Humane Design: The Lootbox
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Most everyone here will have heard the news. The pre-release of Star Wars Battlefront II contained lootboxes which allowed players to skip hours of grind, and so the system was met with consumer backlash and a not-insignificant hit to share prices. If that wasn’t bad enough, last month Hawaii Rep. Chris Lee vowed to go after what he called “predatory practices” in games, particularly lootboxes and perceived gambling. Later last week, Hawaii Rep. Sean Quinlan mirrored those statements, with the hope that the industry might self-police, especially in games for children. Some good articles are already out there, if you want to read up on the financial and legal consequences.
This piece wants to explore the design and science behind lootboxes. Specifically asking, are lootboxes gambling, and why aren't all lootboxes created equal?
Humane Design Versus Pathology
The Battlefront II fiasco is an example why understanding humane design isn’t just ethically or morally important, or useful for the estimated 5-18% of pathological gamers. Design that treats players with respect is good design. Players will increasingly respond to it, one way or the other. When a game charges 60$ at the outset (in a world of bundles, returns, and shared console accounts) then drops in the same systems a player has paid to win in F2P before? However many times it’s worked in similar games, it’s still a very fine line to walk.
Players won’t get less discerning.
Anything that mimics elements of pathologic play (financial consequences, missed shifts at work, didn’t take the dog out in time, etc.) is a red flag for someone who is otherwise well put-together. They’ll usually feel intense disengagement, the opposite of fun. Getting a better understanding of how we respect a player's investments (of time, money and any other resource) can stop this before it starts, helping players to leave satisfied with the time they’ve spent.
That understanding could also be a boon for folks with major personal susceptibilities, say issues with physical or mental self-care, developmental level, social support, and so on. They might still feel the disengagement, but they may not always stop. Here, humane design is a bit more useful for clinical professionals, or for players looking to unpack why some designs might be problematic for them personally.
If regulation (from within or without the industry) ever does move forward, our knowledge of humane design will help. It could form the basis for some of the standards and practices to come.
A lootbox system which works like a mythic golden goose in one game, as we’re seeing, can become a gruesome explosion of inedible sinew and fat in another. Whether players embrace or revolt against a lootbox system largely comes down to what the “loot” is changing, and the severity of that change.
Cosmetic loot, for instance new color schemes, skins, emotes, and costumes, are generally considered a safe bet. Distributing these via random reveal might stoke problems among players who perceive these as important for reducing social barriers, achieving social status, or getting finite advantages due to alternate animations. Only a few types of games need to worry about social barriers and status. Tangible advantages in cosmetics, however, can be tricky. This is whether we’re talking F2P, lootboxes or DLC. League of Legends players may have experienced the specific pain of facing off against re-skinnings of characters like Elementalist Lux or iBlitzcrank. The internet is littered with complaints that these re-skinnings, available only by actual Earth currency, transform the standard Lux and Blitzcrank skills from good to game-mutilating. How would their community have reacted, if these were only found in lootboxes?
“Pay to win” is the term thrown around by gamers. It’s a fair nutshell, with more than a few delicious nuts inside.
One has to do with how the contents of a lootbox create advantages in a player’s ability to meet goals for a single session, versus their more meta goals for the larger game.
Letting players set their own goals is powerful. Take for instance a game without lootboxes per se. Warframe has a seemingly endless number of goals – blueprints, mods, credits, mod improvement fuel, dozens of unique resources, quests, factions, pets, item experience, account experience, cosmetics, and on and on – all this integrated with paid currency and paid boosts. Like a lot of F2P games, a lot of their design concerns frustrating our ability to meet those self-selected checkpoints and endpoints. Unlike a lot of other games out there, their tables of actual loot received are publicly available.
In or out of lootboxes, what matters is the degree to which our paths to goals are stifled without a credit card. Do the percentages in a spreadsheet still feel good? How much better after a payment?
Lootboxes can be especially destabilizing for these goals. As a designer, using them can mean relinquishing your own transparency, economy control, pacing, and overall player satisfaction. One constructive solution in humane design is checkpoint connection. Most games deploying lootboxes employ at least basic analytics. You should have at least a vague idea of the goals your player is focusing on, at any given time. Lootboxes which use checkpoint connection help them to, at the very least, make meaningful progress on their session goals (if not some major endpoint goals). Did they get part 2/3 that they needed? Maybe some of the gems they’ll use to fuel it? Overwatch seems to use at least a version of connection when they restrict legendary skin dupes (at least until you have them all). Without checkpoint, endpoint, or any other form of connection, players can feel a bit adrift. Especially if they’re doing big spends on fruitless lootboxes.
Fruitless is relative. Say a player gets a $200M boat they can’t use, but what they really want (maybe need) right now is the $50 baseball bat. In red. If you’re using checkpoint and endpoint connections, you’ve got this additional bonus of non-random outcomes which are harder to class as gambling. Focused lootboxes are another useful, RNG-reducing option. To some extent Warhammer’s Eternal Crusade makes use of this by allowing players to select between races like Ork or Chaos Marine for their supply crates and item purchases.
Lootboxes can hit another potentially sore spot if they’re withholding anything required for achievements. Especially very visible and otherwise desirable achievements, or large numbers of achievements.
Tying them to timed events makes me uneasy. I admit a certain horror on holidays, when Paul Tassi at Forbes.com writes with trepidation that he’s about to open 100 Overwatch lootboxes. So far, Overwatch seems to be doing a good job of balancing their limited-time holiday and event skins with enough unpaid pathways to picking them up. It helps that, as Tassi writes, Blizzard’s “skin team is killing it.” Maybe more importantly, their base lootbox system has been so carefully thought out in its relation to the base game. Purchasing the game is all you need to have access to every player and every skill.
It’s all cosmetics, but the time-locking creates an added kick to salience and desirability of what comes out of that crate.
Is it Gambling?
The reward for a lootbox isn’t a cascade of casino chips worth a hundred bucks each. Winning a round of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds doesn’t net you a 200$ pot, as in a season of fantasy football. It’s more like winning big at Chuck E. Cheese. You get a toy, or a hat for your toy, and maybe some prize tickets that you can put towards a bigger hat. Should the biggest spender at Charles E. Cheese get to dunk the skeeballs into the bullseye at point-blank range?
That’s part of the question.
Gambling is also partly an issue because of the associated risks of addiction: compulsive repetition of a behavior despite severe consequences. This is interesting because gambling disorder was only recently ratified as a behavioral issue, alongside the alcohol and substance abuse disorders from the most recent publication of the DSM-V (Fifth ed. of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The uncertainty and hope of gambling gives our brain a perfect opportunity to generate large amounts of dopamine – increasing the salience of any potential rewards. In a Neanderthal world, thunderous rewards helped us to survive. Random Steam foil cards, unveiling brightly-wrapped MLP game gift boxes, a Humble Monthly with the five exact games you wanted. These all feel great. Are any as powerful as slot machines paying out cash?
Let's put that question on hold, and return to our favorite child-friendly dining & games establishment Chuck E. Cheese. We need to mention here that kids don’t all mature at the same pace, and at earlier developmental levels they are uniquely ill-equipped to moderate or think rationally about potent reward patterns. With design, it’s easy to say that a child’s access to games is, “a parent’s responsibility, period, end of story.” I do it. As much as possible with design I try to address just adults, and especially the healthy 80-95% of gaming adults. That only stretches so far.
Not only are legislators aiming a big part of the lootbox discussion at children, the industry does at some point need to address child-targeted games which heavily employ the elements of behavioral conditioning.
A good litmus test: If a game is for children, do the developers let their own kids play? I’ve met more than a few parents who enforce strict limits on what, and how much kids play at home. So they play at a friend's house. Screenagers are savvy, but their brains may not be physically equipped for certain designs. If developers don’t generate some actionable takeaways on that conversation, then there’s a now-growing chance that lawmakers will do that for us.
Of all the swords we could have slipped and fallen on, lootbox + gambling at first struck me as a little unusual. It seemed like a legislative focus on lootboxes was to zoom way, way in, especially with the criteria for Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) appearing alongside gambling in this most recent DSM. But remember, the initial definition for internet addiction in 1996 (then copied to games a few years later) was literally a slapdash copy and paste from DSM-IV criteria for gambling addiction. This week, a collective buzz of excitement has been going up among members of the treatment industry interested in games. My worry is that lootboxes present a more manageable target. Videogames can capture any experience within and without the human experience. Lootboxes are this tiny slice. A clinical neuroscientist with an MRI machine could compare a lootbox reveal with extant scans from gamblers. It almost doesn’t matter if IGD needs, “more study,” if well-designed, replicated clinical research does indeed say, “Ahem why yes, lootboxes look the same as gambling in the brain.”
It would be very easy to throw EA, or their Battlefront II team, under the bus. They were likely just responding to the nigh billion dollar success of lootboxes for their other franchises, in places their audiences and markets were happy to spend that. What we might rather consider, and what lawmakers have directly asked the industry to do, is to use this nudge to take real action in building our understanding of design. We know a great deal about engagement. What about disengagement?
Lootboxes are themselves only one, admittedly controversial, design we could be doing better. They aren't going away, they aren't all done poorly, and they certainly don't create instant danger for all healthy adults forever. They are a great case study in why some designs, in some settings, demand greater care. Humane design should be treated as a vast open space to be explored, with room to methodically unpack everything from achievements to toxicity. If the industry really is going to take more of an interest in critiquing, even regulating or self-policing itself, then let's make sure that's based off of the best information possible.