Loot boxes are a moral choice

As someone currently looking for work in the games industry it’s sad for me to see that so many job postings come from mobile gambling houses. From companies that produce variations of familiar games with loot box systems attached or just straight up mobile slot machines. I always saw gaming and gambling as two separate fields. One of them I love and the other I despise. One of them is about creating fun experiences and even art and the other one takes advantage of people to spend as much money as possible.

Designers spend great amounts of time to carefully tune loot boxes. They maximize excitement and anticipation. Still, they distract from the actual game because it’s what they are supposed to do. So, it becomes a fine balancing act to avoid frustration and not have players lose interest in the game altogether. All this development time could be put to much better use focusing on core game mechanics.

While the discussion is ongoing whether loot boxes are gambling and need regulation, developers keep strapping slot machines onto video games. Casinos have learned a lot from video games to make their machines flashier and even add their own mini games. Meanwhile game developers have gone the other way around and drawn from the experience of slot machine manufacturers and the psychology behind gambling.

Games are so expensive to make

Loot boxes are here to stay because games are expensive to make nowadays. While yesterday’s forms of making some extra cash like DLC, game passes, microtransactions, collector’s editions and other merchandise are still used today, loot boxes are put on top of that. With a growing market and profitable publishers, it seems a matter of opinion if loot boxes are really necessary. They increase profit margins for businesses but what’s really in it for the players?

What it boils down to is that the gaming industry must figure out what kind of industry it wants to be. Currently it seems that many companies are okay with just some people having fun on the backs of others who suffer: gamers that spend way too much money and feel trapped in a vicious cycle of dept and shame.

There is also the games-as-a-service market now, that really does have to find new revenue streams. It has mostly left the path of self-contained single player narratives and focuses purely on multiplayer game mechanics. By design there are ongoing costs long after a game’s initial release. Not just to keep the servers running, but to support people who continue to work on new content, marketing, moderation and community services. MMOs started out with a pure subscription model but as the market became more saturated and free-to-play games started popping up, only the highest profile games could continue to make a profit that way. With upfront costs for players it’s harder to draw in the initial crowds which are essential for a good multiplayer experience. The answer to that problem was microtransactions and now the most profitable version of that is loot boxes.

What we can learn from the software-as-a-service market

I wish publishers would choose a more open freemium model, one that we are used to from the regular software-as-a-service world. Tools such as Dropbox, Spotify or pretty much every other online service out there offer a limited version free of charge to see its value, but you pay a monthly fee to get more features. Usually there are multiple tiers depending on what features you need or in the context of video games you prefer to play. I’m thinking of perks like a new map every month, extra skins, insider community events, ranked matches for paying players only etc. I’m sure designers could come up with plenty of ideas that are way easier to balance than a loot box system.

We have already come to accept this model for gaming consoles. There is no more multiplayer or broadcasting on Xbox or PlayStation without a subscription and Nintendo will finally follow suit later this year. Why should a game in which you clock in hundreds of hours be any different? It would be fairer and more transparent for the consumer. You pay what you need. You pause your subscription for a month when you are not playing and continue it when you have time again. Chat service Slack even does that automatically. It stops charging you if you don't log in for a while and continues once you're back.

There are advantages for game companies as well. With subscribers they have a more predictable revenue per month and they can focus on creating great engaging entertainment for the players again instead of countless of virtual items that they then hold in front of us like a carrot on a stick.

Let me know what you think: @matt2314