Sunday, 12 November 2017

Lockbox Apocalypse : GW2

A few days back, when I posted about the addition of new mount skins to GW2's Gem Store cash shop it was mostly with the intention of examining the emotional disconnect I was experiencing between the concepts of "Mounts" and "Mount Skins". In retrospect this seems somewhat like pointing out an unusual species of squirrel leaping from the branches just before a falling oak tree crushes you to death.

As it happens, at the time I wrote the post, I was blissfully, not to say naively, unaware that the topic was even a matter of particular controversy. It was only after Jeromai drew my attention in the comments to the fire raging on the forums that I became belatedly aware of the crowd brandishing pitchforks and flaming torches.

The "Official Mount Adoption Feedback Thread" started by GW2 Communications Manager Gaile Gray has now dropped to page two of the forums, albeit not before it grew to more than seventy pages containing nearly three thousand comments. It would probably still be top of page one and growing if it hadn't been for an intervention by ANet CEO Mike O'Brien, who stepped up personally on Friday to try to get things back under some sort of control.

Blue is the color.


Unfortunately, far from dampening down the fire, his peculiar "Message About The Mount Adoption Certificate" merely served to pour gasoline on the flames. The full text is too lengthy to reproduce here but the gist appears to be "Thanks for complaining. We thought it was a good idea but maybe it wasn't. We aren't going to change anything but next time we'll try to finesse things so it doesn't look quite so much like an obvious cash grab". Or, in his exact words:

"Microtransactions can be polarizing, and we’ve received both positive and negative feedback on the license. We won’t change the existing license in a way that would invalidate the investment players have made, but I want to confirm to you that our next planned mount skin releases will focus on individual sales like the Reforged Warhound and bundles like the Spooky Mounts Pack. We will not add any skins to the currently available Adoption License, thus not pushing down the odds of acquiring any one skin in that set.
We appreciate the thoughtful feedback many of you have provided, and that you hold us to high standards for monetization."

Unsurprisingly, this has satisfied almost no-one. The new thread resulting from Mike's non-apology can't quite match the size of the previous one but it's still near the top of page one and growing, with less than half as many posts so far but even more page views.

A lot of the conversation isn't particularly edifying. There's a deal of the usual to-and-fro between a relatively small number of ultra-committed opponents or proponents that these threads always see. Filtering out the trolls and professional complainers, however, it seems clear that, at the very least, ANet risks losing a deal of good will over this.

Or so you would think from reading the forums. Looking for some further context I went to Reddit. Couldn't really find anything apart from a thread about Wooden Potatoes destroying a Mount Adoption Certificate in his stream. Some good jokes in that thread but not much salt other than a few people calling the OP out for disrespecting Wooden Potatoes.

Starbound top and center.

So much for anecdotal evidence and reportage. How about a witness statement?

Last night, for no better reason than someone called it in map chat, I decided to go do Triple Trouble. I've been two achievements short of a meta there for months but I'd stopped bothering the Wurm after the last several "organized" attempts turned out to be a complete shambles.

This time was much, much better. Organized by QUTE, everything went very smoothly. All three heads came off and died. I went with Crimson, having first remembered to join the escort party (thanks to a sanity check via Dulfy, despite having been told by two people, in answer to my question in-game, that I didn't need to). I got the Phytotoxin Enthusiast achievement I was missing and the kill on the Crimson head. All I need now is a single kill on Amber and I'm done.

Before all that, however, there was half an hour of standing around the campfire at Firthside Vigil waiting for a critical mass of players to be taxied in, squads to be formed and so on. While we waited we were entertained by aerial displays from a squadron of multi-colored griffins including the undeniably impressive if utterly bizarre Starbound,.

I wasn't expecting it to be quite this big.

Also present was a green bunny skinned as a frog and the only mount skin I really like, the Twin Sands jackal. In short, there were a lot of people riding mounts skinned up from the recent and supposedly unacceptable loot box sale.

What's more, they all seemed to be very pleased with their purchases, to the point of wanting to show them off at every opportunity. With a full map and a lot of newer players (judging by the questions being asked) I didn't hear a single negative comment about mounts or skins from anyone.

That was also my experience in Lion's Arch, the traditional home for GW2's never-ending fashion parade. A lot of chatter about the new mount skins and all of it excited and positive. While the forum threads may be filled with vitriolic complaints and threats to quit, the response in game and on Reddit seems to be quite the opposite.

At the very least, the visual evidence within the game seems to be that these things are really selling. What's more, I would note that at time of writing I have yet to see even one player mounted on a 2000 Gem Reforged Warhound, the only mount skin available as a single, direct purchase.

It adds a whole other dimension, doesn't it?

Maybe that's because the Jackal is the least popular and least useful of all the mounts and no-one rides them anyway. Or maybe it's because 2000 Gems is significantly above what the market will bear for a single mount skin right now. I imagine it's a little of each. 

Either way, it certainly seems people are keener to pay 400 gems for a random skin than 2000 for this specific model. I know I would be.

I'm relatively neutral on the whole lockbox issue: I agree one hundred per cent that there are some serious concerns that need to be addressed over the accessibility of quasi-gambling activities to vulnerable individuals and minors but other than that I don't have any particular problem with items being available either only for real money or via a form of randomization or, indeed, both those things together.

Unless and until regulation applies I think we can safely say that developers will continue to make their decisions on how far to go with this approach based on how much money it brings in. If lockbox sales are outweighed by lost revenue from people leaving the game to avoid them then we'll see fewer lockboxes. If not, then we can expect such sales to continue apace.

Polly want a cracker!

When it comes to these particular lockboxes, I have more of a problem with what's in them than how they're sold. The addition of mounts to the game had an immediate and, to my mind, unflattering effect on the visual landscape. If we're to expect a steady stream of garish and bizarre mount skins - and we are, since that's clearly what sells - it doesn't bode well for what little immersion we have left.

Oh, well. It's no more than  bringing the look of Tyria in line with the looks of Azeroth and Norrath. I guess if I really wanted visual consistency I'd go play LotRO.

As for the commercial future of GW2, it would appear from the first financials since Path of Fire that Gem Shop sales will have to take up most of the heavy lifting over the next year or two. Expect ever flashier skins and even sneakier sales strategies.

I think I'll put my gold in tar and feather futures.

19 comments:

  1. If I come off a little flustered, it's not at you. It's at this situation. So please don't read anything below as me venting at you personally. This is the first time, outside of discussing it with guild mates, I've put my thoughts into words.

    I almost wrote a post about the mount skins last week, but I got distracted with real life, and didn't feel like messing with the controversy. I despise RNG lockboxes, but I knew this was coming with mounts. In fact, I expected something like this from GW2... I just didn't expect it to be 30 skins RNG, or over $100 to purchase in the cash shop. The audacity of having any fluff item in the gem shop that costs over $100 blows my mind.

    I think it's a little lop-sided to suggest that because those who bought the skins and got the ones they liked are happy with them, people are happy overall. I almost commented on your first post on this topic, because of the overwhelming negativity I saw from the community in other places. Of course those particular people are happy -- they got the things they wanted. And I'm glad they got what they liked. But some folks have better things to spend $100+ near the holidays.

    On the other hand, there's a group of us, seemingly a pretty large group since ANet needed to make a statement about it, that do NOT like how this was handled. It's not about putting things up on the gem store. It's about the RNG.

    I'll say: I love mounts. I like and buy cosmetic stuff if it fits my characters and appeals to me. But, I will NOT pay for a mere CHANCE at obtaining something I might possibly like. That's what's going on here, and what I object about.

    I don't care that each time I throw money at them it crosses off a skin on the list getting me a little closer to getting something I want, since you can't buy duplicates. There are a number of lackluster skins in that batch that I'd never use. There are also are a number of skins I really like and would use (including the twin sand jackal and a number of the springer skins!)

    If ANet had tossed the skins up there individually and even priced them at 500-600 gems for the more basic and 800 gems or more for the fancy starlight ones, I would have been fine with it. I'd given them some money and happily chosen the skins that appealed to me. As it stands now, they get nothing from me instead. I read a number of people who echoed this exact thing.

    I will NOT pay them to play mount skin roulette. I'm not angry, but I am disappointed. Coming back to GW2 was something I did with caution, and while they've done enough right to keep me and a few of my friends around, things like this really make me question where my money goes in the future.

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    1. Thanks for the "It's not you it's the situation" preamble. I was very aware even as I wrote the post that I might get some heated responses. There are a lot of people involved in this debate who have very strong, often very emotional views on it and as is usually the case when that happens, any opinion that isn't equally committed on the same side can be seen as the voice of the enemy.

      My position is much more nuanced - others might say undefined, vague or even wishy-washy. I don't have any innate, visceral, emotional negative reaction to the concept of lockboxes. Like most things in both gaming and life I can take them or leave them - if they're free or a bargain I'll take them, otherwise I'll leave them. I also benefit very strongly from the "I don't really need that" personality trait. In close to two decades of playing MMOs I very much doubt I have ever seriously felt I *had* to have anything in any game ever. If it's easy or cheap to get I'll have a go - if not, I won't bother.

      That makes me a very irritating voice in the discussion and even more so because I do really love randomness. I actively prefer not knowing what I'm going to get. I would have literally no interest in the mount skins if they were simply on direct sale at 400 gems each but knowing I'll get a surprise is very likely to induce me to buy one or two because, and I can't stress this enough, what I'm buying is the excitement and pleasure of being surprised.

      My personal preferences aside, I think it is absolutely inarguable that ANet are using this to test the waters for future monetization opportunities. If it makes good money they will carry on doing it. I don't think that is in the best long (or even medium) term interests of the game as we have known it although it may well be in the interest of the game as it will now become.

      What, in my opinion, would be far more acceptable and would avoid almost all of the current bad feeling would be to have both the existing Adoption Certificates, exactly as they are, plus the individual skins for sale at, let's say, 800 gems each for the ordinary ones and 1200 gems for the obviously special ones like the Starbound. Even better yet would be if the skins themselves were tradeable on the TP.

      That would allow a whole range of purchasing options. Everyone who wants a specific skin could buy it at a higher price or take a punt and see if they were lucky at a lower price - then they could resell the skins they didn't want and try again or give up and pay the higher price after all. Meanwhile people like me could buy for fun and use or re-sell.

      This has been suggested on the forums, of course. The only reason it isn't going to happen is that ANet calculate they will make more money sticking to the current system or something very like it. If you're right and there really is a majority - or a huge minority even - who will stop giving Anet money altogether because of this then I'm certain we'll see some major changes. If we don't it will be because there are actually enough players who like, or at least accept, the system to make it commercially prudent to keep it.

      How long it will take before we find out one way or the other is another matter. I'd guess at least two financial quarters.

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  2. Oh, just wanted to follow up, after looking at some of the responses on your other post. This is the mindset of a very casual player. Someone who has just returned to the game with under 100 gold, and does not find it easy to make money in the game (if you have suggestions, please let me know so I can share with my friends!).

    I just discovered I could sell my stacks of mystic coins, and that will finance my griffon, thankfully. But it has been painful for me and everyone in my guild to scrape up gold slowly -- a number of them have written off the griffon because 250 gold is a LOT to players like us. So using gold to convert to gems for mount skins is not going to happen.

    But then again, we come from the old GW2, where 1 gold was worth a whole lot more than it is now!

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    1. I am far from an expert on making gold in GW2. All the same I might have to do a post on what little I do know. One thing people really underestimate is the dailies. It's not just the 2 gold per day (60 gold a month). It's the 20 Mystic coins (around 20 gold a month at current prices - was nearer 30g for a long time), the 35 laurels (buy "Medium Crafting Bags" and sell the mats, currently estimated by GW2Efficiency to bring in 83s per bag, so around 30g per month) and the final, monthly Chest of Loyalty from which I recommend selecting the Chest of Plentiful Laurels (another 16g in mats).

      In total, just for doing nothing more than logging in every day and completing three dailies (takes me less than 10 minutes most days, sometimes less than 5) you should make almost 150g (there are a few other things you can sell that I haven't listed). If you play for an average session - 1-2 hours - two or three times a week, just doing regular stuff, you should pick up easily another 50g without even trying. That's 80% of the griffon done in a month without making any special effort at all. Of course you would have to save it up and not spend it on anything else but GW2 has no noticeable operating cost for casual players so that shouldn't present a problem.

      I will try and come back to this another time and flesh it out some. I honestly do not make any special effort to make gold but it comes in all the time - I'll have to think about where it's coming from!

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  3. I wish you could buy them from other players. That's what I've done in SW:TOR, rather than play mount skin roulette I'd just pick up the one(s) that I enjoyed from the player market.

    "Oh, well. It's no more than bringing the look of Tyria in line with the looks of Azeroth and Norrath. I guess if I really wanted visual consistency I'd go play LotRO."

    Yes, that is unfortunate. I always felt that GW2 was beautiful, and I enjoyed that it was distinct from WoW's graphic design ... unfortunately for GW2, these mounts do clash with their previous approach, while WoW was better positioned to incorporate colorful mounts into their art style. LotRO is also beautiful and enjoyable, but it can be somewhat bland after a while, IMHO.

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    1. If the skins were tradeable I bet that forum thread wouldn't have hit seven pages let alone seventy.

      The days of Tyria looking anything even remotely like a "real" place are long, long dead. It looks like all the other MMOs now. And yes, LotRo does get wearing to look at after a while - you can have too much authenticity...

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  4. Still not gambling.

    Wait, wrong thread! The ongoing attempts to prove lockboxes constitute gambling under the law through logical fallacy and bad analogies has clearly stuck to me.

    Still, I did find an interesting thing in one of the latest appeals to faulty logic, which again used tangible, real world items with value in attempt to make its point.

    Apparently the government of China has begun to require companies to post data to make clear your odds of winning specific items. The idea being that, while virtual goods have no value and don't even belong to you according to the EULA, that since you are potentially pitching in real world money at some point, you ought to know what chance you have to get the dingus you really want.

    While I am worried where government intervention into video games may eventually lead, I think a regulation requiring the posting off odds... or at least the real threat of such regulation... wouldn't be a bad thing. It won't make lockboxes any less predatory when it comes to certain people (i.e. everybody who says, "One in a million, but what if I am that one!"), but at least those not subject to such things will know what a bad deal lockboxes can be.

    I think I'm still off topic here though. Hrmm... well, it is things like this that also make the idea of going back to GW2 even more daunting and unlikely. But I was never really into it in the first place.

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    1. Someone was commenting or posting about this the other day, saying that some MMO I recognized by name was already doing it - might have been Tera? It would be a great idea for those who like stats but I'm pretty sure it would kill the lockbox market stone dead unless the chances turn out to be a lot higher than we all imagine. I don't think many people would be buying on a 10000 to 1 chance of getting the ultra-rare, let alone a million. I can't see it happening this side of legislation and I suspect that if such legislation happened we might see some new, as-yet unregulated alternative appear to replace lockboxes, something we'd probably dislike even more.

      As for it putting you off GW2 I think it will be the actual appearance and presence of the mounts that will do that, judging by your earlier comments on EQ2's mounts. GW2's are starting to look remarkably - almost suspiciously - similar.

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  5. The other angle to the lockbox debate, is that it is currently a huge issue in the non-MMO gaming world.

    The AAA studios who formerly released a couple of big budget single-player games a year (the ones with massive marketing), are now moving to the games-as-service model with not just ongoing DLC, but adding lockboxes to almost every genre of game imaginable.

    As a though experiment, imagine if there were lockboxes in Skyrim: without a doubt that is the trajectory. They've already been added to the Shadow of Mordor games from WB I believe.

    So lockboxes are a big issue to what is called the "core" gamers, and far bigger than the anti-DLC movement that sprung up a few years ago. These objections really seem to have a moral edge, which of course comes from the spectre of gambling.

    There may be no turning back by AAA studios on lockboxes (in the same way once a big ship is underway, you can't bring it to a halt quickly). But again, if the non-MMO space is any indication, it means a big opportunity for smaller studios to pick up a big segment of gamers.

    - Simon

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    1. I allude to this below in an answer to Tyler but yes, I think the future for AAA games is looking bleak for what we might call "traditionalists" or "core gamers". The world is changing very fast in so many respects. I don't see any reason why gaming should be the exception.

      The really big game developers aren't interested in games - they make games because games make money. If they've hit on a type of "game" that makes more money then that's the type they'll make. Why would they make anything that makes less money? They'll go on calling what they make "games" because that's how they're set up to market them but they may very well not resemble anything we, as gamers, would recognize as "games".

      Which, as you say, is not really our problem. Let EA go make "games" for those people. Someone else will serve our market. The problem really comes from all those big IPs that gamers have an emotional attachment to - people will be upset when they turn into things they can't accept or recognize.

      It's going to be interesting to watch.

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  6. After the mellowness of your post on the subject I was surprised when YouTube popped up a video about GW2 mount skins by Jim Sterling on my feed last night. If you're not familiar with him, he's a sort of crusader against all things bad practice in video games. Apparently he'd been bombarded with e-mails about it.

    There is also a Reddit thread about the video, and another big one about the mount skins themselves. Dunno how you missed those. ;) Can't say I quite understand the outrage myself, but it sure is loud.

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    1. I knew about the Jim Sterling video. Lots of mention of that in the forum thread. I've never heard of him before and it appeared from what people were saying that he was piggybacking on the GW2 situation to bang the drum he's known for banging, so I didn't investigate any further. I already know there are a lot of a people digging deeper into entrenched positions on this!

      The reddit thread is interesting though. I googled "Reddit GW2 mount skins" and the thread you link doesn't come up. What's more, even though your link goes straight to it, even now I've seen it and I know what it's called I still can't find it by going to reddit and paging through the results. I am not really a reddit user so I'm probably doing it all wrong.

      Skimming the thread, though, although the OP is furious about the RNG boxes, the thread itself is a complete mish-mash of opinions, and far less overtly negative than the one on the official forum. Reddit has a reputation in GW2 for being "fluffy" - the exact opposite of the reputation EQ2 players give it.

      It's a lot to read but I'll give it a try - there's also another megathread there on Mike O'Brien's response, which I also didn't spot because it's slipped halfway down page two already. things move fast on reddit it seems.

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    2. I'm not a Reddit expert either, but I found these two by clicking on the "top" tab on the subreddit. It shows you what people have upvoted the most lately, so it's a good way of seeing what people cared about the most in the past week. These two threads were on top.

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    3. Hmm... I just tried that and neither the original Mount thread nor the one responding to Mike o'Brien's message appear anywhere on the four page "Top" list. So I tried "Hot" and "Controversial" and they don't appear there either. Very odd. Either I'm getting different results or the topic has died completely.

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  7. I have a growing suspicion that the people who are vehemently anti-lockbox, despite dominating the conversation in the online community, are in fact a fairly small minority of the total MMO playerbase. These things wouldn't be as common as they are if the bad press they generated had any significant impact on the bottom line.

    My theory is that the MMO community can be divided into a very vocal minority who hates lockboxes, a less vocal minority who likes them (and buys them in great quantities), and a large host of people who can't muster any particularly strong feelings one way or the other. I'm in that last category.

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    1. My suspicion is very similar to yours. We all know the "whale" theory and it makes total sense when you are talking about smaller games but you have to wonder just how many whales you'd need to keep a game the size of GW2 solvent. I suspect there are an awful lot of minnows nibbling off little chunks as well and those are the players not commenting on the forums or reddit or wherever.

      My general feeling is that yes, lockboxes are bad for the direction of gaming but that gaming is changing and it may be that "gamers" as we have known them will cease to be the target audience for "games" when it comes to AAA developers.

      Honestly, when I look at GW2, sometimes I wonder if there needs to be a game at all. I wouldn't be surprised if ANet wouldn't make more money with just an enhanced Lion's Arch for people to strut around and all their artists working flat out on Gem Store fashions. Some day soon there's going to be a "game" like that and it will explode like PUBG did. Look at what's in that success story compared to what goes into a full AAA game, let alone an MMO...

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  8. "Honestly, when I look at GW2, sometimes I wonder if there needs to be a game at all. I wouldn't be surprised if ANet wouldn't make more money with just an enhanced Lion's Arch for people to strut around and all their artists working flat out on Gem Store fashions. Some day soon there's going to be a "game" like that and it will explode like PUBG did."

    I mean that's pretty much what Second Life is.

    Cosmetics are a strong motivator for a lot of people. I bought a whole character slot in TSW just to build a character around one specific cosmetic item, and I don't even have any in-game friends to show off to.

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  9. I'll be honest, I've slacked off from GW2 PoF when Destiny 2 camne out on PC, but I'm looking to get back into it. And, to be frank, I'm not really fussed about how the skins are monetised. There's two options as I see it: sell them direct for more money, or sell them in lootboxes for less money (with the idea of it evening out as people buy more lootboxes to get the skin they want).

    And yep Anet could do a great job turning GW2 into a fashion-show, just as WildStar could become a full-on housing sim. But, there's got to be a game there somewhere ;)

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    1. There probably does have to be a game of some kind but I'm not convinced it needs to involve any form of combat. It just needs some kind of means to keep score. EQ2 added competitive rankings, decided by player vote, to Housing years ago and, while hat was exploited and largely invalidated due to flaws in the system, as a concept it was very positively and strongly taken up by decorators. I'm pretty sure you could have a fashion or housing game that ran entirely around competitive league tables or ladders and you could probably monetize the heck out of it, too.

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