Category Archives: Pay to Win

How to Fix Lockboxes

Lockboxes. Oh, yes, we’re talking about them again. The endless controversy over this most-maligned monetization practice has players constantly clamoring for lockboxes to be banned (with some success in certain regions), but I don’t feel that banning them outright is the way to go. It’s not as if developers are simply going to shrug and accept making less money. They’ll find a way to make up the difference, by sneaking lockboxes back in through legal loopholes or adopting some new and even more predatory practice.

A legendary skin from Overwatch's ubiquitous lockboxes

I think it’s more realistic — and safer — to find ways to make lockboxes less problematic. I don’t think most games handle them very well, but I don’t think the concept is beyond redemption. I think lockboxes can be fixed.

Add Transparency

When people talk about regulating lockboxes in online games, one of most common suggestions that comes up — when people aren’t just asking for them to be banned outright — is to add transparency by publicly listing the drop rates of everything in the boxes, something already achieved in China.

Personally I think we all understand that the odds of getting the best reward from a lockbox are vanishingly small, but putting more information in the hands of the consumer is never a bad thing, and it might help to remove the perception of dishonesty that tends to swirl around lockboxes.

Make Them Earnable In-Game

Gamers tend to dislike when desirable in-game items are only available for real cash. But we tend to calm down a lot when those same items can be earned through gameplay as well as by forking over the dough.

Overwatch is a good example of a game that lets people earn a fair number of boxes just by playing the game normally. I suspect this is why Overwatch tends to avoid the wrath of the community despite being one of the more transparent examples of a game built entirely around selling lockboxes.

Another way to put lockbox items within reach of those who can’t or won’t spend real money is to make them tradeable in-game. Star Wars: The Old Republic does this with its ubiquitous lockboxes; everything found in Cartel Crates can be bought, sold, and traded between players, meaning that (at least in theory) everything can be earned without spending a dime.

Add Bad Luck Protection

A character in the lockbox-happy MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic

The trouble with randomized lockboxes is that you could buy literally hundreds of them and still have no guarantee of getting the item you want. This is of course part of what makes them such a successful business model, but it’s also a large part of why they’re so hated.

This criticism can be countered somewhat by adding in some sort of failsafe against bad luck. The simplest and most common way to do this is to add some sort of currency found within lockboxes alongside an option to purchase lockbox items directly with said currency. Overwatch and Elder Scrolls Online both do this by converting duplicate items found in boxes into a currency.

Realistically you’ll still need to buy a fair few boxes to get what you want, but at least you know you’re working toward a goal. You’ll get what you want… eventually.

Making lockbox items tradeable, as mentioned above, is another way to achieve this. If you want that rare mount really badly, you don’t need to gamble. Just grind in-game currency until you can buy it from someone else.

Keep Them Cosmetic Only

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how the concept of “pay to win” isn’t really worth worrying about, at least in most MMOs. Frankly selling character power for real cash doesn’t bother me that much. I don’t like it, but it’s not something I lose sleep over.

But I think we can pretty much all agree putting player power in lockboxes is a bad idea. Honestly I’m not a big fan of the randomization found in traditional MMO loot to begin with — I think character power should be earned through skill and dedication, not dumb luck — and adding real money to the equation really doesn’t endear me to the idea.

Gambling for cosmetics and fun stuff is one thing. Some may disagree, but I consider that fairly harmless. Gambling for things could actually give you an advantage in-game is taking exploitative psychology to another level.

A player party in The Secret World

Making sure that lockboxes never offer anything but cosmetics may not assuage everyone, but at least it keeps their worst potential at bay.

Make Them Social

As with many things, I think perhaps the best take on lockboxes to date came from the original incarnation of The Secret World. They obeyed many of the recommendations outlined above: All of the game’s many lockbox rewards were tradeable and cosmetic only, many boxes provided bad luck protection in the form of Lucky Coins, and most were earnable through gameplay.

But they also did one very clever thing that I can’t believe I haven’t seen elsewhere. In addition to the standard boxes that offered loot to a single player, in-game events also brought group boxes that granted loot not just to the person to open it but to a large number of players around them, as well. There were even achievements and special emotes for those who shared with enough other players.

When we talk about designing to encourage players to be more social, I’ve seen few things work better than these group loot boxes (often called party bags by players). Yes, there were people who just dumped their loot on random strangers in Agartha, but others used the bags as party favours at guild events, or organized scavenger hunts or other social gatherings.

My personal habit was to go to the starting zone, round up a bunch of newbies, and welcome them to the game with a burst of loot from the latest lockbox. Honestly some of my most positive MMO social experiences have been the result of those loot parties.

Lockboxes are often seen as something toxic or immoral, but I feel like that perception would change a lot if they were more often used as a tool to promote positive player interaction.


Black Desert Online: When Pay for Convenience is Pay to Win

I’m thankful for Black Desert Online’s cash shop for one reason – it exemplifies the notion that paying to win cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. This is a game where if the cash shop was transferred to another popular MMORPG or if a different core system replaced BDO, I’d change my opinion. As is, Black Desert Online definitely falls into the pay to win camp. Their monetization model is particularly frustrating given the existence of several free MMOs that aren’t pay to win.

black desert online cash shop

BDO cash shop – spend time here or “lose”

The cash shop in Black Desert ostensibly sells convenience. There are very few “max power” enhancements, mostly limited to the ghillie suit that hides player name in PvP. Compared to something like ArcheAge where every dollar spent is an immediate power upgrade, BDO may not seem so bad. While the system certainly isn’t as egregious as ArcheAge, paying for convenience is a big deal when grinding is all that matters. And grinding is all that matters in Black Desert Online.

Power in BDO is and always will be commensurate with time spent playing the game. Two equal level players with as little of a difference as 20% in total AP/DP from items will result in a decidedly lopsided contest. And it’s not like items with higher AP/DP even come from completing challenging raids or winning equal PvP contests. They result from mindlessly grinding enemies for hours on end.

This is where pay for convenience turns into pay to win. Items in BDO’s cash shops grant EXP bonuses with costumes and looting speed plus miscellaneous stat bonuses via pets. The EXP bonus is a problem because levels in BDO are essentially infinite but increasingly slow to come by after level 50. The pets are where the real bonuses lie though. Monsters die by the dozens in Black Desert Online and all of them drop loot. Players must farm these either for rare drops or to gather silver from vendor trash to pay for existing equipment improvements. Pets pick up loot for the player and better pets (they can be upgraded) pick up loot faster. Manually picking up loot in BDO is a huge time waster so proper pet usage can increase grinding efficiency by approximately two to five-fold. And the only way to reliably acquire “pet power” is via the cash shop.

black desert online pets

Pets – the most important investment in BDO

There’s no denying that buying these items in the cash shop help players progress significantly faster. That’s one problem. The other problem is that open PvP enters the picture once you hit level 50. Mindless killing isn’t really worthwhile in BDO but killing to claim grinding areas is certainly is. And guess who is going to win those battles? The guys and gals that have been grinding the longest with the most cash shop gear. Remember, power in BDO is commensurate with time spent playing the game, amplified by the cash shop. So now the weaker players not only aren’t leveling as fast because they lack these “convenience” items, but they’re leveling even slower because stronger players push them to sub-optimal grinding spots. In BDO, the rich get richer.

The cost for optimal gear and the maximum number of the highest level pets runs about $400 – $500. This figure only rises as additional costs are incurred to further maximize efficiency such as weight and inventory upgrades. At least those are fixed costs. Assuming you don’t feel like $500 for peak efficiency bonuses on a time intensive grinding MMO is that bad, there are still items like Artisan Memories. These are used to recover durability on items that slowly degrade as upgrades inevitably fail in the RNG equipment upgrade minigame. Durability recovery via real money means less in-game money spent means more money for other things.

But hey, this is just convenience, right?


Subscriptions Are Still the Worst Business Model

With all the controversy swirling around lockboxes and other monetization strategies, I see an increasing number of people pining for the day when subscriptions were the standard business model for online games.

World of Warcraft, one of the few games still maintaining a subscription business model

I think it might be time for a reminder of how we ended up here. There’s a reason that free to play and buy to play are now the norm, and it’s not that developers are conducting an evil international conspiracy to make us lockbox addicts.

It’s that subscriptions failed as a model, and they failed because people realized there are better options. For all the flaws of other business models — and oh boy, they do have them — none are quite so bad a deal for the player as a monthly subscription fee. I firmly believe it is the worst business model for an MMORPG.

Let’s look at all the ways subs ill-serve players, and please note that for the purposes of this article, “subscription” refers only to games that require a regular fee in order to play. Optional subscriptions as part of a hybrid model are an entirely different beast, and something I’m entirely okay with.

They Enforce Grinding

One of the biggest fallacies I’ve ever seen put forth in the MMO community is that only free to play business models affect gameplay.

That’s nonsense.

These days, the only subscription game I play is World of Warcraft. It is also by far and away the grindiest game I play. This is not a coincidence.

Honestly, are people truly naive enough to believe that things like attunements, lengthy reputation grinds, and low drop rates were implemented because they were fun? No, they were designed to extend the life of content, allowing developers to earn more subscription dollars from each player.

One of the new allied races coming in World of Warcraft's Battle for Azeroth expansion

This is why while most other games make the main story something you can just jump into and enjoy, WoW locks it behind weeks of reputation grinding. This is why Blizzard is now staggering its patch releases, with a trickle of new content unlocked each week, rather than patching it in all at once. Have you ever noticed how it always takes more than thirty days for anything to fully release?

One of the eternal criticisms of free to play games is that they force you pay cash, or grind endlessly. Don’t get me wrong, “pay or grind” is not a great deal for the player, but it’s still better than a subscription game, where you pay to grind.

A good example is WoW’s upcoming allied races feature. Whereas if a free to play game added a new playable race, you might have to pay to unlock it, WoW will require you to both pay for the new expansion and spend weeks — potentially months — grinding various reputations to unlock the new races.

Free to play games ask for your money or your time, but subscription games demand both, because for a subscription game they’re one and the same.

As the Goblins say, “Time is money, friend.”

They Spit in the Face of Customer Loyalty

Subscriptions are essentially “Yeah, but What Have You Done for Me Lately: The Business Model.” It doesn’t matter how many hours or how much money you pour into a game. If you haven’t coughed up $15 in the last thirty days, you’re completely locked out.

Let’s say you lose your job or otherwise hit a financial rough patch, and can no longer afford your subscription fee. Well, kiss goodbye to the characters you’ve spent potentially years developing. Say farewell to all the friends in your guild. Sucks to be you.

Final Fantasy XIV, one the last remaining subscription games on the market

That’s a terrible way to treat a loyal customer.

Games based around micro-transactions may have their flaws, but when you buy something, it’s yours. If you don’t have the funds to keep spending as you have, you can still keep playing, and enjoying all the perks you’ve bought in the past.

But to a subscription game, you’re only as good as your last payment. Never have I felt less like a person and more like a walking dollar sign than while playing a subscription game.

They Discourage Variety

In the past, there weren’t many MMOs around, and it made sense to just fully commit to one. But these days the field is overflowing with choices, and most people want to be able to enjoy more than one game.

Subscriptions make that a lot more difficult. If you’re paying a subscription to one game, playing anything else is going to feel like you’re wasting money because, well, you are. And if the other games you want to play are also subscription based, the cost is going to get prohibitive pretty fast.

Subscription games want you to play them and nothing else, and that sucks the fun out of the whole hobby. You don’t get to enjoy other games as much, and you burn out on your main game more quickly.

Their One Strength Is a Lie

The one advantage a mandatory subscription is supposed to hold over other business models — the chief argument I see put forth in its favour — is that it creates a level playing field. You pay a single fee and get access to the whole game. You don’t have your wallet eaten away by numerous extra charges, and everyone is put on the same level.

Argus in the subscription MMORPG World of Warcraft

Which is great except for the fact that isn’t true at all.

Let’s again use World of Warcraft as an example. To start playing it at all, you first have to buy the base game, which is $25 here in Canada (I believe it’s about $20 for Americans).

These days, Blizzard rolls all legacy expansions into the base game, so that will get you a lot of content, but if you want to play WoW to any significant degree, you’ll have to buy the most recent expansion, too. Blizzard not only abandons legacy content but will often go out of their way to make it unrewarding, and the community never lingers in old expansions, which cuts off the group-centric experiences WoW is built around.

So you need to buy the current expansion, currently priced at $63 up here, and that’s assuming you don’t spring for the deluxe edition, which contains a number of exclusive cosmetics. If you want to keep playing for any length of time, you’ll need to keep buying expansions as they release.

Then there’s the cash shop to consider. While WoW’s might not be quite as fully stocked as some free MMOs, it’s still pretty extensive, and also priced higher than most other games. The companion pets alone would run you around $200 if you wanted all of them. Often the mounts and pets in the cash shop are far more elaborate and detailed than anything in-game, as well.

“But those are just cosmetics,” I hear you say. And I really have no problem with games selling such things in principle. I just bought myself a new hairstyle in ESO a few days ago.

But it’s not just cosmetics. The cash shops also feature things like race changes, name changes, and server transfers, and while most of those are minor conveniences, choice of server can have a huge impact on your experience of an MMO, and it’s inevitable some people will need to transfer. Maybe you picked a dead server without realizing it, or maybe your once-thriving community has fallen apart.

A desert city in the subscription MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV

It gets worse if you play multiple characters, as most people do these days. At $32 per character (again, Canadian numbers), transferring more than one or two characters will cost more than a new AAA game.

It keeps going. Nowadays you can also buy character boosts that instantly level you to just below the current cap, and there’s the WoW Token to consider. With it, you can buy gold that can then be spent on BoE epics, allowing you to gear up your character entirely through the cash shop.

All this from a business model that’s supposed to give everyone everything for one monthly fee.

This isn’t unique to WoW, either. Final Fantasy XIV engages in similar practices, and while things may have gotten more pronounced in recent years, MMOs have always charged extra on top of their subscriptions, even if just for expansion packs.

The ideal of a subscription putting everyone on equal ground is a noble one, and if it were actually true, I’d probably feel a lot better about subscription games. It still wouldn’t be my favourite model because of the other problems listed above, but at least it would have a strong argument in its favour.

But it’s just not true. It was never true, and it’s getting less true all the time. Subscriptions don’t make games fair, they don’t prevent the best rewards from having price tags, and they don’t stop people from buying power.

* * *

MMO monetization is a messy business. Developers want to make as much money as possible, and players want everything for free. No solution will ever fully satisfy both sides. But while every model has flaws, none are worse for the player than a subscription fee for access. It’s a failed model, and it doesn’t deserve resurrection.


How Playing MMOs Changed Me as a Gamer

The end of the year lends itself to introspection, to looking back. This year I’ve been looking back on my MMO career and reflecting on how things have changed over the years.

My oldest MMO character, my rogue, shows off her guild tabard in World of Warcraft

I’ve been playing (and writing about) MMOs for a while now. Almost ten years. Now, I know that compared to some of you, that still makes me a relative newcomer, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

And in that time, my attitude towards games has changed a lot. My experiences in MMOs have shaped who I am as a gamer, and it’s changed how I look at the entire hobby. It’s helped me to enjoy video games more.

Indulge me, if you will, as I engage in some holiday reflection and take stock of just how my time with MMORPGs has changed me as a gamer.

It Ruined Vertical Progression for Me

I think on some level I was always a little less interested in high levels and “phat lewt” than the average gamer. I play games to escape reality — to explore imaginary worlds and immerse myself in rich stories. Making my character more powerful is more a means to that end than something that I found compelling for its own sake.

Still, in the past, I had plenty of excitement for shiny new gear drops or big level dings. That was before I spent years playing MMOs, though.

When you really think about it, vertical progression like this is sort of a lie. You feel like you’re constantly getting better, that you’re evolving into something awesome, but you’re not, really. Content evolves along with you, keeping your relative power level more or less consistent no matter how hard you grind. There’s always a new challenge ahead. Improving your character’s stats isn’t a climb to the top; it’s just a treadmill. You’re always moving, but you’re never getting anywhere.

A hunter ranger character in Neverwinter takes a break from the grind

And nowhere is this more clear than in the realm of MMORPGs.

The persistent nature of MMOs makes vertical progression meaningless. You’re never finished; the integrity of the genre depends on it. The level caps keep getting raised. Today’s best in slot is tomorrow’s vendor trash. None of it means anything.

But it’s an easy way to extend the life of content, so developers just keep pushing us onto the treadmill. For me, this has just led to my becoming incredibly jaded about the whole concept. I have gotten so much sweet loot and heard so many level dings that I’ve lost my taste for the whole concept. I don’t care anymore.

Instead, it’s other rewards I seek. I still like getting new gear appearances, as building outfits helps me establish my characters’ identities. I also enjoy unlocking new abilities for the same reason. Horizontal progression, in other words. Give me more options, give me new ways to express myself in-game, not just another +3% to DPS that will be invalidated next patch.

I still have some taste for vertical progression in single-player games. It works better there because eventually you reach the point where you’re done. It’s less of a treadmill. And with less concerns about balance, single-player games can also be more dramatic in their rewards, as opposed to, again, just +3% DPS.

Still, even there, loot and levels entice me far less than they used to, and increasingly I’m finding it refreshing when games don’t have any vertical progression at all.

Most of the ways MMOs have affected my gaming are positive, but this one’s a bit more of a mixed blessing.

A department store by night in the MMO shooter The Division

On the one hand, it’s been very freeing. I no longer feel pressured to keep on par with other players, or to be the best. I don’t have to spend months grinding for the best gear. I’m happy with gear that’s merely good enough. For me, games have become much less like work and much more like, well, games.

On the other hand, I do find it frustrating to see how much developers and players still fixate on vertical progression now that I realize how pointless it is. This medium could be capable of so much more.

It Helped Me Focus on What I Like

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: MMOs are really big.

That is, of course, sort of the whole point. And for the most part it’s a good thing. We flock to MMORPGs because they offer us a breadth and depth that no other form of entertainment can.

But it can also get overwhelming. If you try to do everything there is to do in a single MMORPG, you’ll probably end up running yourself ragged and burning out. If you play multiple MMOs, doing everything is going to be pretty much impossible, at least until scientists invent a pill that replaces sleep.

It is therefore best to focus. Find the gameplay you enjoy most, figure out what your goals are, and focus on that. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Don’t worry if you’re behind or ahead of the curve. Don’t try to keep up with the virtual Joneses. Just find what gives you joy and immerse yourself in that.

Early on in my MMO career, I felt very compelled to experience everything a game has to offer, and to play it the “right” way, but nowadays I’ve let go of a lot of that. I’m still mastering the art of saying no, but for the most part I’m much better able to focus only on playing in whatever way I enjoy the most.

My agent explores the planet Alderaan in Star Wars: The Old Republic

For example, in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I pretty much only play solo story content. I’ve tried group content and PvP in that game, but I don’t think Bioware is very good at designing either of those things, and I don’t generally enjoy them, so I stopped. I focus only on the part of the game that actually entertains me.

And the same attitude guides me throughout my gaming. I have sunk hundreds of hours into World of Warcraft, but I’ve never done a single pet battle. I played The Secret World heavily for five years and never once did any of its raids.

When it comes to single-player games, I can still be a bit of a completionist — it’s easier with a clear finish line in sight — but instead I’ve learned to better focus what games I buy. I’ve become much better at ignoring hype and trends. I’ve learned to focus on the games I know (or can safely bet) that I will enjoy.

I Learned Not to Sweat the Small Stuff

Let me tell you a story.

A few years back, World of Warcraft launched a new pet in its cash shop, the Guardian Cub. They’d been selling vanity pets for a while at this point, but the Cub was special. It could be traded, meaning players could sell it to each other for gold. This made it a form of legalized gold-selling, a sort of precursor to today’s WoW Token.

Reaction to the decision was swift and negative. Before, Blizzard had only sold vanity items, but this allowed people to directly purchase an in-game advantage.

And I was right there on the front lines, posting my angry comments on the official forums. I joined the chorus screaming, “Pay to win!”

But the feedback went ignored, and the Guardian Cub launched. And you know what happened?

Pretty much nothing.

No need to take it all so seriously

I was angry for a few weeks, but nothing whatsoever changed in my experience of the game, so eventually I forgot all about the Cub.

And this encapsulates almost every experience I’ve ever had with MMO monetization. I have a knee-jerk negative reaction, but then it fails to significantly impact me, and I move on with my life.

And after so many years of this, I’m finally starting to realize how little all of this matters. I’m no longer concerning myself with lockboxes or “pay to win.” And I’m enjoying games so much more as a result.

It’s not just about monetization schemes, either. MMOs have a great way of putting everything in perspective. Spend a few days wrestling with an uncooperative MMO server, and suddenly a few animation hiccups in Mass Effect: Andromeda don’t seem like such a big deal.

That’s not to say that you can’t criticize things. I’m a firm believer in the value of constructive criticism, and I can still be quite vocal when I have a problem with something in a game.

But it’s important to keep it all in perspective. Ask yourself how much something is really affecting you, and don’t let small things ruin your fun. There’s so much negativity in the community, and it’s so easy to get lost to cynicism, but really, there’s never been a better time to be a gamer than right now. We have so much to be grateful for. Don’t let the little things rob you of the joy of what’s out there.

* * *

What about you? How has playing MMOs changed your attitude toward gaming as a hobby?


Lockboxes Are Annoying, But We Should Move On

Few issues in the MMO community stir up strong feelings the way lockboxes do. These virtual gambling devices stir up a level of hatred and vitriol unmatched by any other issue in the MMO world. And yet, they continue to propagate unchecked through our virtual worlds, despite the best efforts of the community.

A advertisement for a lockbox in Guild Wars 2

If I may play Devil’s advocate here for a moment, I think the time may have come for us to take a step back and examine whether all the furor over lockboxes is really productive. It’s clear that lockboxes are here to stay, so perhaps it’s time for us to learn how to live with them.

But First…

Before I get into the meat of my argument, I want to make a few things clear off the bat.

First, on terminology: Lockboxes have become such a contentious topic that even the word can generate no end of controversy. Many games avoid the name altogether and will vehemently argue that what they’re selling is not lockboxes.

For the purposes of this discussion, though, I am defining lockboxes as any pack of randomized items that is sold for real money.

Secondly, I want to be clear that I am not a fan of lockboxes. I’m against randomized rewards in general, and making me cough up real cash for the privilege of never seeing the item I want actually drop doesn’t endear me to the idea.

The only game where I buy lockboxes is The Secret World, and that’s mainly because I’m a lifetime subscriber and can therefore purchase them with my complimentary stipend of cash shop currency. I’m not actually spending money on them.

A toga outfit acquired from lockboxes in The Secret World

In general, I would prefer MMOs remain lockbox-free. I’m in favor of micro-transactions as a business model, but I’d rather simply pay directly for the item I want. I don’t enjoy gambling.

However, I have also come to accept that lockboxes are part of the reality of online gaming these days.

Reclaiming Perspective

I agree that lockboxes are bad, but I don’t agree with the extreme view many gamers have taken of them. I think it’s time for people to step back, take a breath, and regain some perspective.

I often hear people say that lockboxes destroy games. Does no one else see this as absurdly melodramatic? I certainly don’t think it’s true.

It can be a little irritating to see some gorgeous mount or awesome costume that you’ll never get unless you dump a small fortune into gambling boxes, but how much impact is that having on your moment to moment gameplay, really?

Even in the most obnoxiously lockbox-focused games I’ve played (looking at you, Cryptic), the fact is I could still play and enjoy the games perfectly fine without dropping any money on lockboxes.

A game that is worth playing without lockboxes will still be worth playing with them. If you’ve quit a game because it added lockboxes, I suspect you were already burnt out on the game anyway and simply needed an excuse to pull the trigger.

An advertisement for a lockbox in Star Trek: Online

A lot of people express concern for gambling’s potential for addiction. Frankly, the ethics of gambling are probably a bit beyond the scope of an article such as this, and I don’t think there are any easy answers, but for my part I’m inclined to err on the side of personal responsibility here. Gambling boxes do have some strong psychological hooks, but ultimately you’re still in control of your actions.

There’s also the concern of children being exposed to gambling practices, and I do agree that kids shouldn’t be gambling with real money in games, but that’s an issue for parents, not developers or publishers. It is a parent’s responsibility to monitor and regulate their child’s online activities.

Accepting Reality

Blunt talk time: In the battle against lockboxes, it has become abundantly clear that their detractors have lost.

Lockboxes simply wouldn’t be as widespread as they are if they didn’t make good business sense. Whatever negative publicity created by the introduction of lockboxes is clearly offset by the revenue they generate.

I often see a perception that lockboxes — and all micro-transactions, but especially lockboxes — are something that only benefits developers in the short term, that makes a lot of money upfront by taking advantage of gullible players before ultimately poisoning a game in the long term. This clearly isn’t the case, though.

Many games have continued to have long and prosperous lives after the introduction of lockboxes. Again to use Cryptic’s games as an example, Star Trek: Online and Neverwinter are continuing to chug along just fine, with regular and meaty updates, despite absolutely drowning in lockboxes.

The Underdark in Neverwinter

Similarly, Guild Wars 2 has had lockboxes since launch and has continued to enjoy a respectable level of success. Star Wars: The Old Republic is another game that could serve as the poster child for excessive use of lockboxes, and it’s doing quite well for itself after many years of the practice. The list just goes on and on.

And the sound and fury over lockboxes in the community simply isn’t making a difference. If you oppose lockboxes, I certainly sympathize with your perspective, but you have to understand that your disapproving forum posts and blog comments simply don’t matter to a developer’s bottom line. The best thing you can do is simply not buy lockboxes, because that’s the language they best understand, but even then you may have to accept that lockboxes are probably here to stay.

Redirecting Our Efforts

That’s not to say that criticism is worthless, or that we should just roll over and let developers and publishers do whatever they want without saying a word. But we need to be realistic, and reasonable.

Lockboxes probably aren’t going anywhere, but not all lockboxes are created equal. Some are relatively harmless, but others are truly obnoxious. It would be good if, instead of flatly rejecting lockboxes as a concept, we encouraged developers to find more player-friendly ways of implementing them.

Part of the reason I feel okay buying lockboxes in The Secret World is that there are many measures in place to prevent their random nature from becoming too punitive. All of the drops can be traded, so you can swap something you don’t want for something you do or simply farm pax and buy what you want at auction. TSW’s lockboxes also drop a currency called Lucky Coins that can (eventually) be spent to buy lockbox items from a vendor.

This makes it much easier to get what you want from lockboxes without spending an arm and a leg playing slots, and it allows both players and developers to benefit. It would be great to see all lockboxes take a similar strategy.

A mount acquired from a lockbox in Star Wars: The Old Republic

TSW also often offers ways to earn lockboxes through gameplay, from holiday quests or the like, which offers up another way to get the item(s) you’re after without spending yourself into bankruptcy. Overwatch does something similar with its loot crates, allowing you to earn them through normal gameplay as well as purchase them with cash. I think if this practice were more widespread the general opinion of lockboxes would improve significantly.

I also don’t think we should give up the fight to keep direct purchases part of MMO business models. Something I find frustrating about SW:TOR’s lockbox obsession is not so much the boxes themselves but the fact that almost nothing good ever gets added to the cash shop for direct sale. I never have anything to spend my subscriber Cartel Coin stipend on. Those of who us who don’t want to gamble should still have options.

And let’s stop demonizing developers for adding lockboxes to games. They’re not monsters conspiring in a dark room to bleed players dry (well, most of them aren’t, anyway). They’re just trying to turn a profit and earn a living, like everyone else in our capitalist society. I certainly don’t think insulting and denigrating them is going to make them more likely to listen to your arguments against lockboxes.

Beyond all that, there are frankly much bigger issues facing the MMO world than lockboxes. I can only imagine what kind of positive changes could be made if half the passion directed against lockboxes was instead put toward combating the toxicity within the community…

R-E-L-A-X

In a perfect world, MMORPGs wouldn’t need to have lockboxes, but that isn’t the world we live in. There are a lot of valid criticisms to be made of the concept, but I think the conversation has metastasized into something that is no longer helpful or productive. It would be in everyone’s best interest to take a step back, calm down, and recognize that while lockboxes can be annoying, they’re not the death of the genre.


What is a ‘Pay To Win’ Cash Shop in MMOs?

This article was originally posted March 19, 2016. It has been recently updated.

Like a lot of MMO players, I’ve been sinking a lot of my free time into Black Desert Online. I’ve been sinking in my not-so-free time too, but I suppose that’s the curse of a good game. One of my two biggest concerns with Black Desert was the possibility of a pay to win cash shop. Korean MMORPGs are especially known for cash shops where paying real money is the only path to the top. In a lot of these MMORPGs, money advantages provide a completely insurmountable level of power.

Black Desert has launched with what most do not consider a pay to win model. However, one item in particular has raised some serious concerns. The Treant Camouflage Set, more commonly referred to as the ‘ghillie suit’. Essentially it provides camouflage, enough so that colorblind folk are unable to even discern threats from within forest environment. The suit will additionally hide all identifying information about it’s wearer (name, guild, health) until its wearer attacks. After engaging in combat, only the wearer’s health becomes visible.

text of the treant camolage set

Thus, the advantages of the suit are that it allows gankers first strike against unwitting players and that no name in combat prevents teammates from calling out targets. And it’s only available by paying almost $30 USD in the cash shop. It’s enough of a hot button topic that over 1,500 players have voted in the official forums to the tune of 73% supporting a rework or nerf.

The reason I’m calling attention to this specifically is not because I’m addicted to Black Desert Online and can’t stop thinking about it. The reason is because I feel it’s a perfect spring board for asking what is ‘pay to win’. Allowing players access to top tier gear with only real money is clearly pay to win. Offering costume dyes with no stat benefits is clearly not pay to win. But the ghillie suit poses an interesting dividing line.

In other versions of the game in the world, flares are used to negate the suit’s benefit. In the US/EU version, these flares are severely limited since they cannot be crafted. But does using a flare when grinding by oneself not seem tedious? To that I would say that in non-forest areas, especially and with a small group or 1v1 combat, the suit doesn’t do much and limits the necessity of flares. Also on the side of a ‘balanced cash shop’, wearing it provides no statistical combat advantages. However, it clearly does have situational advantages that currently cannot be countered without significantly extra effort. The biggest boon to wearing the suit is to hide one’s name in large battles. Calling targets gets to be impractical with all the chaos. But using a flare in this case makes perfect sense as it’s a low cost for a large, area impact. And guilds will need to spend resources in war in more ways than just this.

ghillie suit in black desert online from item mall

The ghillie suit is certainly advantageous to own, but so are other items in Black Desert’s cash shop. For instance, paid costumes provide a +10% EXP boost when wearing a full set. It doesn’t affect max power and so doesn’t get called out as much. But it’s still a minor boost players can buy. So I think the stage is set for Black Desert to allow players to buy these small advantages. I would not classify the small advantages as pay to win. But when something like the ghillie suit doesn’t offer any balanced counterplay, there is an issue. Simply adding easy access to flares or showing the name while in combat will bring it back below the ‘pay to win’ line. And a fine line it is. Good cash shops items must offer non paying players the ability to counter paid items in a reasonable manner.

When you have egregious offenders of cash shop usage such as ArcheAge and saints of fairness such as Guild Wars 2, it is exciting as a blogger to see something like Black Desert Online simply do things differently. For those unaware, ArcheAge essentially allows players to increase their power relative to real money purchases, with no cap. In effect, real money is all that becomes relevant. It’s a very poor system due to the non-limiting factor. Therefore, cash shop items must have a cap on their power to provide a fair experience.

Selling convenience has also become a staple of MMORPG cash shops. And convenience is great to sell – as long as it doesn’t feel like a feature was removed and put behind a paywall. If a game like Black Desert, where there is no fast travel, put autorun behind a paywall, that would be disastrous. If a game like Guild Wars 2 allowed paid players to access the auction house remotely instead of at physical locations, not many would balk. Convenience in MMOs should be sold as additions to a base, working system that provides a quality experience regardless of money spent.

free vs paid player example of pay to win mmorpg

Superman illustrates what happens when cash shops go pay to win

This leaves me with three qualifications MMORPGs providing a balanced, non-pay-to-win cash shop:

  1. Players must have a viable, free alternative to any cash shop item, which does not place an unreasonable or impossible burden on said free player, in order to compete with the cash shop player.
  2. Cash shop items cannot be excessively or infinitely scalable in usage.
  3. Convenience items must only allow players a ‘luxurious level’ of convenience and not a ‘fair standard of living’ convenience. Quite simply, a player should not have to pay real money for a feature that they should reasonably expect to find in a given game.

Pay to win is hard to define, and we’re going to see more and more MMOs and MMORPGs testing players’ limits. There’s a fine balance to be had between keeping free players happy and finding paid players something they’ll want to buy. Many of us have different ideas on this topic, but for me any game that can meet those three points above is a game I’m happy to consider.