Behind the Mask: Are grab bags a scam?

Everyone's heard of the "gift box" phenomenon. It's a common theme in F2P MMOs to release an item that doesn't have guaranteed contents and instead has a random selection from a pool of items. Sometimes there are rare bonus items inside; other times there are things the buyer didn't really want. Champions Online has taken its second foray into this territory with the Service and Cursed Grab Bags, a pair of C-Store items that grant a chance at a variety of tradable goodies.

Gift box items sell to a variety of people. Some find the idea of chance more fun, and others absolutely must have the rare items and will spend lots of money trying to get them. Are the grab bags a scam, though? After the jump, we'll look at just why that is and hopefully give you enough information to come to your own conclusion.

Humans are dumb and math is hard

One of the best reasons random stuff is so much more effective at making money is that people simply do not understand probability. It's a problem with the human brain itself; humans are just naturally bad at it.

As an example, if they have a 50% chance for an item to drop, people get really confused when they make five attempts without getting what they want. A quick analysis of the actual probability of the event tells us that the chances are pretty low (about 3%) of five coinflips all coming up tails, but there's still a 3% chance that it could happen. On the flip side, there's also a chance that a person could beat the odds and hit five in a row. My first and only experience with a grab bag in CO landed me a set of five account bank slots (one of the better things to get). I realize it was a fluke, but sometimes those things happen.

Obviously, the chances for getting an Eyes costume piece from the cursed grab bag is a lot lower. I'm not sure what the chances are, but my various sources have told me that the chances are much lower than any other drop. Even still, people continue to gamble because they really want the full set of costume pieces.

What is in these things, anyway?

Both the service and cursed grab bags cost about $1 US.

The service grab bag contains one random equippable item of your character's level and one random tradable C-Store item. This includes consumables (see below) but it can also include tradable goodies like bag slots, shared bank slots, character costume slots (not account costume slots), and respec tokens.

The tradable services are the "jackpot" items. I have no idea on their rarity, and due to the naturally massive demand for respec tokens and costume slots, I cannot use AH prices to accurately gauge the supply. I do know that the other jackpot items are considerably less valuable, with bank slots being worth the least.

The cursed grab bags give slightly more stuff. In each bag is the same random equippable item and one C-Store consumable. In addition to the consumable item, there is also a chance (I'm told it's around 60%, but my sources are questionable) of a bonus item. This bonus item is usually a Cursed or Scourge costume piece. There is also a chance that the bonus item will unlock the Cursed archetype, which is an exact copy of the Scourge archetype except for its red power hue. This is only useful for Silver members, since Gold members can pick the Scourge archetype for free and change their powers to whatever colors they want.

Even though it gives more items, the cursed grab bag offers consumables that are of little consequence -- the real objective is to unlock the costume pieces. I can make some guesses about the rarity of each costume piece; the two boot costume pieces are clearly more common, while the eye costume pieces are clearly rare. It's hard to say how rare the Cursed archetype is, since only Silver players need it. The current AH prices for the archetype are far in excess of the maximum amount of money a Silver character can hold, but they're less than the price of the Eye costume pieces. I suspect that they are being traded for backdoor favors such as CTP materials or gifted by rich Gold friends. It's also possible that Gold members who absolutely want to have everything (or are really foolish) also buy it to unlock the AT, even though it is literally a clone of the Scourge.

Consumables are garbage, period

A long time ago, I wrote about the C-Store consumables being overpriced. Let's get real here: That hasn't changed. I could go into a whole article about the problems with C-Store consumables (it's on the list), but the short version is that they are just not worth the money.

When a player buys a grab bag and gets a four-pack Energy Surge, it's basically a slap in the face. A four-pack of energy restore items is worth basically zero, and a four-pack of heal potions is worth maybe a dime or two. Since the grab bag itself costs a dollar, getting an item worth effectively nothing feels like flushing cash down the toilet. Even if you didn't pay real money for the grab bag, buying one costs around 130-150g, while the consumable items sell for around 5g.

Cryptic could do some things to make consumables more worthwhile, but even if they were worth buying from the store, that wouldn't be enough. People want the jackpot items, not consumables. However, making consumables better would increase the demand for such items, which might raise the AH price somewhat.

Gear is sometimes good, unless it comes from a grab bag

Like consumables, grab bag gear is basically worthless. The random upgrade can be of green or higher quality but cannot have PvP purple or AP blue stat values. This makes even the purple drops from grab bags worth little more than the value of their decompiled items. The rarity of purple items is also extremely high; I've never seen one drop, and I've only ever heard of one coming from a grab bag.

Green items are little more than trash. Green primaries may be of very minor decompiling value since the higher rarity crafting items sell decently on the AH. A level 40 green primary also sells for over 1g to vendors, which is a small comfort for rolling a worthless item. Green secondaries are completely useless to any character and no green items are of any value on the AH. Green items are also the most common thing you'll see from grab bags, which is extremely disappointing.

Blue upgrades are of significantly more value. Normal level 40 blue secondaries sell for around 5g on the AH, and level 40 blue primaries sell for around 10-20g. Blue primaries can also be decompiled for very rare crafting mats that are of considerable value and are needed for many high-level crafting recipes and low-level action figure recipes. Additionally, blue items with the correct stats may be of use to a lower-level character, but that is kind of rare since the stats are random.

Purple items are worth much more than blue items on the AH, but tradable purples are very rare outside of crafted purples that unlock costume pieces. Thus, getting a good fix on their exact value is very hard. Any purple item gives very rare crafting mats when decompiled, and they give very good stats to most characters (again, assuming the stars are aligned and you get stats you actually want). Stock purple rarity items are inferior to AP blues, which are far more common and can be obtained by anyone who wants to run Aftershock, Whiteout, or an adventure pack.

The gear problem could partially be remedied by simply removing green quality items and improving the drop rate of purple items to something like 90% blue, 10% purple. The gear items aren't the main attraction of grab bags, but they should be useful enough to offset the inevitable sting of getting a consumable item. I also think that a small chance to get an AP blue would not be a bad idea, since high-level AP blues sell quite well on AH even if they don't give the stats you need for your character.

My opinion isn't the most important, but here it is anyway

I think that the largest problem with grab bags is the value of consumables. If a consumable pack were actually worth a dollar (and there are numerous reasons why each one isn't), then grab bags would be 100% worth the gamble and I'd be arguing on Cryptic's side.

The gear issue is a smaller problem since nobody buys the grab bags for gear. However, making the upgrades more attractive could lessen the psychological impact from getting a "dud" grab bag. Simply reducing the rarity of purple items and removing junk green items would do a lot to make grab bags more palatable.

Lastly, I really, really hate that Cryptic pulled the grab bags from the test server. That's just a low move, and while people on PTS were counting the number of bags they had to open to get item X and getting furious when it was overly high (humans really are bad at math), I think that keeping us from finding out reasonable guesstimates at the odds of getting items is totally lame.

Overall, I do like the grab bags. They're rather cheap, and they do something that I really like: They let paying players use their buying power to feed non-paying players. They also do really nice things like grant tradable respecs, and they even give Silver players a shot at unlocking a really neat Archetype without having to spend real money. I definitely think they could be handled better, but I don't think they're a scam. I think that the droprate of "jackpot" items is high enough that a dollar is a decent price. The trick is that offending paying players with dud boxes causes them to stop gambling, and Cryptic really doesn't want that.

However, my opinion doesn't matter all that much. What's yours?

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.
This article was originally published on Massively.