A word on DLC and loot boxes. Acceptable, or not?

Intro

I recently played a ‘free to play, pay to win’ game, liked the PvE element, hated the PvP element and quit in part because of it. As far as I’m concerned the game (Chaos and Conquest) was practically a text book check list of every possible devious and unethical psychological and marketing trick you could cram into one game.

Loot boxes were the least of the issues with the game, but still a factor. So, I do not have a ‘beef’ with loot boxes, have never bought one, will never buy one, they are simply part of a developing and wholly toxic culture were the bottom line is EVERYTHING.

Not all games are like this, but enough that the issue is now endemic and needs reigning in.

The youtube videos below mostly focus on loot boxes and game ethics and offer a reasoned, balanced and industry focused discussion. I quibble on a few parts, but mostly they say and echo what I think, only more elegantly. I have covered aspects of the mind games developers play in the past, and will cover it in greater depth in due course. for now enjoy the videos.


Extra Credits

Extra Credits: Losing player trust – the data dilema

 


Extra Credits: Free to Play Is Currently Broken – How High Costs Drive Players Away from F2P Games

 


Extra Credits: Free to Play Laws – Can We Stop Predatory Practices?

 


Mostly agree with this one:

Extra Credits: The Loot Box Question – Designing Ethical Lootboxes: I

 


While I agree with most of the preceding part I, we’ll have to agree to disagree with part II, below, ‘cos, at least in part, Extra Credits are wrong, this bias no doubt being because loot boxes are part of their industry.

I do wholly agree that allowing (game) clueless lawyers and politicians to legislate can go horribly wrong, but the industry has shown – without question – that it cannot, will not, and clearly does not want to self-regulate the problem, nor allow itself to be otherwise regulated. Something must give, sooner or later.

My feeling about ‘pay to win’ designs are a different argument, but as a gamer, games designer and (undergraduate) psychologist, gotta say, loot boxes ARE a form of exploitive gambling.

Take the stuff out the boxes and drop them in an in-game store, or have them as DLC, totally fine with that, though the DLC market is starting to get utterly ridiculous now – e.g.paying for an emote, for a solo/co-op game! As a chargeable extra? Really? An emote!

DLC emotes really

(On that note, Games Workshop really need to police their IP handouts better, to see that damage being done to their franchise and brandname. Extra Credits did a few videos about the company and came to the conclusion they ran into money problems and, following management changes, decided to play the long game, doling out their IPs to anyone with a pulse, on the hope the bad games will be forgotten and the good games will help them recover. I’ve followed the company almost since they began, knew Ian Livingstone to talk to, so that’s nearly over 40 years, and yet now when I see Warhammer I not longer trust it will be a good product.)

The game in question (Chaosbane) looks like a Diablo clone and is currently has overall negative reviews and has been reduced from £40 to £14 (excluding DLCs), and I still won’t touch it, because anything that needs to sell an /emote to make a quid is garbage.

Warhammer Chaosbane

Other games – like Warcraft – sell vanity pets, vanity mounts, etc, and sell gold to buy BoE gear (etc) to ‘pay to win’. OK with that too.
(If you play WoW, note I do not agree with the Black Market loot boxes mind, those are mental.)

Buying a $20 box to get a 1% chance for “this item” to drop though? No, that is a chance, you are spending money GAMBLING that you’ll PAY to the right reward. You wouldn’t go into a store and buy your week’s groceries like that, would you! Paying for a chance for a better reward IS gambling. QED, Loot boxes are gambling and should be removed.

Cash purchase or in-game currency loot box from Chaos and Conquest

One of the reasons loot boxes work (for the developers) is people tend not to understand chance. It’s not natural to do the maths. Let’s return to our £20 box: 1% chance, so statistically, buy 100 boxes, it will drop. Agreed?

First off, that makes it a £2,000 ticket item! (100x£20). If you saw it for £2,000 you’d be “Hell no!”, but £20, maybe you’ll take a punt, it’s worth the GAMBLE.

Secondly, it’s complicated, kind of like the chance of winning the lottery twice in a row. You should keep that analogy in mind when buying loot boxes!

Thirdly, see, you know it’s a 1% chance, you know – statistically – that if you buy 100 boxes you’ll win, ‘cos it stands to reason, right? Right? Wrong. What it means is over millions of purchases it will average 1%. One person could buy 100 loot boxes and get 5 of the item (great if it’s BoE, a sod if it’s BoP), but the next person, they buy 500 and don’t get one they are desperate for.

But they keep buying ‘cos, gambling, ‘cos they see it as a “run of bad luck, that has to end, maybe on the next try. Or the one after that, definitely the one after that. Has to be.”

(Then you move beyond addiction and compulsive behaviour into sunk cost fallacies (I’ve spend so much I can’t stop now, I’ll have to keep going”), and cognitive dissonance (you know it’s damaging, but tell yourself it’s fine rather that admit the truth). Starts to get messy after this point.)

The problem is this is not how RNG, chance and statistical drop rates work, this is:
The first purchase there is a 1% chance ‘this’ will have THE TREASURE and a 99% chance it won’t.
499 tries later, it is still 99% likelihood that ‘this’ will NOT have the reward you are after.

The game industry understand this, and are milking players.

Extra Credits: The Legality of Loot Boxes – Designing Ethical Lootboxes: II

 


Extra Credits: Microtransactions – What Does Good Monetization Look Like?

(Hint: Monetization of F2P can work, pay to win (buying power) is BAD.)

 


Update

Some people, I tell y’ !

– he says, without a hint of irony.

The topic popped up again in the UK (as it’s being discussed in the House of Lords) and about 99% of the comments posted said, great, about time, a few trolls joined in with the if you can’t control your (kids) spending, sucks to be you. But there was this one guy, all over the place, trying to argue it’s all wrong, that it’s not in any way or form gambling and that the industry should be left alone as it’s not doing anything wrong. The guy was a poster child for EA!

Anyone trying to claim loot boxes are not gambling is probably someone making money from loot boxes! If you are PAYING to TRY to WIN a RANDOM reward, you ARE GAMBLING. Trying to argue that the reward is a (digital) prize therefore not money, therefore not “gambling” is complete bullshit.

Their argument is simply pedantic, it’s sophistry, or if they were being honest, it’s a lie.

e.g.: Cambridge dictionary:

Gambling:
the activity of betting money, for example in a game or on a horse race.

Gambling | Business English:
the activity of risking money on the result of something, such as a game or horse race, hoping to make money

You can’t just pick the definition that best fits YOUR narrative and claim all other accepted and legitimate meanings don’t apply here.

Gambling commission (UK): What is gambling. Not unexpectedly, they say loot boxes are fine and should be left alone, noting:

“In the Gambling Act 2005 gambling is defined as betting, gaming or participating in a lottery.”

The act does get fuzzy about how it defines rewards (i.e. it doesn’t!), but it simply comes down to this: Loot boxes only appeared for the first time in 2004, when this act was being prepared. The act is out of date and needs to taking into account newer game-based forms – like loot boxes.

Related links:

(Wikipedia: Loot boxes)

PC Gamer: The House of Lords wants loot boxes to be classified as gambling

Sky news: Video game loot boxes ‘are gambling and should be regulated’, says House of Lords

ZDNet: House of Lords calls for gamer loot boxes to be regulated under gambling laws
“Zendle said that in each case documented in a total of 449 studies on gambling in games, “all effects observed were of a clinically important magnitude.”

BBC (Sept 2019): Gaming loot boxes: What happened when Belgium banned them?

 
Anyway the guy above, ‘Gav’, tried to argue that is wasn’t “gambling”, but “game mechanics” (‘cos EA said so, and EA wouldn’t lie), and that a government enquiry, supported by EA and Activision, decided loot boxes are fine.

Gav carefully avoided saying which enquiry, in which country, or when, or linking it.
Gav skirted around the fact the “Government inquiry” was almost certainly heavily lobbied by the games industry, who make BILLIONS of dollars a year on loot boxes.
Gav doesn’t think companies like EA were biased.

His entire stance was “I’m right, no-one else here knows what they are on about.”

My opinion is that I really do not understand how he could be so blindly naive – unless of course he works for, in, or on behalf of said industry.
 

It is this simple:

In game, I kill the mobs, and open the chest (‘game mechanics’ roll RNG-based loot from a table). I get whatever.
This is gameplay.

Out of the game, I go to the game store, I hand over money, and get a chest added to my account. I go back into the game and open the chest I BOUGHT, HOPING TO WIN a (PARTICULAR) item.
This is GAMBLING.

Out of the game, I go to the game store, I hand over money for a stack of in-game currency (gems, gold, whatever). I go back into the game and use this to BUY the chest HOPING TO WIN A (PARTICULAR) item.
Maybe a bit fuzzier, but this is STILL gambling. The developers use this to circumvent laws.

In game I use up all my farmed (in-game only) currency to buy the chest from a vendor (the same chest).
This is “a gamble” “a chance roll” but it is not “GAMBLING” as such. Fuzzy, perhaps, but no money changed hands. I didn’t pay to win (or lose).
From a games developers point of view this is a valid method for regulating inflation. It’s a cash sink.

Out of the game, I go to the game store, I hand over money, and BUY a mount. I go back into the game and activate said mount.
This is NOT gambling, this is a transaction. The distinction here is I was sick of buying random crates and GAMBLING that I’d get the right one (say drop rate 1%) and simply bought the damned thing.

As we are staying with game and as he mentioned Activision, I’ll make it simpler and go with a mount from Warcraft.

Let’s go with the Might Caravan Brutosaur.

Huzzah! Auction mount, 5,000,000 gold

If I buy this in game with in-game gold, it’s a transaction and it’s gameplay.
I do not have a problem with that.

If I buy 5,000,000g worth of tokens (say 15 tokens for simplicity), that’s a £225 item.
It’s a transaction, but it’s not gameplay, it’s a greedy developer trying to milk ‘whales’.
I certainly do not agree with it, but it’s a vanity object, I don’t have a problem with it. (Pay to win is a different argument and invariably toxic).

If (as will happen in the next expansion), the Brutosaur gets removed from the game and dropped into a loot chest in the Black Market, it gets dark and fuzzy in an unfriendly way real fast.

Firstly, players see it for exactly what it is, ‘cos the only real reason they would do this was to make more money from players.

Secondly, the BMAH loot chests average around 300,000g, which is worth about £15 in cash (or £10 in game time). Bidding for “an item” on BHAM, acknowledging it as a gold sink, fine. Gets crazy sometimes, but OK.

BUT, buying a (£15 / £10) chest because there’s a less than 0.5% chance it will have the Brutosaur in, that is gambling. NOT OK!

With a rate of 1 in 200 it would put a statistical price of over £3,000 on the £225 mount! (Based on a gold exchange rate of 300,000g per £15 token).

(If you are unfamiliar with BMAH loot tables, there are over 200 items, most of which BoP and class-based, and thus useless, and only a few people in Blizzard know the true drop rate for the mounts in said box).

If they later move the chest from BMAH to only available on the cash store, they we are very firmly in the definition of gambling.

Gaming addiction is a thing. Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder is a thing. The two have a habit of occurring together, which studios and publishers are fully aware of. It is why they do shit like loot boxes. It is calculated and predatory behaviour.

It needs to stop.

 


 

(Featured image from Pixabay: Maria Adam from Pixabay )

Ack

Been playing with computers since the stone age, online since the '80s, and developing websites since the '90s.

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