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The Luck and Loss Behind Loot Boxes

The trend of using loot boxes in F2P or monetized games has grown lately, but is this the lesser of the F2P evils or just the same song and dance as before?

Josh Bycer, Blogger

December 15, 2016

5 Min Read

In our continued look at F2P mechanics and design, we turn to the use of loot boxes. F2P design has changed over the years, as monetization tactics like pay or wait have fallen by the wayside, but are loot boxes any better for the consumer?

loot boxes

Orcs Must Die Unchained

Spin the Box:

Loot boxes are a form of slot machine-like play. The box itself can be different things depending on the lore of the game. The key point is that the box will produce a random item when opened. The possible items vary depending on the game in question. Some games will give you an idea of what's in there; others could have a random rare item.

Boxes will come in different types; you can bet there will be limited-time boxes or holiday-themed ones. The idea is that the player is going to pay for some part of this deal: Either the box itself, or some kind of key to open it.

What the loot box is designed for is to give the player a chance at getting something random, as opposed to paying for a specific item. Loot boxes or their keys are typically cheaper than just buying the item in question, which is the point. The design is to convince the player to spin the wheel on the chance that they'll get something great.

loot boxes

Payday 2

Loot boxes provide a random chance to get something, usually at a small cost

Loot boxes are more appealing as microtransactions for the player instead of energy mechanics, because the player is always going to get something in return. With that said, this does raise some major concerns.

Slot-Machine Progression:

Depending on the game in question, loot boxes can contain everything from cosmetic options to game-changing abilities. In Marvel Puzzle Quest, the only ways to upgrade your characters were to get lucky with the loot box or spend premium currency. With Orcs Must Die Unchained, improving your traps comes down to getting "trap experience" from the loot boxes before being able to upgrade them.

One of the good things about Overwatch is the fact that the loot boxes only contain cosmetic options, but there is the touchy subject of having to buy a game with loot box options.

While cosmetic features aren't as despised, games that base their progression on loot boxes walk a very fine line. The problem is that your enjoyment of a game can vary greatly depending on what you get. Getting a super rare drop from a loot box can give you a leg up in some games, or could be sold for a lot of money.

loot boxes

Orcs Must Die Unchained

Tying progression to loot boxes can create an imbalanced progression curve

In my time spent with Minion Masters, getting a lucky legendary card was enough to help propel me up the ranked matchmaking. With that said, I still lost to people with more legendaries and higher quality characters than me.

As we've talked about before, CS:GO has had a huge gambling and skin-economy system for some time. The beauty of the loot boxes for designers is the fact that they are very much like slot machines.

Even though the boxes can pump out rare items, their rate is entirely controlled by the developers.

Someone can earn a lot of money or make amazing progress from these items, but they will be rare to those getting common items. From a developer standpoint, this also means that someone will overall spend more money on their game with loot boxes.

The reason is that instead of spending a higher cost one time to get what they want, they will spend multiple smaller costs to keep opening up loot boxes. This once again feeds off of the addictive qualities of slot machines, and raises the subject of gambling.

Just like with other F2P concepts, you're not going to be required to get lucky with loot boxes at the start, but their importance will grow over time. With abstracted games, skill can only take you so far; you will need high level or high quality loot to keep going. And that means spending a lot of money or time hoping for that rare drop.

Lucky 7's:

Loot box design is very much in vogue today for F2P and retail titles.  I'm okay with them when it comes to just cosmetics, but adding progression to them is a system meant to drive gambling. As we've seen with F2P titles, there is big money in getting lucky from loot boxes, but most of that is for the developer.

loot boxes

Overwatch (USGamer)

Holiday or limited-time loot boxes are another popular option for developers

With the decline of pay or wait systems, it's hard to say at this time if loot boxes will decline at some point in favor of something else.

There has been news out of China that they are now forcing developers to reveal loot box chances. Whether or not that means the beginning of the end for the mechanic remains to be seen. For me, I've already proven my unlucky-ness in Vegas; I don't need any more abstracted slot machines in my life.

What do you think of loot boxes? And are there examples of where you're okay with spending money on them?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to the Game-Wisdom Patreon campaign. Your donations can help keep things going and allow me to produce more great content. Follow me on Twitter @GWBycer, and you can find daily video content on the Game-Wisdom YouTube channel.

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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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