Massively Overthinking: The case for rarity and randomness in MMO monetization

    
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Last week, Guild Wars 2’s Crystin Cox gave a monetization interview to Gamasutra during which she made one specific argument I wanted to pull out and re-examine. She was trying to explain why lockboxes can provide a “value” to players that they can’t get any other way.

“When we talk about cosmetics, there’s a demand for every individual cosmetic. Like maybe I love cowboy hats, I just want to buy cowboy hats. But there’s also a demand, and a lot of players feel this way, for just cosmetic options. I like cowboy hats sure, but I also like bandanas, and I like clown hair, I like everything. I don’t really have a super strong preference. I just want more things to put in my dress-up box. That demand can be satisfied a lot better sometimes with just giving you a random thing because that can be done a lot cheaper. If you don’t care about which one you get and you just want one, you can get it for a lot cheaper. When you’re talking about games that have rarity, and rarity’s a big part of that game, then lootboxes can be done to distribute something on a small scale, so that not everybody has access to it but some do, as sort of a jackpot item. And then that gets into a little more complexity around the economy and your game, and whether not this is an enjoyable part of your game for people to play, play with the economy of some such. But if it is, then you can use lootboxes to be a pretty good distribution for something that’s very rare.”

For this week’s Overthinking, I’ve asked our writers to reflect on this argument for lockboxes. How much does “rarity” and desirable “RNG” play a role in whether you’ll participate in gambleboxes? Do you think a developer’s wish to insert “jackpot items” into the game justifies lockboxes? Whose “value” is really being considered when designing such buyables? Are you buying any of this?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Nope, I don’t buy this one bit. This is like arguing that people prefer mystery bags from their local stores over just buying what they actually want. While people may want to buy a mystery box from time to time, only offering an RNG option rarely works out. Look at Loot Crate. It’s a service that’s doing well enough, but as we’re all gamers, is anyone here subscribed to the service? I’ve bought a single crate and it had more junk in it than anything. They have tons of options now, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s because people who bought from them realized they were getting a bunch of junk they didn’t need and walked away.

The only benefit these digital crates have is that they don’t take up real-world space. While random loot may be a staple of the RPG experience, it’s also one we tend to question when done poorly. Why does a fox have a platemail hauberk? Some teeth, fur, a tail, maybe even a partially digested recipe for said armor makes sense, and if that’s what I want or need, knowing where to go to that makes me feel smart. Having an idea of what we’re in for is “fun” in that it gives the grind a target, but just buying that experience is gambling, plain and simple. The practical point of the grind is that it keeps the player engaged. That’s really about it. It’s why a lot of people talk about watching TV, movies, or listening to music while grinding. It’s a repetitive action that just keeps your time occupied.

I know some people enjoy that, but for me, that’s always what scares me about games: how utterly useless they can be. The one redeeming fact is that it’s also when you can socialize the most. I’ve been playing more Splatoon 2 lately, and the money/XP grind for gear kind of freaks me out since I know it’s repetitive. However, since I’m not tuning out, I’m getting better at the game, and that lets me talk shop with other players outside the game (Nintendo’s voice chat system is too clunky for me to engage). When someone values, say, a team bonus affect over a personal stat boost, it says something about them, and it helps me see more of who that person is beyond a gamer. If I could simply slap down real money for the things I want, that whole experience is lost. Devs need money, but that’s also why selling specific cosmetics is fine, but power should be earned. Looking cool isn’t enough for most of us I think, we need to engage in an activity where we can show that coolness off.

That isn’t to say that random rewards aren’t fun. If a digital store allowed me to singularly buy what I want for a higher price or gamble for less cash to maybe win what I want (as is hinted at in Cox’s statement), I’d be fine with it. The problem is that this is rarely the case. If you want me to earn it in game, awesome. If you want to put it up in the shop? I’m actually fine with that too (though for hardcores, maybe add a small pin or something that shows their version was earned). But putting it in a lockbox says, “We don’t know how to monetize our game beyond gambling,” which not only has the potential to hurt players, but hurt our industry, and any developer, producer, PR person, or influencer that says otherwise is essentially telling you that they’re willing to risk the integrity of our hobby in pursuit of lining their own pockets. It may be practical, but we don’t have to fund the people willing to sell us out.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): As I read it, Cox is arguing that lockboxes allow devs to insert RNG into the cash shop, ensuring that some people get what they want (the specific item they like), while others get an experience they want (the feeling of getting something other people don’t have) even if they don’t like said item. But most buyers still get neither, having received no “value” at all, which is exactly what makes it gambling.

The “rarity” argument actually seems superficially reasonable until you realize it’s just a justification for artificial scarcity to generate FOMO, envy, and elitism where it needn’t otherwise exist, all to make money, none of which has anything to do with building a great game that is fun to actually play. It does explain why some companies will put all the items into the cash shop directly but at extremely inflated rates; if they really believed people loved randomness itself (rather than the reward) as she suggests, the rates for lockboxes and direct-purchase items would be exactly the same. And of course, if studios were just interested in adding “jackpot items” to the game, they’d just make them drop through gameplay in existing RNG systems. This is about money, and I don’t get why ArenaNet feels like it needs to spin this to make it sound like they’re doing us a favor, when Guild Wars 2’s lockboxes are relatively tame already. It’s like they’re going out of their way to invite extra bonus criticism. Hardly anyone was even looking at y’all as an egregious offender before now, and here you’ve sent out Cox to shed crocodile tears over how sad it is that the government is getting involved and players will be losing out on the value of lockboxes if they’re banned? Are you even kidding me right now.

The rarity thing doesn’t really work on me, honestly, or at least not anymore, because I’ve long since stopped measuring my fun and self-worth based on what the people around me have – that way lies madness. Some of my characters, especially in the Guild Wars franchise, run around in what looks like newbie gear simply because I like it better than what’s available later, while my other toons wear high-end cosmetics. I go after what personally speaks to me, not what is made rare. Getting to this point in my life outlook took a lot of work, and it annoys me that companies are flippantly trying to undo it for spare change.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Those of you who follow my chatter elsewhere probably know that PAX East inspired me to get into Granblue Fantasy, and those of you who know anything about Granblue Fantasy know that it falls under the general category of “gacha game.” So why do I play it when I’m personally opposed to the whole lootbox side of things? Not just because it’s pretty generous with the free draws, although that helps. No, it’s because by and large, Granblue tends toward the side of giving you tools to work around its randomness. There are lots of desirable things in terms of characters and summons in its random boxes, but between making good use of the free option and lots of options for stuff earned through gameplay, you don’t ever need to buy stuff. And when you do decide to drop money, there are lots of ways to do so to ensure that you will get what you actually want, not just what a random draw feels like giving you.

In other words, “rarity” is actually the opposite of what drives me to be willing to play the game. What drives me is the feeling that while I might not always get what I want from a random draw, I have a variety of options that aren’t a random draw. I’m getting actual value out of any money I put into the game.

Another good comparison here would be Overwatch’s loot boxes, which almost no one seems to mind all that much, partly because those are specifically set up so that getting enough “duds” lets you just buy your “jackpot” items straight up. There’s never a question of “will I get the thing I want,” but just “how long will it take me.” And since you can get them for free just by playing, you always feel as if it’s a matter of patience weighted against luck. Putting in a jackpot item you have to gamble to get feels like dirty pool.

Imagine, for a moment, that there were a boss in a game who you could only fight by paying $5 a pop. Would anyone be all right with that? Would anyone think, “It’s fine that I’m paying money for a chance at this boss maybe dropping the one thing that I want?” Players would rebel, unsubscribe, and presumably riot. The defense would hold about as much water as a sieve in a waterfall. There are lots of ways to add rare or desirable items into the game that don’t rely upon RNG, and most of them center around slow and long-term effort; that might not offer the sudden rush of “wow, I got this thing I wanted,” but it has a much lower chance of pissing off the players who you theoretically want to buy your stuff in the first place.

Maybe Cox doesn’t have a strong preference and she wants a grab bag. But most of the world does have strong preferences, and forcing everyone to buy into the grab bag isn’t done to serve player interests but to make these items sell better. I’m not here to praise or demonize that, but I’m not very happy with the idea of being told “no, this is actually what you want” when it very clearly is not.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): That’s fun and fancy verbal footwork that Cox is doing, but it’s not going to make me think any more kindly about lockboxes with their hidden odds and exclusive chase items. You know what’s one thing that really chuffs me about these? It’s that whenever developers and artists make any new items, they have to decide whether or not it should go into the game proper or the lockboxes. There’s got to be a huge temptation to reserve all the really best stuff for the lockboxes (see: SWTOR, ESO) and give the “leftovers” to the non-gambling public.

I don’t care if something is rare. I don’t care how tempting they make an item look. I’m not going to buy into lockboxes. It’s important to be content with what you have already so that the temptation is lessened or eliminated completely. A random chance at a really great item isn’t a value — it’s an excellent chance to not get the thing at all. If they want to just put that value-laden item up for sale on the store, then it can be priced according to that value and we have the direct option to purchase it or not.

With all of these discussions over lockboxes this past year, I keep getting the impression that developers have to drink their own Kool-Aid to convince themselves of the importance and alleged benefit of these boxes, not just to the studio, but supposedly to the community. The more convoluted the response to the lockbox question, the more I’m convinced that person is desperately trying to convince him or herself that they’re something other than manipulative, unfair gambleboxes.

So no, I’m not buying it. Try again, Cox.

Your turn!

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