Here is a translation of a Canard PC article about Loot Boxes wrote by L-F. Sébum the October 23rd.
Did publishers opened the Pandora box?
This time, this is war. Gamers took forks and tweets, publishers fortified themselves in their HQ, offended articles are increasing, the revolution is on its way, from the insurgent only protest signs, banners and slogan are missing. What is going on? A new 500 bucks collector with a toy made with clay? Cloud imperium Games ended up to confess that Star Citizen was finaly an April fool that went wrong? If it was only that... But the reality is even worst, get ready: severals big video games of the end of the year (Assassin's Creed Origins, Battlefront II, Forza Motorsport 7 and Shadow of War, ...) are suggesting to the players to buy loot boxes, lucky bags that contains a random reward. Put that way, it looks trivial, and yet...
Wrote by L-F. Sébum | 2017, October, 23rd
Before coming to the heart of the matter, let's start, as anxious high school teenager in front of his philosophy finals with a definition and some history. We call loot boxes virtual lucky bags that the player can buy inside a game by giving virtual or real money. Unlike the DLC or any other payable content, these one have the particular thing to bring randomness. To write it another way, the player does know that he is buying something (gear for the equipment, texture for the character) but he does not know what exactly. It is not new. Counter-Strike Global Offensive offers since 2014 crate boxes with alternative textures for firearms that you can unlock only by buying a 2.25 euros key. Players who love randomness and who does not care to be short at the end of the month has the chance to open Hearthstone cards pack (2 for 2 euros and 50 for 40 euros). For the fans of the Ultimate Team of fifa who does not want to spend hours to earn virtual monney, they can burn it all lucky pockets where they will find, maybe, cards that will grant access to their favorite players.
Since few months, players are getting attentive to these commercial practice that are becoming more and more doubtful.
Slot boxes. In the strange and hostile world of mobile free-to-play, this kind of system is much more widespread. Especially with this principle that are based on «gacha» games (diminutive of gachapon, automated selling machine with crapy plastic toys), very popular in Japan. Unlike the classic free-to-play player, who knows what he or she will get if this player decides to spend 5 or 10 in his favorite game, the gacha user gets a random item. This business model was making so much benefit that it started to appear few years ago in some games called kompu gacha (complete gacha) where the player who got all the items from the same category could get an even rarer item and obviously more powerful. You see the armor set in these role play games, that grant you extra bonus when you got all the parts? Well, here it is almost the same thing, but with real monney. The kompu gacha, mix of one-armed bandit and collecting game have been revealed to be so addicting that Japanese government forbid it in 2012. Besides, it is only in Asia, where the market that is more free-to-play and pay-to-win friendly than in western countries, that these lucky bags practice are supervized by authorities of the countries. In China, it is refered as gambling games, the developers should show publicly the exact win ratio chance for each sold items. The law is getting further and ask that a public register with all the loot of the 90 last days should be kept for checking. Blizzard, who is not really happy to reveal all the algorithms that are behind Overwatch found another way to get around the law: Instead of selling boxes like everywhere else, the Chinese shop is selling virtual monney — and for each buy, one or more loot boxes are offered. #tips, as we say on twitter.
Y'a pas Mordor
Related to the lootboxes the magnitude of the reaction on Shadow of War surprised us. When we tested the game (issue 368 of Canrd PC), on medium difficulty, we did not feel the need of buying any bonus crates to progress. Orcs and legendary items could be easily found without spending any peny., the fact that there was a market option in the menu of the game did not shocked us that much. Like other players and journalists, we felt like Monolith was sincere when they said the game was balanced for a player who does not use the market. However: maybe we should have been more attentive to the context with players getting more aware and upset against the lootboxes and write a parapraph about it, even if only by confirming that in this case, it did not appeared to us to be really serious.
Flap-box. And during that time in western countries, nothing. the skin system from Counter Strike GO and from Team Fortress 2, that is offering random locked boxes impossible to open that push the player to buy a key, a mecanism so much crazy that we could think it came up from a mad addictologist? Players did not complained for long. aesthetic bonuses for Overwatch? Where is the issue, we can earn it by playing, even if it is more slower? And that's only skins, nothing that has any impact on the gameplay. Cards pack in Heathstone then? Some voices over there screamed "pay-to-win", but it became quiet again fastly. That's only a collectible card game. Does people complains against the Wizards of the Coast business model when it sells Magic cards? Loot boxes were not extremly popular but it was only the ugly part of the video game landscape, a little like this dirty grungy building that we can see the windows through our living room windows, this one that after a while you start to not paying attention anymore. At least until fall 2017, after the straw that breaks the camel's back. For the first time it took that kind of scale with the Shadow of War release, many articles charged the game to be deliberately unfair to make the player proceed the checkout. That's true that the game is offering lucky bags full of orcs and powerful items that without it, according to some people (not us, check the «Y'a pas Mordor»), the fourth act would be impossible to complete unless you keep damaging the uruk again and again for at least 10 hours.
Nothing guarantee that the items draw found in the box would be fair and balanced.
Glove-box. Since few months, players are getting attentive to these commercial practice that are becoming more and more doubtful. The Bingie decision to give out shaders (skins that players could use to custom their gears) from Destiny 2 inside loot boxes made people cringe. Especially, unlike the first one, these skins could be used only one time and force players to get new one for each new item. If bonus boxes from Forza Motorsport 7 can't be bought with real money (for now; it will come coom), still it forces the players to cumulate credits by spending endless time to achieve races to buy lootboxes that contains additional cars and mods. In this case it is quite outrageous. Players from previous Forza titles were able to freely custom the game with mods. For example, making a race more difficult by switching the time to night. If they were able to complete a race with higher difficulty, they were earning more points than usual. From now, the player will not earn additional points by playing the night race, except if he activated the ad-hoc mod — that he will have to, before, receive it from a loot box.
Outside the box.
A solo game, when its name is not Diablo III, store datas localy, on the user hard drive. This one, if he has a crazy mind, will try to modify it one day or another. That's how a cheating software came up recently for Shadow of War. With the usual hacks (like getting additional lives or skill points), it let the player getting infinite silver coins. If the gold, bought only with real money, is not editable (that one is stored on Monolith servers), having this amount of silver coins is enough to buy loot boxes as much as you need, without paying and without playing during ages. It may seems not important to you, but to Monolithe that hope to expand this loot box business model, it means a lot. The only reliable way against that kind of software, against the money loss that it is generating, would be to store everything on a distant server, and forcing the player to be online all the time, even if he is playing alone. Also, don't forget, there is also some gameplay that already match pretty well with these lucky bags. Their globalisation could increase much more faster this kind of "Action, open-world game with role-play touch and additional bogus multiplayer mode that requires permanent connexion to internet" in this AAA market.
Smoke box. The developer choice with this business model, that almost looks like a sabotage of their own game, could be really surprising. Are the publishers such attracted by the lure of profit taking the tisk of having their players upset? They do not have the choice are answering the publishers when we asked them. AAA games are getting more and more expencive to produce and always sold around 60 euros. And even worst, they are less selling! All the loot boxes games we mentioned since the begining of this article (Shadow of war, Destiny 2, Forza Motorsport 7, Fifa 18...) know a more difficult start than what's happening after. If you add to this situation the usual promotion that encourage the player to wait few months instead of paying the full price, and you will understand the full picture of this crisis. «Some of big games, there is not enough sell to cover all the development cost and the marketing. Loot boxes are a way, for the interested players, to provide additional incomes» explained Jason Kingsly, Rebellion CEO, on the Games Industry website. We can understand this point, particulary in that context where the Games As A Service (GAAS)¹ is saw as a magic powder that will save the industry. From a Digital River study, digital market company, in 2016, 1/4 of the income from a PC Game that you buy came from the sell of additional content, this is huge. However, event if you consider these difficulties of the industry and by acknowledging that the GAAS, well made, could be great, it is difficult to plead guilty against the developers who has this new taste for these loot boxes. At best, it is only a GAAS for poors, a painless way for the publishers to be sure to have a constant income – it is easier to make people busy by drawing cards during a month until they get their dream item than giving them a new gear each week. For the worst, it is the proof that they consider their customers like cattle, that you exploit psychology weaknesses without being worried with ethics. With these conditions, it is not really surprising that even with a mild case like Shadow of War or Assassin's Creed Origins appears immediately guilty for the public opinion.
Note¹: We call GAAS the idea of a game that should not be designed as a product you buy one time but as a service with undetermined lifetime wich some content could be added for free or with the credit card.
That's here the danger the most snaky of loot boxes: make real money with a part of the game.
Black box. And if we compare with some other commercial approach that this industry has accustomed us, the loot boxes are not really fair-play. Publishers are not forced to reveal their secrets (they try to avoid at all cost as you can remember with Overwatch in China), nothing guarantee that the items draw found in the box would be fair and balanced. And obviously it is not: we already know for example that it is impossible for a player to find, in an Hearthstone card pack a legendary that he already owns. On the opposite, the probability to get one will increase each time that the player open a pack without legendary. We can find there an old practice used in casinos, because it can't modify your win rating automatically or remotely, an employee is sent to give free chips to players who did not won anything since a long time to encourage them. With all the datas the video games can cumulate on their users (play time and frequencies, using or not the shops, favorite weapon and maps...), we can guess easily how far publishers can adjust in a custom way the pizes to make the players cough up the money. Paranoia? Well... Recently, Activision registered a patent related to matchmaking, made in a way to encourage microtransactions. This «analysis engine tell us about his description, study the user playing style». It can determine, for example, «if he is a beginner who likes sniper». The system «put him then in a game where there is already an excellent sniper», to us this one as a model for the beginners, the newcomer would be «more inclined to buy the rifle or any other items from sniper players». The experimented player becomes then a flesh and bone advertisement for items that he already bought himself. If that system does not concern directly loot boxes, and from Activision nether used in any game yet, it let us imagine how the use of all these datas applied to a gampling game would be have serious damaging impact.
Plastic box. For multiplayer games, it is more tricky. The perfide matchmaking system from Activision and the blameless overwatch skins have something in commun: take advantage from the player, oftenly young, needs: being accepted and being valuable. It is a virtual equivalent to the social pressure that teenagers got when they do not wear the right clothes. When the prize is not only suerficial but has a real impact in the game, it is worse. That's the case for Lord of the Rings Online, that will soon let to the players to buy, in exchange with real shiny coins, lucky bags full of high rank items. We can figure out how could be the pressure in a kind of game, the MMO, where not having the right equipment means that it is not possible to play with our friends party. On the other hand, Battlefront II could create a disaster in online FPS world. The star cards, that let increase skills of our character, have to be earned only from loot boxes sold at more than thousand credit one. From the beta players experience, each game brings two tiny hundred credits. With smart mental arithmetic we can foresee one draw each hour. By this speed, players ready to store a lot of these boxes with real money (and rich enough to do so) will have a clear advantage on others who will satisfy themselves with basic credits. Does such pressure not risk to encourage players in a hurry? Or weaks? To spend all their saving in the hope to get an item that will let them to be high ranked? It is, like the kompu gacha mentioned upper, a trap two times more vicious, isn't it? Should we consider titles that let user buying lootboxes with real money as one-armed bandit and apply the same law? To forbid it to underage, as Totalbiscuit, the youtuber, suggested?
Idea Box. «Good morning, I am Canard PC journalist, I am contacting you related to the loot boxes article. — Ah, these craps?» Thomas Gaon is a psychologist, specialised in addictions. From the begining of our conversation, his position seems clear. Should it be, according to him, considered as gambling games? ESRB (the US association certification) statued it was not: a box, unlike one-armed bandits, will always reward a player even if it is not what the player was looking for. It is more likely a collectible card games such as magic the gathering. Is it a valid statement? «absolutely not. From a mathematic point of view, there is in fact a real difference between earning something and not earning anything. But the brain is not mathematic powered, it does work with symbols. Imagine an one-arme bandit that, instead of giving nothing to loosers, giving them one cent. Will it change something?». Loot boxes, he explains, are well knowned by all psychologists (and by all swindler too 사기꾼) since a long time. Multiplying draws to increase shoots, by, for example, flipping cards one by one. To give to the player the illusion of controling the randomness by giving him the choice between multiple boxes, choosing does not impact on the final result. The almost earn, that give to the player the feeling of maybe missed something big closely because he got two same pictures on three (technique used on every one armed bandit or scratch games of the world). The worst, continues Thomas Gaon, is that the use of randomness in these reward could tend to hide the unfairness of pay-to-win. The other players will forgive more easily the one who got a more powerfull item then someone in a lootbox than someone who bought it directly. By getting it with chance, even if the player is for nothing in that and even if the player bought all the boxes, the player deserved it in a way. «The randomness always had a part somehow mystical on how it select the choosen ones, especially in a game. We know for example that if, in a roleplay game, a boss is looting an item everytime it got killed, players will put less value on that item, even if the boss is difficult to beat. While if it does loot the item once in a hundred, the player that get the item is imediately singled out.»
Stupid box. That's here the danger the most snaky of loot boxes: make real money with a part of the game. «In many games there is randomness, whether it be Monopoly or Diablo. But loot box is from another kind. Using real money in those mechanics is breaking that Huizinga called the magic circle.» In Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga defined the magic circle as a demarcation line between the game universe and outside it. Inside the circle, we are in the game, it is virtual, fake. Outside there is the real world, the one we get back when the game is over. Things that are in the game stay in the game. For Thomas Gaon, to put a real world thing like money is a serious break. With wich concequences? «We met some kids who paid to win Clash of Clans, that was already sad: The game should break social hierarchies from the real world. We now cross teenaders who play Counter Strike Go only for the Textures Gun Market, for whom the real content of the game became no more than an appendix.» But then, should we legislate? «Not necessarily. We have to help the players to get concious of the poverty of these mechanism. It is not easy, as players, they love randomness. But the should understand that it is to their worst instincts that these loot boxes are calling.» Let's keep hope. Who knows, maybe if it become widespread (read the Outside the box paragraph), their missing could become a sales pitch. After revealed the first pictures of Vermintide 2 at mid October, the developers from Fatshark announced with capslock: «Our game does NOT contains loot boxes". The items should be found inside the game, not inside your wallet.» Here is a perfect slogan for a revolution.