Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gambling and Lockboxes

After the discussion on F2P last week, the conversation turned to lock-boxes. These are items which you purchase with real money, where the contents of the box is unknown. Lock-boxes are becoming more and more common in F2P games.

I think a lot of how you feel about lock-boxes depends on how you feel about gambling.


I am ambivalent about gambling. Making a small bet on a sporting event, or buying lottery tickets every so often doesn't seem that bad to me.  But playing hand after hand of blackjack--losing some hands, winning some hands, the losing more hands--feels wrong.

In some ways it's the difference between luck and probability. On a small scale, Lady Luck dominates. But as the number of repetitions increases, the Law of Large Numbers kicks in, and the outcome approaches the expected value. And in all gambling games, the expected value is negative so that the house or bookie makes  money.

Maybe it's an idiosyncratic view, but I'm okay with betting on the outcome of a football game. But I wouldn't be okay with betting on the outcome of each play within that game. The odds offered will favor the house, and enough repetition means the house's edge becomes mathematically real.

I also don't approve of casinos. I once went to a local casino. In my mind, I had an image of a casino, mostly formed by movies and television. Some place where the people are slightly dressed up, with cards and dice, and all the traditional trappings.

The reality of the casino was rows and rows of slot machines. Something like 80% of the floor was dedicated to slots. People didn't even use coins! They had a plastic card inserted into the machine, keeping track of the money won or lost. The card was attached to their belt by a plastic cord. It almost looked vampiric, as if the slot machine was draining their life through the cord.

I don't think I am usually fanciful, but that casino had an almost palpable aura of despair.

I left in a hurry, and actually ended up having an excellent crème brûlée at a nearby restaurant. All in all, I counted the dessert as a much better experience than the casino would have been.

Maybe Vegas would be different, more like the idealized version. But if I am ever in a position to vote against or block a casino, I will do so.


Back from the digression, I think my view on gambling greatly influences my view on lock-boxes.

There are two types of lock-boxes. The first type is the basic box that contains one item. The item might be rare, or the item might be common. Most of the time, you'll be disappointed. I think the boxes in Guild Wars 2 and most eastern MMOs are like this.

The second type of lock-box are collectible packs, based on collectible card games. The pack contains multiple items, with a fixed rarity. For example, a pack might contain 1 rare item, 2 uncommon items, and 4 common items. You may not get the specific rare you want, but you are guaranteed a rare. Most of the time, these items are tradeable with others. This is the system that The Old Republic uses.

In my opinion, the first type of lock-box is too much like excessive gambling. It displays the lose, win, lose pattern, along with much repetition that characterizes "bad" gambling for me.

In contrast, the collectible packs seem fair to me. The payout is consistent from pack to pack. You always get a rare. You can trade the items with other collectors. Most of the time the items are all cosmetic, so the value of each item is in the eye of the beholder. (Unlike CCGs, where the power level of the card within the game often determines the monetary value.)

So given a choice, I would prefer a F2P game to sell collectible packs rather than single-item lock-boxes. It seems fairer and not as exploitative.


  1. But the first type makes more money for the MMO companies! Just goes to show people like losing money. >.<

    Personally, I feel that some rare pixels are never worth my hard earned cash so I don't play what would otherwise be a painful lesson in probability and mathematics.

  2. I don't mind the way SWTOR does it because the packs are completely restricted to the shop (they don't try to "lure you in" by dropping locked boxes without keys in the world or anything) and because like you said you always get something out of them. It might not be exactly what you wanted, but it's never a complete loss and you can trade the contents to someone who would actually like them.

    Mind you, I've still only ever bought a handful of boxes myself; I prefer to spend my subscriber stipend on other things. But I do like all the items they add to the economy and which I can then buy from other people for credits. :P

  3. It’s simply amazing that Shintar has hit the nail on the head once again as I totally agree with her statement. The only – albeit very minor difference – is that I haven’t bought any lockboxes and have no intention of ever doing so. I have way too many credits on my Legacy and can afford anything I need (or rather want) with the in-game currency.

  4. I absolutely loathe the GW2 model. Getting locked boxes as loot and then being told to buy the keys for the chance to receive.... a "bear tongue?" Yeah thanks but no thanks. The SW:TOR system, while still unpalatable, is at least a bit more transparent. You may not get THE rare you want, but you will always get at least SOME value for your money. It's still gambling... but with a sort of guaranteed "pay out."

    A lot of people bash the SW:TOR monetization scheme, but frankly I don't find it that offensive. The fact that practically everything from the Cartel Market can be found on the GTN for in-game currency goes a long way to "level" the playing field.

  5. As I mentioned in the previous post, STO (or, actually, all of Cryptic's games now, I guess) actually make use of both, but I feel it is fair in both cases.

    Cryptic makes use of both a straight up lockbox, as well as selling packs for their side mechanics (Duty Officer packs for STO, crafting packs for Neverwinter, ??? for Champs?). The lockboxes give you 2 items, one ranging from common to the grand prize with the other being a currency to spend on side items, while the packs are basically CCG packs (chance for rare, uncommon, and common whatevers).

    The reason I feel that Cryptic's lockboxes are fair even if they're random is that even the most common item in the pack is equal, if not higher, in value to the cost of a key.

    For example, the most common item in a lockbox is probably the Duty Officer mini-packs. These packs contain 3 random DOffs. The regular version of these packs costs 275 Zen and gives 7, while a key costs 125 Zen. The full pack is more cost-effective, but the mini-pack is pretty close in worth to the key, with the extra currency making up any difference.

    That's what I think is important for offering random boxes. It's not as exploitative if you're still getting your money's worth on each pull. It's when the common result in the box is less then the cost of entry that it starts to get sleezy.

  6. I wonder if this might be a Canadian thing in some way -- we tend to be a little more protective than the US and in many cases Europe over things that could exploit people. In any case, I agree completely with this post.

    I got a lockbox key in my daily RIFT subscriber "loot box" the other day, and no box to go with it. Like.. really?

    (Also, casinos here are so much worse than casinos in Vegas. There, everything is just part of a party atmosphere. Here I have the exact same reaction as you.

    Plus by law our video poker machines will always automatically select the best hand, so it is literally just hitting the button over and over. At least in Vegas you can apply some logic and statistics and get a little GAME out of your game.

    ... Sorry, casino rant.)

  7. @RJ, I agree with you with one caveat. The worth of an item is not what the company sells it for. It's what people buy it for.

    For example, if Cryptic sells 7 DOffs for 275 zen, but no one buys them, then the DOffs are not worth 275 zen, and the expected value of the lockbox can go negative. This could happen in a situation where the lockbox DOffs flood the market, making them very easy to come by.

    This specific case might not be real, but I'm illustrating the idea that the "paper" value of the contents might not match the "market" value.

  8. Rohan: I get what you're saying, but it's also just as easy to turn it around on the other side; just because the prize of a lockbox is potentially a max level ship, and those tend to cost 25$, does that mean the 125 Zen key is really worth 2500 since that's what people are buying it for? You'd think that's what a key is worth given what they tend to go on the open market, from what I've seen in both STO and NW. Neither game has players posting keys for a cost consummate with a price of 125 Zen.

    Because of this, it's probably best to just assume value based on posted prices. That's what the price of the keys and the loot inside them seems to be partially based on, at least.

    Regardless, it doesn't really matter too much. That's just why I am actually in favour of that method. Certainly there's other games that don't even bother to try and calculate value in such a way, which is why lockboxes tend to feel pretty sleazy overall.