The monetization features in top grossing F2P games are not coincidentally based on gambling. These luck-based mechanics, carefully designed and tested, are usually visualized with a representation of a familiar physical object. Sometimes this is a game of chance, like a slot machine, roulette wheel, or spinner. Other times it is something more mysterious, like a treasure chest or other type of loot box. Regardless of their appearance, the goal of these depictions is almost always to manipulate the perception of win rates for these mechanics, either through obfuscation or misrepresentation.
What are you buying?
Loot boxes sound ridiculous on paper. “Spend money for a small chance to get something you want” isn’t a great sales pitch, but a lot of work is done making these purchases attractive enough to be profitable.
Exclusivity, or at least the feeling of it, is the first key to success. Some games with loot box mechanics have free randomized item drops, meaning a player could obtain any item in the game for free. Sometimes there is an in-game store, where any item can be purchased with in-game or real currency. When the odds of getting a specific item for free are so low it’s not even seen as a viable option, or when the price difference is so significant, loot boxes can appear reasonable in comparison.
The opening of a loot box is a carefully designed experience, made to be as addictive and enticing as possible. They use special animations, sound effects, and music fanfares to create an experience with physical and psychological weight that makes even a bad drop feel good. One common strategy is to draw out the excitement of the opening experience with multiple levels of reveals and anticipation, all accompanied by satisfying sounds and visuals:
- When the loot box is opening, the light on top of it reveals the rarity level of the best item drop in the box.
- When the items fly into the air, their colors reveal the rarity level of the rest of the items in the box.
- When the items land, their final identities are revealed.
You can see variations of this in other loot box experiences: Clash Royale’s chests require the player to tap through to reveal each card drop one at a time while at the same time briefly revealing the card’s rarity a split second before revealing the identity to build excitement. Dota 2’s treasure sequence shows the player all possible items, then cruelly eliminates them one by one, keeping a rare treasure in the mix until the very end to keep the player engaged.
These efforts exist to disguise the reality that the developer is hiding not only the contents of these purchases, but the rules that govern the contents too. It’s uncommon for games to reveal the exact probabilities for obtaining specific items from loot boxes, and this is by design: not revealing the odds allows them to be changed at any time for any reason. This creates tempting opportunities for manipulation, such as guaranteeing first-time buyers a cosmetic item for a character they use frequently. Giving new buyers a quick win anchors the value of this purchase highly in their minds, and subsequent purchases are more likely to be made chasing after this initial gambling high.
New laws, such as one put into effect in China last year, can require loot box odds to be disclosed, but publishers will find ways around them to ensure the mechanics that drive these purchases remain black boxes.
Your Rules Don’t Apply Here
Developers represent gambling-based monetization features with physical objects to keep them engaging while hiding their inner workings. To manipulate potential buyers further, these representations can be chosen to not only obscure their mechanics, but to intentionally mislead the player into believing the odds are more favorable than they really are. Casual free-to-play games on Facebook and mobile have done this for years with minigames such as slot machines, spinners, and pachinko-style peg games. These games existed first in physical form, and as physical objects they are governed by basic rules of probability: Wheel of Fortune’s wheel has 24 spaces, making the odds of hitting one of them easy to calculate. Physical slot machine odds can be calculated based on the number of symbols and reels. And the results of beads dropping down a Galton Board is a bell curve:
Compare this to a similar virtual minigame, such as Slark’s Riptide Rumble from Dota 2’s International Battle Pass last year:
The “RELIC” prize option in the center is the best reward, which can only be won in ten of the thousands of plays per week. But the game’s appearance indicates much higher and fairer odds by giving this prize equal physical space to the other six results. The results of this game are decided as soon as the player drops the marble; everything after that is just theatrics.
Another example of misleading odds in another Dota 2 minigame is “Rylai’s Battle Blessing”, a Wheel of Fortune-style spinner. If it existed as a fair physical game, a player would have a 1 in 60 chance of winning the best prize, an Arcana-quality item. But the odds released by the game’s Chinese distributor reveal a 1 in 1000 chance. There is no way to know whether those odds are consistent across all regions.
Even when a luck-based mechanic isn’t visualized as a physical object, its appearance can still be used to subtly mislead the player into a false understanding of its odds. Dota Plus’s Relics system contains a gambling mechanic in which a player spends earnable in-game currency on stat-tracking items. The player can obtain 14 relics in total per hero – four rares and ten commons.
When buying a random relic, the animation indicates that relics are lighting up at random, and the one that it stops on will be the prize. An animation like this is trying to make the player feel that the relic is being randomly selected with fair odds based on the number of total relics. The animation supports this assumption by highlighting relics at a frequency that appears random, communicating that rare relics have a 4 in 14 chance of being picked – a probability of 28.6%.
But according to a community survey, the real odds are closer to 3.3% based on around 1500 reported attempts. This means that only 1-2 rare relics should light up to make the odds suggested by the animation match the actual chances.
So What Now?
If you play games that use misleading mechanics like this, the best thing you can do is educate yourself about the potential odds of any purchase before getting hooked on them. There’s a reason both free-to-play games and drug dealers often give a free taste of their wares before making you pay for them – the experience is designed to be addictive. Communities built around these games should coordinate ways to aggregate their experiences to develop a sense of the real odds involved in purchases, and they need to do this regularly as developers can change those odds on a whim.
Game designers are often restricted by publishers to creating these mechanics in a purely data-driven way. Unfortunately, their data often proves that dishonesty and manipulation lead to higher profits, but if the industry does not regulate itself here then governments are likely to step in and do it for them.
Here are a few examples of ways that developers can make in-app purchases more consumer-friendly:
Clear Descriptions of Contents
Clash Royale’s monetization depends on loot box-style chests, but the guaranteed item rarity of each chest is clearly displayed on the purchase screen every time, allowing players to make more informed decisions.
Better Loot Box Experiences
While many of the minigames covered above from Dota 2 are quite manipulative, they are only tangentially related to their monetization system, which relies more on a combination of seasonal event passes, subscription services, cosmetic item purchases, and loot boxes.
Their loot boxes have many user-friendly features:
- Multiple purchases do not result in duplicates until the buyer has received one of each normal item.
- Rare items have escalating odds, so repeating the same purchase will eventually result in obtaining all available items.
- Items can be bought and sold on the Steam Community Market, often at lower prices than through gambling alone. Trade restrictions sometimes delay or eliminate this option.
When an abstract animation or depiction of a physical game of chance is attached to a purchase, build it so the visuals accurately represent the actual odds and are responsive to changes in those odds. If that’s not an option, favor obfuscation over this outright dishonesty as the lesser of two evils.
I’m not aware of any examples of honestly-visualized odds for in-game gambling mechanics, since I suspect that would greatly reduce the impact of these features. If you know of any, leave a comment below and let me know.