Monday, August 5, 2019

Treat, Discover, Play has one of the best articles I've seen on the thorny problem of lootboxes. It's entitled The Flawed Kinder Egg Defence and it collates a number of significant statements from various games publishers and developers before putting them into revealing context.

I have used the Kinder Egg analogy myself in the past. Won't be doing that again. Or, rather, if I do it will be in a context where it's relevant, such as the long-established content of loot tables on mobs and bosses.

I'd encourage anyone not already bored to distraction by the general topic of in-game monetization to read the full article, lengthy as it is. On the specific issue of Kinder Eggs as an excuse for lootboxes, however, this is all you need:

"A Kinder Surprise Egg does not collect your data. The Kinder Egg does not learn more about the person buying and opening the Egg, such as his or her preferences for its contents. The Kinder Egg does not adjust its contents according to an algorithm based on population data. People do not link their credit cards to Kinder Egg vendors. Kinder Eggs are physical and can be given away or traded, unlike virtual items. 

"It is difficult to spend thousands of dollars on Kinder Eggs, unless one visits a Kinder Egg 'megastore' or the wholesaler perhaps. You have to go to a shop to buy Kinder Eggs, they are not acquired in your living room. Kinder Eggs are not by their nature integrated into a broader online social experience and community of Kinder Egg purchasers. The transaction, user experience, and consequences are quite different."

Pretty much covers it. There are many other stand-out quotes I could pull, for instance

"Our review suggests that there are some emerging designs that aim to capitalise on player data to present individualised offers that the system 'knows' the player is more likely to accept. So it's not about being 'forced' -- it's about the game anticipating or making the best judgement about what the player is likely to accept."
There's little that I haven't seen somewhere already but I haven't seen it all brought together and contextualized as effectively before.

My position on lootboxes and in-game monetization is moving. I still remain strongly in favor of openable containers with randomized contents. I love opening those. I'm having no truck with smart containers that learn who I am and what I want and then use that data to extract money from me. Not that I ever buy loootboxes for real money but the principle stands.

I want my lootboxes to be delivered free, in-game, during normal gameplay, or free during login campaigns and the like, something I consider to be  fair and legitimate.

They should also, preferably, be tradeable, although that does bring up issues over purchasing in-game currency for real money to buy those lootboxes from other players. I wonder how many people do that during the brisk trade of Holiday Event boxes in Guild Wars 2, for example?

Anyway, this one is going to run and run and what's more it's just a reflection of changes in wider society that are likely to make the world of 2030 or 2040 all but unrecognizeable to those who didn't grow up in it.


  1. I have always looked a bit askance when you have said you like lootboxes, but then go on to qualify it so that is seems like you really just mean the random nature of loot from chests and mobs in game. I've tried to use the term lockboxes to indicate the monetized, pay to open items that are used to finance some games. I am good with random drops from chests and mobs, but "pay me to get random thing" is right out.

    Otherwise that article is quite a good one. I might need to do a quote of the day with some of that myself, just to remember it and remind myself that it exists in a year, five years, and so on. Razor blades in candy was ever the Halloween urban legend when I was growing up.

    1. Yes, as with everything it all comes down to language. We don't seem to have a widely accepted term for the mechanic I do like or the delivery mechanism for it. It encompasses everything from general loot tables to what amount to free gifts on holidays.

      From my perspective, it used to be that so long as I didn't have to pay for them I liked them but the more I learn about what might be going on in the background, the more I don't like it.

      But it really is complicated: people actively ask for the game to check what class they are and only drop loot that class can use, for example. Would they complain if the game checked if they already had a specific drop on that character, maybe in the bank, and removed it from the loot table if they did, so the drop you got wouldn't be a duplicate? Or
      if the algorithms in game became more subtle and started to feed you what you needed or things similar to things you use as oppose to those you stick in the bank?

      Is it just when money changes hands that this massaging of players is unaceptable? I'd rather get ten duplicate items than have the game psychoanalyze me or my character and give me a prize every time, but maybe that's just me.

    2. Also, in a bit of irony, Kinder Surprise Eggs are banned in the US. The US FDA does not allow the sale of inedible foreign objects embedded in food. All we get here are Kinder Joy Eggs minus the prize. You have to smuggle them in if you want the toys.

      And the final twist is that I was just thinking about these things because we went to the store and I saw some Kinder Joy Eggs on the shelf and thought, "Aren't those the things that keep coming up in the lockbox debates?"

  2. Hm, I'm not really convinced by that quote. Loot boxes also don't (automatically) collect your data, learn more about the person opening them etc. - the game developers/publishers do, and they can do so through transactions other than those for loot boxes. Depending on the game, virtual items can be traded, and so on and so forth.

    That said, I do find myself wondering why I often feel compelled to defend the blasted things, considering that I'm not actually particularly fond of them and don't buy them myself. I think it's because so much anti-lootbox rhetoric I've seen just comes across as people hating anything random/surprising, regardless of monetisation. I have seen people argue that even random in-game loot drops shouldn't be a thing, and that everything in an MMO should just be about grinding badges that give you a guaranteed reward after x days.

    I mean, I did read the full article you linked too, and I thought a lot of the practices described sounded pretty abhorrent - but again, most of them were also applicable to direct purchases. It just feels to me like people's blind hatred for anything containing random items fails to see the forest for the trees sometimes.

    1. I'm in complete agreement with you about the randomness factor. I despise "token" schemes, where you grid content (or even just do it once), get paid in tokens and then go spend them at an in-game shop. I first encountered the system in DAOC when Darkness Falls was added and it was instrumental in my leaving that game and never going back.

      Unfortunately the mechanic followed me to every other game and there's now no way to avoid it. I vastly prefer randomized drops from loot tables, preferably loot tables I can't see or know the contents of. I also dislike drops tailored to the class I'm playing. I prefer to get something useless I wasn't expecting than something useful I was. That seems to me to be the essence of the genre - killing mobs to steal their stuff - and it beggars belief to find they always have exactly what I need.

      On the data-gathering abilities of lockboxes, though, how do you know they aren't gathering data about your behavior when you open them? It's not like the company's going to tell you they're doing it. I agree most probably don't do it now but it's highly likely they will in the future.
      The key thing here is that Mobile games make far more money than PC/Console games so whatever mechanics they're using to achieve that are almost inevitably going to transfer. The games we're all playing that don't currently do this kind of thing are dinosaurs. New games aren't going to be like that (except for the ones specifically aiming at niche and retro audiences, of course).

      As for the new mechanics applying to direct purchases - yes! 100% yes. Everyone is focused on gambling and randomness in locked boxes but the exact same practices go unremarked in in-game stores. There was a big kafuffle when ANEt introduced their first mount skins with that randomized element but they're still doing it. All they did was slightly modify the way it works and people just accepted it. They make far more money selling people things they don't want than they ever would selling them things they do. And the ironic thing about that is that if I were ever to buy a mount skin (highly unlikely) I'd far rather buy a pack with a randomized result than just buy the one I like best!


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