The Troubling Psychology of Pay-to-Loot Systems

In 2017, talk about MMO reward and monetization models, their psychology and legal issues, has noticeably gone up. In January I already picked up the topic after China forced publishers to reveal drop rates of lockboxes and Massively Overpowered’s Andrew Ross published an insanely interesting article on possible legal issues a system built around lockboxes might run into.

Pay-to-loot is the new pay-to-win

A little under two weeks ago another article added new layers to the topic. IGN’s Nathan Lawrence talked to two video game psychologists about the tricks and impact of the increasingly popular pay-to-loot microtransaction trend. “Pay-to-loot” is the term they use to describe a system that focuses on lockboxes. You’re no longer paying to win directly, but for a chance to potentially land a big reward.

The constant exposure to the pay-to-loot system is what makes it so effective.

The conclusion in the article is devastating. Randomised systems are those that create the most addiction. Hence lockboxes cleverly exploit human nature to get and keep players spending money. The psychologists argue for more transparency from devs, but as long as the buck is rolling probably to no avail. Neverwinter itself for example doesn’t allow publishing drop rates on their platforms. The official reasoning is that it’s unverified data and only causes hostility, but you can bet a lot of this restriction has to do with their monetization strategy. Fixed rewards are simply not as effective in terms of getting people to do something, buying lockboxes for example. The game is clearly actively working against undermining their precious randomness.

I think at some stage, and this, I’m really putting myself out by saying that you’re going to end up spending some money, either great or small.

Gambling and minors

This adds grist to the mills of those that think lockboxes are gambling, and law should treat them as such. Actually the article compares the system to a poker machine-like experience, and questions whether it’s appropriate for minors. Nonetheless more and more games are adopting the system that originates from smartphone and tablet apps.

In a perfect world, the game developers have an age checker, and when kids [are playing] – the persons not of adult [gambling] age – the loot system becomes structured, expected, as opposed to randomised.

I think it’s an important discussion whether kids should be exposed to something that behavioural science classifies as an addictive system. But in my opinion it also generally discredits publishers and devs that bank on lockboxes as their main source of income.

Abusing over quality?

Games need money, we all know that. But I think it’s a pretty troubling trend that companies do not want to sell quality. Instead they try to generate revenue with exploitative mind-games. Isn’t it an uncomfortable thought that the game sort of abuses you when you play it? The devs become your drug dealer and you no longer log in to have fun, but to get high. And that’s really a shame because designing games is creative, even an art form sometimes. I gladly refer to Jane McGonigal, who wrote excellent books on why and how games can have a significant positive impact. This shouldn’t totally get lost in the hunt for revenue.

A necessary evil?

Some probably argue that it’s a necessary evil to keep the show running. But what if it actually becomes the show? Can you really be sure that players log in because they appreciate the creative work and content of an update, or just because the game’s pay-to-loot system has made them its slaves?

Granted, that’s a bit drastic and I certainly do believe that quality is still a key factor of sales. Also players to some degree can still inform themselves and assess where it makes sense to spend money. But pay-to-loot systems indicate publishers are not afraid to use perfidious methods to make their product work. Maybe that’s not as surprising to some, business is business after all, but I think it’s fair to make people aware of how games, and Neverwinter, try to get into their customers’ wallets.

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So you’re resistent, eh?

I also want to urge you to make no mistake. You might think you’re not affected by the subtle nature of lockboxes, but the unconscious mind is a strong thing. Nobody likes being controlled by forces outside their power, hence we try to find reasons why this stuff can’t happen to us. But the topic is widely discussed across many games and message platforms for a reason (also on Arcgames). The article seem to raise very valid points that can’t easily be dispatched or discredited. So while you might think you’ve never bought something in Neverwinter that you didn’t want to, chances are it’s quite the opposite.


What do you think about pay-to-loot and it’s addictive nature? Is it acceptable or should you boycott? Share your thoughts in the comments below or visit the corresponding thread on our message board.

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