How Loot Boxes and Chance Make Players Buy

Loot Boxes and chance are a form of gambling. I don’t think I’m being controversial by saying that. Giving the player a chance to obtain high level loot, the best players, or shiny cosmetic items in exchange for a fee is, by definition, “taking risky action in the hope of a desired result”. There are no two ways around it.

What a lot of people are unaware of is exactly how loot boxes actually use chance in their systems, and how that keeps players coming back. I’m sure we all understand that gambling is addictive, but what do modern games do to their loot systems to base them on chance?

I want to take a look, and figure out how video games design their loot boxes around chance systems, and why players constantly come back to them.

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What Loot Boxes and Chance Do to The Brain

There’s a simple reason Loot Boxes work – arousal. Players get positive feedback when they are rewarded for taking a risk.

This isn’t new to video games either, feedback loops exist in every single successful game. Players are rewarded for doing well. When successful their emotions are heightened, but when they fail they enter a lower state. A Game Makers Toolkit video by Mark Brown discusses video game feedback loops in great detail.

The reason this links to Loot Boxes is because of how both positive and negative feedback loops treat the player. They’re used in different contexts for games like Call Of Duty and Mario Kart, but often come to the same end goal – they create a heightened emotional state. Whether that be happiness in the fact you’re getting kill streaks and doing better in Call of Duty, or that you’re getting good items and moving up the ranks in Mario Kart. 

image source – the devil himself

This heightened emotional state is what Loot Boxes use to keep players coming back to them and using them. Players are familiar with the state of winning/losing in online and local play – and Loot Boxes use that to their advantage. Players want positive feedback when they play, that’s just how video games work. Loot Boxes and chance take advantage of this.

Chasing the Thrill

There’s a article (which you can read here) that elaborates on this. It talks about how studies show two factors of Loot Boxes that affect how players view chance. These are the “anticipation of, and the experience of, reward linked to rare events (large wins, rare loot-box items)”. Both the size of the reward and anticipation affect players.

Even a pcgamer article shows how this chance is intrinsically linked to how we play and wait for video games. As Ben Thompson, the Art Director of Hearthstone, told them:

“It’s that moment of excitement that anything’s possible. In that moment I could be getting the cards I’ve been looking for for ten or 20 packs. That anticipation has always been a key point in games in general; successful games build on anticipation and release. Whether a set of effects or in gameplay.”

The way we view video games is fundamentally associated with how Loot Boxes present chance. You aren’t met with a negative feedback loop from Loot Boxes, because you’re always rewarded with something. This helps to bring players back and try again.

How Games Present Chance

The presentation of the chance is as important as the chance itself. Just look at these videos:

Understandably, the emotional attachment is almost none-existent as you watch these. That’s because you haven’t invested into them yourself. Although you can easily see the factors of anticipation and level of reward coming into play. Both games give a significant amount of build up to the reveal of contents. This creates emotional build-up in the player. Then the level of the reward itself (almost always based off colour) either presents a positive or negative feedback loop.

Positive if the reward is rare, negative if not.

The aforementioned study elaborates on how these rewards keep players coming back. “In both scratch cards and slot machines, if urge to keep playing is assessed following an outcome, urge to keep playing tends to be higher following a win and lower following a loss (Stange et al. 2016, 2017a, b; Clark et al. 2012). Hence, rarer, more valuable, loots are expected to induce greater urge to open additional loot boxes versus more common and less valuable loots”

Most players will then want to take the risk again, as they hope for the same result.

Familiarising Chance Outside of Loot Boxes

To help illustrate what I’m trying to say, I want to take a look at Battle Royale games. These games familiarise players with loot boxes, and thus the emotional attachment/reward that comes along with them, whilst they play the games themselves.

Call of Duty Warzone, Fortnite, Apex Legends. All of these games have chests in-game that operate as smaller scale loot boxes. I can’t say whether or not this is done on purpose, or if it comes as a proxy of Battle Royale design, but the resemblance is uncanny. Whilst Fortnite has made an effort to change the way their Loot Boxes work, all of these games allow you to pay for a chance to gain rare items.

These games can then familiarise players with the payable Loot Boxes with the in-game equivalents.

in-game loot boxes

In Battle Royale they aim to make the game fair, scattered across the map are chests/boxes/containers with different levels of loot in them. Players can find them, and help them win games.

The anticipation and reward of rare items is exactly the same in-game as it is out-of-game. Except in an online match the reward only lasts for that match, and is free. In some Battle Royale games the chests even make a noise, indicating how close the player is to them. Not only does this help with anticipation, but it also bears resemblance to the Overwatch Loot Boxes in the video above.

Making these mechanics core to the experience in online play means these games can quite easily familiarise players with how they work outside of gameplay. Except this time, it’s with real world money. Or currency bought with real world money.

This isn’t a sort of ‘trick’ or dishonest practise, but it does allow players to understand the fundamentals of Loot Boxes in these games with no risk involved. Which in turn can lead to a desire for more.

Is it Actual RNG?

In short… no, it’s not.

Using RNG in these games, and especially the phone games where they came from, is about engagement. Psychologist Jamie Madigan makes a great point in this IGN article, as he says:

“I imagine that the people at Blizzard and Activision and so forth have done their own internal testing and found out that this sort of system does keep people engaged longer,” says Madigan. “It gets them either playing the game longer or spending more money on in-game purchases if they have to rely on chance, and they have to pull the slot machine arm every time they want to get something, rather than just paying for it up-front.”

Whilst we can’t just outright confirm this, it makes sense. Why would these companies use RNG loot based systems over simple cosmetic transactions? It has to be because it’s more lucrative for them.

Chance Might be Better Than Time?

RNG on its own is a debatable issue. Is it good or bad? Reddit will argue either way until the end of time. But is RNG more enticing than putting your time into a game to earn rewards? Look at Overwatch, you earn one free loot box per level (and if you play some modes, you can even earn extra). Do people prefer to pay to get a quick fix of RNG, thus increasing their chance of a reward? Well a Forbes article takes a look at the math.

Note that this article is only concerning Overwatch and three years old, but I think the findings are interesting.

It calculates that post level 23, players will be waiting roughly an hour between free loot boxes for each level up.

The RNG of Loot Boxes and Chance
image source

Now this is how much the bundles of Overwatch loot boxes are worth, and a rough calculation of how much that makes them worth in terms of time. Again these are all very rough calculations from Forbes, but the point still stands – what’s better to players, time or money?

Considering Activision Blizzard made $956 Million last quarter from micro-transactions  alone, I think we know the answer ti that question. All of that money is of course not Loot Boxes, you have Modern Warfares Battle Pass for example. But Loot Boxes still make money. According to Juniper Research Loot Boxes will have made $50 Billion by 2022.

This is because RNG is seen as more lucrative than time and effort. Would you rather save up points and in game cash to buy a very expensive skin? Or spin the wheel and hope you’ll get it? The money speaks for itself.

It’s about shortcuts, players would rather have a chance to get something immediately than put in lots of effort. Players ‘buy time’ just as thy would in mobile games, where they have to wait or pay real world money to continue playing.

The RNG and presentation of its chance indoctrinate players into buying loot boxes, as not doing so would take a lot more time and effort.

Chance and Control

The Loot Box systems are based based on controlling the player, if that wasn’t at all obvious by now. Keeping them involved keep them playing the game, spending money, and justifying a titles existence. Games are a business after all, so if developers want to exercise ways to make money who can blame them.

Loot Boxes use chance to then control players, as Overwatch’s principle designer says in a pcgamer article:

“We use rarity levels primarily to control the frequency of getting our most exciting content. Players shouldn’t be getting frustrated because they’re earning none of the best rewards. We also don’t want players getting bored because they earned all of the best rewards at once. Rarity levels give us some control over the pace of these rewards.”

The chance isn’t just about opportunity, but how that opportunity is presented. Having different levels of artificial rarity means that the player is familiar with what’s ‘worth more’ in the context of the game. This makes them want those rewards more, but because they are rarer they appear less often. This keeps players playing and buying.

Although there’s a balance to strike, as not all players will like every ultra rare item, so everything has to be given the same weight. This is why in pretty much all cases every Loot Box opens exactly the same. The reason rare items are special isn’t just because the developer makes them special, but because the player does too.

Do As You Please with Loot Boxes

In the end, it’s all down to the player. Even though the developer can dress up chance as much as possible, if you simply don’t care… well you don’t care. Whilst Loot Boxes and chance are intrinsically linked don’t be fooled, they’re presented in such a way to entice you into buying them. That’s just good marketing.

Please just remember to watch what you spend on Loot Boxes, games of chance rarely end in your favour, and this is no different. Going back to the start of this article – players are “taking risky action in the hope of a desired result”. Sadly just because a result is desired (and made as desirable as possible) doesn’t mean it isn’t risky.

How do you feel about Loot Boxes? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @thecognetwork. You can also check out me diving into why ‘Video Game Rumours Are Out of Control’ here

You can check out some of our other articles like our other Loot Box piece 

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Will Nelson

I'm a Journalist, Podcaster, Breakfast Radio Host and an all round lover of video games! I might love Pokemon too much for being an adult, but that hasn't stopped me. My favourite game is Rayman 3: Hoodlum Havoc (that tells you most of what you need to know). Video Games have been a massive part of my life since I was born, and I hope I can spread that passion to all of you reading!

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