If you’re talking free-2-play games you can’t dodge the topic of lockboxes. Hated by players the developers often refer to them as necessary evil. Neverwinter of course also uses a monetization strategy that highly depends on them. The devs typically say the loot is not mandatory for anything in the game. The amount of progression you get from lockboxes however is so big that you can hardly work around them. And because a limited amount of lockbox keys are included in the VIP package, it essentially makes a subscription mandatory for ambitious players.
But this is not a discussion about whether Neverwinter is truly free-2-play. Instead I want to talk about why lockboxes as focal point of a monetization strategy might become risky going forward. As more and more major titles like Elder Scrolls Online or Star Wars are switching to them, the opposition is growing. China already forces publishers to reveal drop rates and yesterday Massively Overpowered’s Andrew Ross published an insanely interesting article on possible legal issues the system might run into. Could companies be sued over their use of lockboxes and illegal gambling?
Lockboxes and Illegal Gambling
By all means, go read the entire article, it’s worth it. Especially since there’s not really a good summary, other than “it’s complicated”. Nonetheless I’m going to try to figure out how this all relates to Neverwinter’s lockbox system.
Based on the above definition, I think in terms of Neverwinter it’s safe that we have to focus on 1) and 3). Lockboxes are absolutely random and there is no skill involved at all. For 1) just being able to farm Astral Diamonds by playing the game and trade them for ZEN doesn’t help. If the community opens lockboxes, somebody has to pay for the keys. So every opened one brings revenue, they are not obtainable for free. Cryptic and PWE could probably challenge that they offer limited ZEN through the quests in the ARC client, but that’s only true for PC and not a direct gameplay activity. So it seems the entry fee is given as well. That leaves only one question to answer: Do the items that drop have value?
Apparently it’s not enough for a company to cover the “value part” in their ToS or EULA. Only because they state that virtual items do not belong to the player, have no value and cannot be sold, doesn’t mean that’s legally true. If there’s a secondary market and players can sell or trade items, it implies value. What seems to be working in favor of the game however is the fact that there is no cash-out feature. Nonetheless you can’t reliably rule out that Neverwinter’s lockboxes might violate laws. It’s for sure one of the titles that more aggressively tries to use gambling-like mechanics to bait players into spending cash.
Is Neverwinter in Trouble?
The article mentions two Blizzard games that feature lockboxes, yet “should be immune” to being sued. Hearthstone and Overwatch both have the ability to earn the boxes via ingame activity and the contents cannot be traded. As I’ve lined out, this does not apply to Neverwinter. It still doesn’t mean Cryptic and PWE are in trouble as the article doesn’t create the impression that something is really imminent. The sheer possibility however that something could happen should already be alarming enough to developers and publishers. Legally it’s a twilight zone that’s largely untested.
So at some point lockboxes might not only be unpopular, but actually illegal. And a game that so heavily depends on lockboxes might not want to get caught by surprise by an unfavorable court ruling.
Do think courts have to deal with lockboxes and gaming in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments below or visit the corresponding thread on our message board!
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