Why critics are misguided and wrong
MMO players are an opinionated bunch. Since the days of MUDs, we've been debating design like it's a second job. When Guild Wars 2 launched last year, it broke the mold and ushered us into a subscription-free age, reigniting the business model debate. As free-to-play transitioned from evil to expected, our discussions have also shifted from whether free-to-play games should be to how they should be. Some of the best writers in the MMO community weighed in this week and the topic was lockboxes. So let's talk, but make no bones about it: this edition of Experience Points is very much pro-lockbox and anti-naysayer.
Before we dive into the sea of issues and arguments, let's define our terms. A lockbox, in its most traditional sense, is a container you come across free of charge which offers the random chance at loot, progress boosters and vanity items. The catch is that the keys to unlock them cost real money and are usually extremely rare otherwise. Lockboxes offer few guarantees but some do promise rare drops and loose definitions of value. By design, their contents are the whim of chance and the domain of the Evil RNG (Random Number Generator). You pay money for a roll, the constraints of which change with the game and rarity.
Critics of the system love to cite how manipulative lockboxes are. They liken them to gambling and make arguments about addiction. Some even call lockboxes outright abusive. I label these criticisms misguided and cynical. I will be the first to admit that MMO developers can get it backwards when chasing profits, but change “lockbox” to “TOBACCO” or “CIGARETTE ADVERTISEMENTS” and you'll be closer to the actual sentiment here. Many opponents enter the ring with the assumption that game makers are evil, greedy, and want to exploit their players until they've wrung them dry. It reminds me of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns blocks out the sun to sell electricity.
As we begin, let me tell you a few important facts about myself: 1) I have not always believed in free-to-play gaming and was one of the subscription's staunchest advocates; 2) I believe game companies, like any, can take things too far and shift their focus toward monetization over quality design; and 3) I believe lockboxes are a single element capable of succumbing to poor design.
Lockboxes exploit players!
An argument can be made for them being manipulative but certainly not exploitative. Starting a new game usually means getting a handful of free keys to try; a first taste, so to speak. If you're manipulated into buying more, that's probably because you enjoyed using them and value the experience. Or perhaps we can contend that the chance of winning something exclusive drives players to their coffers. Fair enough. That type of manipulation works in exactly the same way as a commercial but promises chance and opportunity. Keys are purchased for their potential and not their inherent value.
Guild Wars 2 is often criticized for being frustratingly devoted to this method of encouragement. Event after event, the most compelling items are gated behind cash-keys and an extremely low drop rate. That's poor, but obviously effective, design. But is it exploitative? No! It's not exploitation when you walk up to the counter and ask to be exploited. The chances of getting the best, most sought after items are low. But we knew that already and chose to buy anyway.
And here's the thing, most players seem to have a modicum of financial responsibility. We have disposable income for video games, after all. Players make a conscious decision to buy keys and take their chances. How many stories have you heard about people being sent to the poor house from this, or any other MMO behavior, that didn't have a serious psychological issue or predisposition? Players “losing it all” to video games are an incredibly small subset of our community and should not be designed around. They don't need white knighting; they need therapy and support throughout recovery.
Lockboxes skew development priorities!
Lockboxes are vehicle for goods, nothing more. They should not be, and I don't believe have been, gates to content. Their random nature precludes them effectively contributing toward larger design problems. Yet one need look no farther than LotRO's endless, cash shop-passable grinds or EverQuest 2's Station Cash-only item sets to see free-to-play gone sour. To this end, many arguments against lockboxes seem predicated on an underlying disdain for F2P in general. While yes, these players acknowledge that game companies need to make profits, they will often be heard muttering at any attempt to do so. Fair enough, but forgive me if I say these players are missing the point. Lockboxes are the exact type of itemization we should be cheering for: totally ignorable, extremely profitable and allow developers to work on actual game content.
So you've seen a bad example. When an auto manufacturer decides to put a faulty part in its engine, do you swear off cars entirely? No. Free-to-play games live and die on their design priorities and a game more concerned with cash-only item sets and guild killing token boosters has bigger problems than anyone can blame on lockboxes.
Lockboxes are like gambling!
Lockboxes are indeed similar to real world gambling but also starkly different. Across the world, people are being consumed by games of chance. Slot machines, too, are all about the potential over promise. The difference is that lockboxes are not a lifestyle. You are not inundated with lights and sounds, consumed in smokey backrooms, or being handed drinks at a buddy's poker game. You are not surrounded by hundreds of other players diligently pulling the hammer or gleefully squealing as you writhe with envy. These discrepancies are environmental but are pivotally paired with cash rewards. People get addicted to scratch-off tickets because, as Syl puts it, they offer opportunity and power to shape whole lives. In an MMO, rewards are paltry and forgettable. What you earn is likely disposable or meaningful only to you.
Critics love to use gambling addiction as a support for their arguments. Rowan, while giving attention to this dependency, brings to light the addictive natures players already exhibit when chasing gear. How many times have you run the same dungeon hoping for a drop and a good roll? Instead of paying a dollar for a key, you pay an hour to try the RNG. No matter how you cut it, we are all chasing the same /random return on our investment. The only difference is how and why we do it.
Like it or not, addictiveness and random chance have always been pillars of MMORPG design. Tell me that's wrong and I'll show you six hour spawn camps in EverQuest. Is that to say that type of design in anything is good? No, but if someone was going to develop an addiction, lockboxes aren't going to be where. There is no skill, no improvement and no gaming of the system. Those are aspects of the game itself which makes playing entire titles, not simple systems, a bad decision for certain players.
A final thought...
There is an air of condescension in many arguments that is hard to ignore. Opponents like to believe that those of us who have purchased keys are none too bright and have too much money for our own good. It is their lonely duty to stand up and protect us from manipulation. Do they do this at lottery stands, I wonder? If you don't like lockboxes, I can respect your reasons. Myself, I don't buy keys often, but when I do it's for the fun of using them. I don't spend hundreds of dollars on rare drops because I have bills to pay and common sense. Mostly I ignore them because it's just so easy to do.
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