One only has to look at any recent statement by a big gaming executive to see that the modern gaming industry is exploring any and all possible means of wringing more money out of consumers. Pushing microtransactions even in full-priced games, charging used game buyers for online access, and turning more and more things into paid DLC—all of these moves have created a lot of discussion and controversy in the gaming community.
There's another revenue-creating model that we're not discussing very much yet, but that I believe is poised to become mainstream in the near future: the introduction of gambling elements to in-game purchases. To be clear, I'm not talking about simulated gambling, where players use in-game currency to play casino games. I'm talking about paying actual currency for a chance to obtain a desired virtual item.
Gambling in games, particularly MMOs and social games, is currently more prevalent in Asia than in North America. It's become so commonplace in Japan that the government has stepped in to ban one of the more extreme forms of gambling for virtual items. That practice, called “complete gacha,” involved buying random in-game items via microtransactions. If players were able to collect particular sets of these mystery items, they'd be able to trade in those sets for an even-more-desirable item. It's not unlike playing the Monopoly game at McDonald's, except you're buying each game ticket instead of receiving it for free along with your Big Mac, and the game company isn't giving you information about the chance of collecting Park Place. Complete gacha was banned in Japan after a number of high-profile cases of young people racking up gigantic bills while attempting to collect item sets.
We haven't seen things like complete gacha in North America yet, but companies here have increasingly been experimenting with “mystery boxes,” usually found in MMOs and free-to-play games. These boxes tend to drop during normal gameplay, but can't be unlocked without a key, which must be purchased from a game's cash shop. Their contents are random, so the average mystery box contains ordinary items, but there's a chance for players to receive rare or valuable items from the box. Although the player is guaranteed some sort of item for opening the box, players who purchase mystery box keys are essentially gambling on the chance to obtain the rare item that they actually desire.
These boxes have been making their way into core games that have adopted a free-to-play or buy-to-play (buy the box, but play online for free) revenue model. Team Fortress 2 has mystery boxes in the form of Mann Co. Supply Crates, for example. Supply Crates drop cosmetic items like weapon and hat skins, but also have approximately a 1% chance to drop a rare hat that boasts special particle effects. As the ordinary items from these crates are usually available via other means while the rare hats are not, there's a definite sense that gambling on the chance to receive a rare drop is a primary reason for purchasing a Supply Crate key.
Why should gamers, particularly those who don't tend to be involved in the free-to-play market, care about the mystery box trend? One simply has to look at the now-ubiquitous DLC trend and how in-game microtransactions have moved from that market into core games like Dead Space 3 to see that companies are becoming increasingly comfortable with adding new ways to generate revenue into even full-price games. It's probably only a matter of time before mystery boxes and their ilk start showing up regularly in shooters and other core games.
As with all optional purchases, mystery boxes and other incentives to make gambling-style purchases can certainly be ignored. However, like the microtransactions in social games, these items have an effect both on the people who purchase them and those who don't. Players who are sucked into spending lots of money gambling for rare mystery box items suffer financially, and no player has a guarantee of obtaining those items at a reasonable price. Just as regular microtransactions take items that were previously available as bonuses for skilled players and put them behind a cash purchase, mystery boxes take those same items and make them unavailable even as direct purchases.
Mystery boxes may be legal, (though they might not stand up in court in all countries—particularly when available in games rated for children or teens) but they are certainly on shaky ethical ground. This is particularly true because unlike regulated lotteries or raffles, companies don't publish the chances of obtaining any particular mystery box item. Combine that with the fact that some companies place items that are available for a limited time as rare mystery box items, and vulnerable groups of people are at risk for binge spending on mystery box keys. In fact, by placing an item in a mystery box rather than making it available for direct purchase, companies are making a conscious choice to seek out a smaller number of binge spenders instead of a larger number of small direct purchasers.
I'm not optimistic that those of us who find mystery boxes and other kinds of real-money gambling distasteful can do much about their proliferation in games. There will unfortunately always be a small number of people who fall for these schemes, and apparently companies are happy to milk those people for all they're worth. At the very least, we as individual gamers can educate ourselves, watch out for gambling-style schemes in games, and spend our pocket money on more worthwhile things (like new games!) rather than gambling for a chance at a shiny virtual item.
Date: April 11, 2013