The Perfect Ten: The truth about lockboxes

Perfect Ten
Call them lockboxes, lootboxes, super packs, gift packs, treasure boxes, mystic chests, or Chupacabra's lunchpails, but these virtual boxes of mystery, fame, and fortune are all the rage in MMOs these days. Few studios have resisted the siren's call of such easy money, much to the dismay of many-a-gamer.

The idea is that a game will dish out to players free locked treasure boxes that require purchased keys to open. The allure of the box's mystery prize is often too strong to resist, especially when there's the possibility of a huge reward inside. The result too often is strong buyer's remorse and studio glee.

There's been a lot of conversation around lockboxes here on Massively, so I wanted to dedicate this week's Perfect Ten to dissecting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of these items for you.

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1. Lockboxes are gambling, plain and simple.

If anyone tries to refute the above claim to you, then be prepared to listen to a chain of logic so twisted and bent that it's probably been run through a yoga class. The simple truth of all this is that you're plunking down a set amount of real-world money for a possibility of getting a reward you desire. It's gambling.

It's gambling... except it's worse.

You know what would be weird? If you walked into a casino and none of the machines or tables told you the odds. Everything else would be the same: the payout, the mechanics, the money required to play, but no odds. Just give us your money and hope you win but never have a clue how great or small your chances are of actually winning.

STO mega millions
That is lockboxes in a nutshell. Nobody's forcing MMO studios to disclose odds, and it's in their best interests to not do it. They wouldn't want to scare away those pocketbooks, after all!

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2. The house always wins.

Any smart person knows that it's never in a gambling establishment's best interests to have its clients win more than the house. Over time, the house always wins. Period.

This is no different when it comes to MMOs utilizing lockboxes, except that the situation is even more stacked against the player. Not only are the odds never disclosed (see #1), but the studio is risking absolutely nothing by offering these rewards. You think a Cardassian joy-cruiser costs any more or less to virtually produce than a few XP potions?

The studio risks nothing by losing and gains everything by your simply playing (and paying).

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3. You feel wasteful if you throw out lockboxes.

What enrages a lot of folks over lockboxes is that it's hard not to feel like we're being psychologically manipulated with this system. You know why we feel like that? Because we are -- and in so many, many ways.

Not only do studios dangle the promise of powerful rewards by taking the easy path of a credit card payment, but they go the extra step of making you feel bad if you don't participate. Most games that I know utilize lockboxes hand them out like candy to players. "Here!" the game grins, "Have one! Or two! It's free! All for you!"

Before you know it, your inventory is packed full of these boxes you've discovered. The problem is that you can't open them without that expensive key. Sure, you could just throw the box away (I do and never regret it), but there's that part of your brain that's telling you you've already won whatever is in that box. It's yours, by golly! Why would you waste it by tossing it aside?

See how you're being played?

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4. Lockboxes can jeopardize an MMO's standing in a country.

The lockbox phenomenon has been going on a lot longer in the East than it has in the West, and as such many of those countries have butted heads with the game companies over these shady practices. As a result, there have been laws and regulations put into place to hold back the companies from going full-on Ebenezer Scrooge on players, but American and European governments have yet to respond in kind.

I'm just saying that if the argument can be made that lockboxes are virtual gambling, then they're going to end up as subjects of court rulings and possible legal entanglements. We've already seen this happen, and there's no reason to think it won't occur again.

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5. Lockboxes cheapen any MMO in which they appear.

People care deeply about their MMOs, sometimes to the point of silliness, but the emotion is genuine. The games we love we want to see succeed, thrive, and live for a long time. What we don't generally want is for someone with a polyester sports coat, pinkie rings, and greased-back hair stomping into our beloved playgrounds and "classing up the joint" by throwing slot machines everywhere.

Lockboxes are tacky. There, I said it. They don't add to the atmosphere or the fun; they just exist to make money and be obnoxious about doing so. They're a sign to me that a developer has sold out on standards to an extent and has little concern for the original vision of the game or the players' feelings of ownership. They take away the pretense of earning anything through skill or time and just trade it for money and randomness.

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6. Lockboxes tarnish the good aspects of the free-to-play model.

You'd think that with my obvious distaste for lockboxes I've soured on that whole F2P "fad," but that's not the truth. I actually love F2P. I think it helps more than harms the industry, and it aggravates me when elements of it like lockboxes spoil the rest of the model's reputation by association.

What people want is the ability to just outright purchase the item they like. You know, as if you were in a store. But since that's just a one-time purchase with a fixed cost, it doesn't have the same potential as a lockbox, which may reward the same item only after multiple purchases often costing far more money than the item is worth.

One blogger investigated how many of Star Trek Online's red gift boxes would be opened to statistically ensure that a Jem'Hadar ship would be looted. It came out to 153 tries (and $153 spent). No wonder the studios don't want to tell you the odds.

I guess that with any business model, you're going to have the potential for good business-client endeavors as well as the bad. Doesn't mean we have to like it all or throw it all out.

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7. Public support for lockboxes is minuscule.

Here's the crazy thing that most people can't quite comprehend: People publicly hate lockboxes, and yet the lockboxes persist. Players who come out supporting their inclusion in any MMO are far outnumbered by those who think they're evil. Every major MMO I've seen that put them in has suffered a constant forum barrage of angry players yelling at the company to take them out of the game. Heck, we've gotten into this fight more than once.

It's pretty much a PR disaster for any game studio. Some studios try to reason with players, ignore the controversy, or even disguise it somewhat. Recently, many MMOs have made a token effort to offer free keys as drops or what have you in the game, but that dog won't hunt. It's a losing battle to try to convince players that a studio's scamming them for money is a good thing.

So if there's so little public support and its giving these studios black eyes, why do it? Well, that's simple:

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8. Lockboxes make money, and that's hard for F2P studios to ignore.

I don't have any solid numbers on this, but there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to support it, not to mention developers who justify lockboxes by saying just this.

Let's step into an MMO game studio's shoes for a minute. Making games is a business. The studio's bottom line is to make money, ideally by doing something the developers love. If it does not make money, it closes up shop, and the online game that cannot function alone. So making a healthy profit is paramount to the studio's and game's survival, and it is almost impossible to ignore a proven hit source of revenue that costs very little to set up and will most certainly make bucketfuls of cash.

What would you do, Mr. or Ms. Business Owner? Ignore piles of money on principle or suck up the bad PR and make money back for the company and its investors?

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9. It's in the studio's best interest to push lockboxes as hard as they can.

Once you are sliding down that slippery slope of compromised values, it is hard to put on the brakes. You might as well go for the gusto and advertise these lockboxes up the kazoo. (That's my column limit for cutesy words, by the way.)

It is a little like movie studios pushing popcorn concessions or restaurants pushing wine: There are the big profit margins to be made, and it would be negligent for the company to undersell it.

This is why we get obnoxious moves like STO throwing a message up on every player's screen whenever the big prize is looted from a lockbox by someone else in the game. I don't mean to keep single out STO here, but it's just the most blatant about these practices, so it invites criticism.

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10. Lockboxes open the back door to real money trading.

RMT is another hot topic that I am not interested in judging today, but it is important to note that lockboxes can and sometimes do establish roundabout ways for a game to engage in RMT without being blatant about the practice.

How so? Well, if the game allows you to sell anything you find in the lockbox to other players, you've got a quick way to make a virtual buck with a real one. Say you buy a pack of in-game trading cards (SOE is famous for these) or a lockbox and find a very rare treasure. You can then sell the item you bought with real-world cash for in-game currency, and the RMT gods smile down on you.

This is not the most egregious aspect of lockboxes, but it is worth noting and watching.

Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

This article was originally published on Massively.