Gaming psychologist Jamie Madigan explains what ‘surprise mechanics’ actually are


We’re all familiar with the “surprise mechanics” incident, the absurdist argument in defense of lootboxes from EA’s VP of legal and government affairs Kerry Hopkins. It was the fuel for a great deal of facepalming and has cemented its legacy as a Dean Scream moment for EA, though it will likely not lead to the company’s downfall. Psychologist and author of Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games Jamie Madigan examined Hopkins’ statement and posited that she wasn’t completely wrong, just terrible at explaining herself.

The idea of “surprise mechanics,” Madigan states, has been a part of video game design for a long time now. The example given is a player seeing an elite-level monster, killing it, and hoping for the big shiny piece of loot. What drives this behavior pattern is the anticipation of a loot drop — the unexpected pleasure of having some extremely valuable or useful item suddenly hit the game’s floor. This sensation is likely what Hopkins was referring to, explains Madigan, but he also points out that lootboxes are earned outside of gameplay and so are not the same thing as they don’t trigger that same behavior pattern.

“Lootboxes are often sold in ways that elite enemies in Diablo or hidden dungeon caches in Skyrim are not,” he concludes. “There are usually no limits on how many lootboxes you can buy and open one after the other, where treasure chests or bosses in Borderlands have to be found and traveled to, not to mention that they require actually playing the game […] This is separate from the question of whether or not they’re ethical or problematic, and that’s the point: we should study and consider them separately from other kinds of loot mechanics.”


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Anthony Clark

RNG loot is crap. The product of lazy developers. Can’t come up with enough content so they fall back on that to prolong gameplay length.

And no matter what EA says gambling is gambling no matter what pretty psychology term they want to try to hide behind.

Robert Mann

Yeah, was never really a fan of chasing RNG loot either. On the other hand, the whole lootbox thing has two big components:

First, the chance to get something at random with poor odds. See casinos, the lottery, pretty much any other system designed to make money off the hope of winning.

Second, the game where what you can get matters. Epeen is the biggest driver of action for a significant number of people, despite others mostly just looking at the person in question as some annoying jerk at best. Whether it is power, or fashion, the goal of being better, impressing others, or otherwise having an advantage is a key behind the practice.

Remove either, and this hemorrhoid of gaming dies the death it deserves. The first can be done. The second could be done, but requires some advanced technology not really available at this time and a lack of ethics.


I thought this was going to be an article explaining the psychology of those “Oh shit!” moments during a bad pull. I forgot about that alternative facts lootbox claim putout by EA. o.O

Bryan Correll


Poor EA. They mostly missed the boat where the golden days of lockboxes were concerned. They came in late when people were starting to stand up to them more already. Now they desperately want to be able to get in on something they missed and that lesser companies still get away with without being harassed.

Even mobile players, in the land of lockboxes and pay to win are starting to get over their wide acceptance of said practices now. It still happens there worse than anywhere else, but more and more people are complaining about it and less people are just spending away on them. I’ve noticed that change happening there, slowly, but happening. People are more ready for a change in monetization to a less predatory and expensive system.

Those golden days of mobile lockbox acceptance is coming to an end. They will still exist even when it does (on mobile, console and PC) but in a lesser form than what’s been on mobile for so many years. It will still take a while to filter out (years at least) but that filtering process has begun.

That isn’t to say games that have special cosmetics in loot boxes won’t have them there anymore, what people are finally starting to stand up to in mobile are the games where your power is directly tied to how many loot boxes you open. When that collapses on mobile where it’s been so accepted this whole time, it won’t be as viable anywhere else anymore either.

While PC players have always seen more of a resistance to it, it’s mobile where the change really needs to happen to then filter through the rest of the industry. We’re barely on the cusp of it changing there though (but at least we are on that cusp), so unless major legislation passes preventing it, we still have a good number of years of still seeing it fairly heavy.

EA is too watched over to be able to get away with it on the level that other smaller mobile-only companies do, which is funny.


EA pioneered blatant pay to win lootboxes in video games. They just did it in their sports games, with the Ultimate Team mode selling packs of randomized players to build a team with, and core gamers don’t care about their sports titles so we didn’t notice. Their recent push beginning with Battlefront 2 has just been expanding what they were already doing and making hundreds of millions of dollars on in their sports titles for the last decade.


This is separate from the question of whether or not they’re ethical or problematic

We don’t need a primer on the RNG. I think most of us have a bit of working experience with the issue. The relevant aspects aren’t related to definition, but with the ethics and problematic impact loot boxes have upon the games.

Politely, don’t try to teach grandma how to suck eggs. It’s a predatory, anti-consumer practice that turns our game markets into something much less than they should be.

Dani Reasor
Dani Reasor

It depends on how the game’s business model combines with the loot system, in my amateur opinion. If a game charges a monthly subscription but only allows you to kill a given boss once per week, the game is designed to use the lure of that weekly pull on the one armed bandit to keep you paying out. Purchased lootboxes and lockboxes with purchased keys can do more financial damage, but it’s a quantitative difference rather than a qualitative one.

Arnold Hendrick

Madigan’s web article (referenced in the MOP article above) describes how purchasing loot boxes differs from periodic boss runs: “The loot loop happens outside of the game for the most part. ” In other words, are you playing the game to enjoy periodic loot, or are you buying the loot so you can play the game?


I don’t see a distinction between the two, and legally speaking I don’t think you can create a distinction.

As Extra Credits brought up what is the fundamental difference between having a loot box you open and get a random reward and instead selling a key to a dungeon where you kill a token box and it instead drops a random reward? In either instance you had to pay money to access and get the loot. Was it the “playing the game” element that’s the difference? So if you have to be in combat 5 minutes that’s enough to be considered “playing the game”? 10 minutes? 30 seconds?

Now take that to broader levels (IE: Not just a loot dungeon) and you end up with the Josh Hawley legislation that per it’s wording would effectively and legally outlaw whole game expansions.

I’ll also point out that RNG mechanics are hard baked into our games but are extremely common and widely available throughout game play. For example he brought up Diablo I’m actually numb to the sheer volume of loot Diablo 3 showers down upon me from the innumerable elites, caches, grift rewards and otherwise. The argument that they are limited or require effort to get to doesn’t amount to much when they actually aren’t limited and the effort required is basically non-existent.

Finally I’d also question this with the GW2 scenario. If the argument is that loot boxes are earned outside of game play what happens when the same loot boxes are gained from game play? I can go grind GW2 right now and get money to convert to gems to buy to keys. Is the argument here those loot boxes somehow be better than had I just outright bought keys for money because I earned them through game play?

Tee Parsley

The game design seems to be, ‘Give us five dollars, and we’ll give you a lootbox raffle ticket.’

Not my favorite game mechanic, by far…..

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Ashfyn Ninegold

In other words, loot boxes aren’t surprise mechanics. Killing bosses and finding chests in game are. It sounds like EA wants to appropriate a probably legitimate term for an actual experience to a phony made up one.

That makes loot boxes the Velveeta of game mechanics.


…but it uses real cheese! >.>