.0 instead of the coins drop buy gear). Some are just complaining that other people are obtaining random Skinner Box loot in other ways than the ones they are good at (see metabuilds and DPS meters) And some are complaining that money is being spent.

I am sure there is a lot of sincerity in the anti-lockbox side. But it triggers my hypocrisy meter when people who are grinding and chain running content gambling that there is some sweet loot amongst their random rewards go all Capt Renault: “I am shocked- shocked- to find that gambling is going on in here!” There was gambling in MMOs before there were lockboxes. Now people are just wagering something the traditionalist don’t approve of.


Lockboxes are like the snake oil salesmen from cowboy movies, they are a scam, only one side is risking anything, when you can produce infinite copies of a “rare” thing the term rare is being misused.

Gambling addiction is something that comes from the player, the casino doesn’t want you to be an addict, they just want you to spend money playing a game where the odds are against you, the profit for the casino comes from many people playing for the same prize.

Lockboxes aren’t regulated, they can do whatever they want to with them, you literally can’t win with a lockbox, that rare item you win can be removed from the game at any time, it can be nerfed to uselessness, your class may lose the ability to use it, in short it’s a scam.

As for what’s worse, as far as i know lockboxes aren’t a problem while gambling is.

A Dad Supreme

“Do you agree with Isarii? Is he right that MMO lockboxes are even worse than gambling?”
Well, until FFXIV puts me in rooms where they pump in oxygen, have no windows or clocks so I have no concept of time passing and it peppers me with free drinks and cheap food while I open lockbox after lockbox, no… it’s not worse than real gambling.

Right now, I view lockboxes like I view collectible trading cards. Spend a few bucks and hope to get the shiniest card in the pack.

(disclaimer: I do not buy lockboxes or “keys” for any game)

ichi sakari

Half the world is composed of idiots, the other half of people clever enough to take indecent advantage of them.

– Walter Kerr