Friday, February 17, 2012

Coming soon to a MMO near you: gambling via treasure boxes

This isn't exactly a rant, but this post is about a trend I'm not too happy about. Apologies to regular readers for the shift from my usual tone.

Way back in December Star Trek Online experimented with a lottery system where players could buy red gift boxes from the item shop, and each box had a really small chance of containing a very nice star ship. Apparently some players spent excessive amounts of money trying to get the ship, and as a result Cryptic made gobs of money while the boxes were active. The trial was such a success that this month Cryptic added a similar option permanently, in the form of Cardassian Lock Boxes. These drop in game, but can only be opened using keys that to all intents are impossible to obtain outside of the STO item shop (Tipa has a great and more detailed write up on all this). Reactions to this move were less than than enthused. Even the normally cheerful Blue Kae got a bit upset about it (though he did later soften his stance on the issue).

Apparently Cryptic wasn't the only one paying attention in December. Recently Turbine announced that pretty much the exact same system is coming to Lord of the Rings Online. The keys will be a bit easier to come by in game (compared to STO), but the basic mechanic where you'll find a locked box you likely can't open without hitting the cash shop is essentially the same. Paragon Studios also announced that "super packs" with random items are going on sale in the item shop of City of Heroes Online. It seems that letting players gamble away vast sums of real world cash in an online lottery for rare items is simply too profitable for Turbine and Paragon to pass up. This galls me particularly because these are two studios I would have pointed to as examples of "not evil" until now.

I can't comment in much depth on the moves in STO and CoH because I don't play those games currently. However I'm still active in LoTRO and feel more qualified to editorialize about it. I hate to be a Negative Nancy, but I feel like I keep waiting for Turbine to up their game when it comes to LoTRO. Turbine keeps bragging about how much money they have been making since LoTRO went free to play, and yet the pace of new content really hasn't changed at all from what we were seeing in the post Mines of Moria sub-based era. The Rise of Isengaurd was great, but I was done with it around a month after it went live. Since then Turbine has started selling armor in their item shop that's better than what can be crafted at similar levels, and now is pushing forward a cash shop driven lottery system. This is where all that money they are raking in from the FtP conversion is going? Are these really the same guys that gave us more free content than any MMO I've ever played in the first year after LoTRO launched in 2007?

More broadly, how long will it be before similar systems spread to other high profile FtP MMOs like Dungeons and Dragons Online, Everquest II, and Age of Conan? I fully realize that these treasure box systems are optional. You don't have to buy keys to open boxes you find or buy boxes from item shops. You can still play and prosper without using the boxes in the games they've been implemented in so far. However the trend really disturbs me. It seems more like the baldfaced greed I expect from a facebook game developer than something I expect in a full featured MMO.

[An aside: Syp was kind enough to allow me to participate in a recent retrospective on Phantasy Star Online. If you aren't a regular reader of the excellent MMO news site Massively, you can find the article here]

[Edit: Blue Kae came by and clarified the situation with Cardassian lock boxes (see comments, thanks man!). They will only be available until late March, though boxes of some sort will likely be available from here on out.]


  1. Back when I played Jade Dynasty some years ago (3 years maybe?) they introduced similar similar lottry boxes, which potentially could contain some xclusive mounts and a few other things - but most of the time it was just crap items.

    Shortly after that there were multiple examples in the forums of people who had spent dollar amounts in 3 digit range to try to get one of these items - and failed.

    Leaving some things to chance or a bit of a gamble is fine I think - if it is restricted to in-game currency, lottery tickets or whatever. After all, this is pretty much what random loot drops are anyway.

    But if it directly or almost directly ties in with real money purchases then a line is crossed and the games start to go down a path that may change the perception of these games.

    I am not too surprised that Cryptic may have gone this path with their current owner, but for companies like Paragon Studios and Turbine I would not have expected this to happen soon.

  2. I pretty much completely agree with you. It's one thing to have boxes that drop in game. For example I have no problem with Lothlorian Gift boxes in LoTRO. However, forcing players to spend real money to open the boxes or only offering them in the item shop is another matter.

  3. One minor correction: the Cardassian lock boxes aren't permanent but are only running during the current FE series which ends in late March. The keys though are a permanent addition to the store, which means that other types of lock boxes will appear in the future.

    In a perfect world (which is punny considering who owns Cryptic), I'd rather not see all of the accelerator consumables and lottery stuff in stores. In reality though it's easier and more profitable to add a deed accelerator to the store than it is to design out some of the grind in LotRO kill deeds. Or XP/commendation boosts in STO.

    I whole heartedly agree with you that I'm ready to see Turbine put their money where their mouth is. When a developer trumpets how much their profits have expanded but I see zero investment back into the game, I get a little upset. That's one of the reasons why my attitude softened a bit regarding Cryptic's recent lottery items. They've indicated in interviews that they'll be heavily reinvesting in their game instead of buying money hats. We'll see what actually happens though.

  4. Thanks for the correction. To me the implication is that that new ships will be rolled out with new sets of boxes over time. In other words, if you want all the rare gambler's ships, you'll need to spend a few hundred dollars every three months or so. I hope that I'm mistaken.

  5. I definitely think we'll see more new ships made available exclusively through lottery boxes, but not all ships. To date there've been two and neither one belonged to the two player factions. I could easily see Cryptic releasing a Borg or some other type of ship through the gambling mechanic, but not a Federation or Klingon ship.

    The player base would go completely nuclear. Ships are one of (if not the) center piece of the game. Doing this would destroy Cryptic's current rationalization behind lock boxes, which is that CBS will only approve non-canon things like allowing Federation Captains to fly a Jem'Hadar ship is they are kept extremely rare.

    So I expect that we'll continue to see new ships in the C-Store as account-wide unlocks for between 800 and 1600 points each. We'll also see more lottery ships, but much less often and always as something that wouldn't fit as part of the regular game.

  6. As much as I hate the lottery/gamble aspects of the system, I see it as little different than low-rate high-demand drops in a sub game. The costs are simply hidden under the sub and are more about time than money.

    Still, this is definitely a bad trend, but I suspect we'll see more of it.

  7. This stuff makes me want to shake my head, my fist, a dev.... This kind of thing is so gross to me. It's such a naked attempt to fleece the players.

  8. WoW, I got a bit behind on my comments...

    @Blue Kae: if it's restricted to non-cannon ships, than it's not quite as bad as I thought.

    @Tesh: if it makes as much money for Turbine and Paragon as it did for Cryptic, count on it.

    @Anjin: I think that's what bugs me about it. It's just a little too baldfaced.