Loot boxes a system designed to exploit

Truth is..the game was rigged from the start

  • Michael Klooster

  • March 11, 2019

Usually on this blog I try to post articles related only to design and usability or anything web related. This time I figured I would go for something a little different and choose a topic that’s a little bit more personal, gaming. Particular i would like to talk about loot boxes. If you’ve played any multiplayer game recently, I’m sure you’ve opened one of these mystery boxes and gotten your hands on the shiny rewards within. Recently however loot boxes have been sparking controversy. Many players and even governments have begun to rally against the use of this scummy business model.

an age old business

Before I can explain why loot boxes are so bad, let’s look back to how they came to be. Loot boxes or the system of random rewards can trace its origins as far back as a hundred years ago, to the collectable picture cards cigarette companies once included with their products. Each package would contain a random card belonging to a specific set so you can imagine getting your hands on a complete set was no easy feat. I’m willing to bet that more than a few cowboys traded in their lungs in exchange for these cards. That basic concept is still used today replacing cigarettes for digital boxes and collectible cards for in game cosmetic items. Players invest tons of money into loot boxes in the hopes of getting that one item they want, while developers reap the rewards.

The first game developer to put this idea into practice is a Chinese free to play MMO called ZT online. The game was free to play but the boxes containing rare items needed to be bought. It did not take long for western developers to catch on to this business model. Valve’s team shooter, Team fortress 2. Much like the Chinese game was free to play but made use of loot boxes. After that other developers such as EA Games where soon to follow Valves example making its own version for its sports games. It allowed players to purchase a pack of random cards in game which would allow them to customize their teams.

Over the years the system has proven to be very lucrative with many developers making massive profits from the sale of these boxes. Major developer Activision Blizzard reportedly made around $4 Billion in sales of loot boxes in 2017 alone. So, with loot boxes selling like hot cakes and companies raking in millions clearly people love them, right? So, what’s the problem?

Hook line and sinker

Well It all comes down to one fact, it’s designed to get players hooked. According to product expert Nir Eyal the entire system is based of the hooked model, which consists of four stages which goes a little something like this.

Step 1: Trigger
The player receives an in-game trigger this can be a simple notification that shows that you can purchase loot boxes or rewards in game.

Step 2: Action
The player receives one free box or can earn one in game trough a quest or by levering up. These first boxes will often contain rare rewards tricking players into believing purchasing more boxes will yield the same results.

Step 3: Variable reward
This is the reward phase where players receive a random selection of items. However, one thing each loot box has in common is you never know what you’ll get and all of them have a slow animation to delay the reveal of the items you received. This is done intentionally as studies have shown that the part of the human brain responsible for pleasure doesn’t activate on receiving the reward but in anticipation of the rewards itself.

Step 4: Investment
The final step is investment this is the time players are willing to invest in a game. Designers will often make a few levels easy to reach but then later make them harder. Recently developer Bungie was in hot water after players found out that they had made it increasingly harder to earn free loot boxes. This would cause players eventually to go back to the first step of the model which is receiving a trigger along the lines of visit the in-game store no to purchase boxes.

According to Nir this model is disturbingly similar to gambling with many countries following suit with his idea. Belgium and the Netherlands are the most recent countries who have outright banned the sale of loot boxes. Claiming that loot boxes violate the gambling laws set in their countries. And although the sale of loot boxes is still legal in the U.S, there is a growing concern about the ethics of this system. Marc Etches head of the Gamble Aware charity has stated that. “It’s becoming more difficult to distinguish between some increasingly common features in video games and gambling,”.

"Its becoming more difficult to distinguish between some increasingly common features in video games and gambling."

Challenger approaching

So, what is the solution to this system that is basically a glorified digital slot machine? The answer is alternate business models, and that’s where Epic games the developer of the hit free to play game Fortnite comes in. Instead of depending on loot boxes to make profit they’ve chosen for a different route instead using a system they call a Battle Pass. The pass offers both players who have bought the pass and those who haven’t cosmetic rewards as they progress through it. Each pass lasts for one season which is usually around 3 months giving players plenty of time to earn the rewards it offers. Needless to say, the paid versions offers better rewards and more of them. Allot of developers have started to join this trend with Call of Duty, Paladins and Apex Legends being the most recent games to adopt the battle pass formula. These passes usually cost around 10$ and in the case of Fortnite can be bought with in game currency earned via the pass.

An uncertain future

Although these battle passes might sound like the hero that will save us from the tyranny of loot boxes, I don’t think that’s the case. Many games like Overwatch and Destiny 2 still use loot boxes, even Apex legends which I mentioned earlier uses a combination of both a battle pass and loot boxes. The truth is this system while unfair for players still works and brings in allot of profit for developers. Allot of people might not buy them but all developers need is those few white whales, those players that will gladly throw as much money at them for the chance to get that one skin they always wanted.

However, with the rise of alternatives like the battle pass and countries cracking down on the sales of loot boxes its clear that developers will soon have to leave this business model behind. Whether that means loot boxes will be replaced with a fairer model for players or not, only time will tell.

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