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


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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Blazing Coconut
Kickstarter Donor
Blazing Coconut

That demand can be satisfied a lot better sometimes with just giving you a random thing because that can be done a lot cheaper.

Yeah, this is something I call foul on. It costs them nearly nothing more to give you one item vs. another. Perhaps maybe a little code for a special power. Perhaps a little more 3D rendering time… but ultimately, they’re lines in a DB and one does not cost that much more than another.

The rarity of a thing in a virtual world is purely decided by the people who are making and running that world.


I enjoy the excitement of opening a mystery box, But I think they should not contain unique items. For example, a pet box that gives you a random pet out of a pool of pets that already drop from mobs in game. It would satisfy people who enjoy the random aspect of it, without putting the coolest items behind a cash/RNG wall.

Lavayar .

What a load of BS. Most people don’t want to pay with RNG. Having some pack rat in your game is not the thing you can justify lootboxes.

Loyal Patron
Joseph Chello

So essentially: paid shill game developer sells gambling as a means for for rich nerds to dress up like Elvis in a high fantasy role playing game for real life money. Meanwhile, debasing her own game and infecting the entire space with these “features” that salt the fields of her own creativity with this cosmetic crap.

Imagine my shock.

Kickstarter Donor

That demand can be satisfied a lot better sometimes with just giving you a random thing because that can be done a lot cheaper.

Yeah, right. Because it clearly can’t be done to sell individual items for the same “low” price of a lockbox for…reasons.

By now I t’d actually be refreshing if people were honest for once and just said “Yes, we do this because we want all your money, suck it up!”


I actually don’t mind rarity or really randomness in games. I do mind it though if I have to pay for it .

…not sure this is what the topic is getting at. But hey, might as well put it out there as my stated position. o.O

Sally Bowls

Andrew Ross: “This is like arguing that people prefer mystery bags from their local stores over just buying what they actually want.
What we read from devs and science is that random rewards are more effective and it applies whether the test subjects are rats or humans. IMO, Andrew is making a mistake I never would, he believes people. :-) I.e., almost everyone says they prefer fixed rewards. But that does not make it true. I.e. they may say and believe that they prefer fixed, I believe that the science and the MMO “big data” show random is more effective. I posit if a dev removed the RNG for a sample group of the “I prefer fixed rewards” commenters, they would, on average, have a less engaged and less profitable customer. Evil corporations are not doing this just to piss commenters on fan sites off; they do it because they have the data that shows customers prefer it, i.e. spend more.

Brianna Royce: “a justification for artificial scarcity to generate FOMO, envy, and elitism where it needn’t otherwise exist, all to make money,
Cmon, “artificial scarcity to generate FOMO, envy, and elitism” is the bedrock of MMOs and it existed before lockboxes arrrived in America. Is anyone claiming it takes more rare earth minerals to make the pixels on mythic armor, cool mounts or that it is cheaper to make drab brown dyes than black or white dyes? After a player rants on about lockbox envy and showing off, I were to ask them that I think some of their raid/PvP armour looks cools and shouldn’t I have access to it as well, there would a quick turnaround and words like “aspirational” and “earned” and “just reward” would get used and phrases like “I enjoy my armor more if you don’t have it” would not.

Eliot Lefebvre:”Imagine, for a moment, that there were a boss in a game who you could only fight by paying $5 a pop. ” How many times do you read someone archly say “These days, I only log on to raid.”? (Insert WOD joke here) So getting about 52 weekly lockout chances per annual $180 seems like a distinction without a difference to me.

Justin Olivetti:”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
Devs have experimentally verified that subscriptions are no longer viable. Even B2P games are converting to F2P (e.g. GW2, et al) or come up with linguistic cover for that. (BDO is currently $5 so you can buy idk six? copies of the game for the price of your first ghillie suit.) And anything that even remotely smells of power is not welcome in the cash shop; cosmetics only. So if you are a dev and being told that the main way you can stay in business is from cash shop cosmetics, why in the world would you put [m]any of your good cosmetics in-game vs the cash shop? Minimal good in-game cosmetics seems like a logical outcome of what devs are being told today. Whether the cosmetics necessary to keep the dev in business are in a lockbox, direct purchase or some combination, there is not much incentive to be in-game. Removing lockboxes will not change that so IMO it is disingenuous to blame them for it.



Andrew Ross
Andrew Ross

Late to the party, sorry! You’re right that big data supports this, however, there’s also context. How many of us outright avoid a game when we’re told it’s pay to win lockboxes? I played Star Wars Battlefront 2 a few times and enjoyed it, but the lockbox fiasco kept me far away from the game, and it’s hard to trust EA because of that factor. I know I’m not alone when many readers talk about avoiding a game completely for the same reason.

…that being said, yeah, one of my general problems is believing in people ;( stupid optimism!

Toy Clown

I think it gets under my skin more than lockboxes in the first place is when a dev comes out with a post like this and tries to convince everyone RNG lockboxes are GOOD for them. No. Most people don’t want to pay for RNG. I just want to buy what I want and leave the rest alone, but they want to wring us dry of every dollar they can while telling us we want it this way. Ugh.

Bryan Correll

If you don’t care about which one you get and you just want one, you can get it for a lot cheaper.

I don’t believe that there’s anyone who buys a lockbox not caring about the specific contents.


Except that’s not how lockboxes end up being. Even when talking purely about cosmetics people are buying them with specific things in mind, normally those are the more rare items that look far better. We don’t have each person buying a box and dealing with what they get and then some items are just more rare that way – what happens is that people keep spending and buying more and more boxes until they end up getting the desired result.

If the boxes were a limited thing that each person could only buy one or two of, maybe it would work out the way she’s imagining it does. But as it is nothing is truly out of reach or rare to the purchaser, they just have to be willing to keep spending away until they randomly get it.

And even then they don’t have some special rare item that not many others can get – any other person can spend away until that person gets it too.

Sometimes if a game is new and you don’t have any cosmetics at all, some people are good with getting varying cosmetics, anything at all other than the stuff all the freebies are using. Normally though people have a goal in mind when spending on lockboxes and keep spending until that goal is reached.

I’ve seen generous lock boxes that aren’t so bad, and I’ve seen games that sell things straight out at absolutely outrageous prices (the item shop housing prices in Shroud of the Avatar make those $100 homes people complained about in ESO seem like an incredible bargain). But the vast majority of lock boxes are a very poor deal for the purchaser.

I’m so incredibly tired and falling asleep here, hopefully a few of my sentences here make sense :D