04 December 2017

And Now We Have Loot Boxes

I've heard a lot about loot boxes in the past days and I've decided to take my stance on them.

Image from dorkly.com
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It started with DLC's (Downloadable Content) followed by P2W (pay to win) and then they started releasing unfinished games.

And now

And Now We Have Loot Boxes

So what's the issue with those loot boxes?
I've heard many things about them. Only negative. I even heard people call it a cash grab. Are those people right? Are loot boxes evil or bad?

Well, luckily I don't believe in things being inherently bad or evil. Like.. a weapon isn't inherently bad. It may have been created with bad intentions but the weapon itself can also be used for good. That means its usage is important. Exactly just like in game design. If you create a feature and it was implemented badly, it's bad. So to fix something bad you either remove it from the game or make it good.

What's the Problem With Loot Boxes?

To figure out how to make something good you need to know what's wrong with it and to know what's wrong with it you need to know what it is. A loot box is a virtual box which contains several or a single virtual item. This item is decided by chance from a pool of items.

Now from our explanation of loot boxes we already have some aspect catching our eye. If not I made the word bold.


It's Chance.
So we have chance and money involved. By the definitions of the word gamble:
"play games of chance for money; bet."
"take risky action in the hope of a desired result."

No wonder China, Japan, Australia and the Isle of Man regulate loot boxes under the gambling law.

The Perfect Lootbox

The perfect gambling would be where the gambler and the provider - when doing infinite runs - average on no win and no loss. Why would that be perfect? In this case, no one has an advantage compared to the other it's a game of chance for both and even if the balance changes for one to gain more than the other in the end it averages out.
The same would be for loot boxes. If you pay $5 and you get rewards that average out at $5 you're happy and the provider (developer) gets the money.

Life's Not Perfect

However, doing it this way can easily result in a loss for the provider. In a classic gambling environment if the win and loss average out at $0 the provider might make no income. Well, then it's not worth doing it at all. Might as well search for a different job. Thus the odds are on the provider's side so he will win more often. But our example uses the money to gamble for money. We're gambling with money to get in-game items through loot boxes.

Loot Box Value

So then what's a loot box worth? That depends on what you get from it. The pool of items you have a chance of getting from the lootbox is calculated into it.

How? Well let's say we have a loot box that has
  • 5 items that are worth $1
  • 3 items that are worth $3
  • 2 items that are worth $5
  • 1 item that is worth $10
Additionally, the chance to get each item is equal: 1/10 for each.

We can calculate the value we expect to get from the loot box each time we buy it by multiplying the value of each item with the chance of it dropping.

expected value = 5 * ($1 * 1/10) + 3 * ($3 * 1/10) + 2 * ($5 * 1/10) + 1 * ($10 * 1/10)

expected value = $3.4

What does that mean? On average you will gain this value on your account.

Problem With Lootbox Systems

Good to know! Unfortunately, this is not so easy. If we have a loot box that contains unlockables, how would you handle this? 

To explain the problem here:
If you've unlocked something on your account and you get the same thing from the lootbox again it's useless to you. If it was $5 before after unlocking it is $0. That means the expected value changes:

expected value = 5 * ($1 * 1/10) + 3 * ($3 * 1/10) + 1 * ($5 * 1/10) + 1 * ($0 * 1/10) + 1 * ($10 * 1/10)

expected value = $2.9

The worth of the lootbox dropped! That's a bad thing if players figure it out. So how do you solve this? Of course, you could say "hey let's just use the average expected value". You could do that, however, this means the first loot boxes are sold cheaper than they're worth!

Changing Prices Dynamically

One way to solve the problem could be to keep the price up to date respective to the expected value. Thus if an item has been unlocked the price changes accordingly being the most optimal all the time. However, the user might wonder what's going on.

Replacement Currency

Another way would be to replace the item that has been unlocked already with another currency that allows you to buy one of those in the pool of the lootbox. This change results in the value of the unlocked item to stay the same, thereby solving the problem.

Make It a Surprise Egg!

Maybe you've heard of it at some point in your life but in some parts of the world, there are these surprise eggs. They consist of chocolate with an inner white chocolate coating and a yellow plastic egg containing a plastic toy.
Usually, you get some random toy but every 7th egg is supposed to have the promoted toy that is limited.

So let's see what we get here.
You pay £4.00 according to google for one of those eggs and you get:

  • White and Black chocolate snack (20g)
  • A random toy with a 1/7 chance or ~14.28% to get the promoted toy
And this is what your loot box could be! Give your users a fixed reward from the loot box that is not worth the price but nice to have and add the random item rare or not to it additionally. Or just look at rewarding loot systems of games.

Examples in Games

Guild Wars 2 contains
  • Black Lion Chests opened by Black Lion Keys containing a guaranteed item and 2-3 random items
  • An unlock item at the price of 400 gems (~$5) that unlocks one of 36 skins. Unlocking a skin removes it from the pool.
Heroes of the Storm contains
  • Loot boxes rewarded for each level up that contains any unlockables from skins to voices, to playable characters. If you get an unlockable twice it is replaced with an alternative currency that lets you buy unlockables without using more real money.


So there we go. Huge post talking about everything that came to my mind when talking about loot boxes. Keep in mind all this is just my opinion and my analysis of things.
Now I'm only a junior game developer so I'm not so firm with the reasons companies implemented the lootboxes the way they did. In the end, even if my post didn't help directly I hope it inspired people to think about it and maybe both developers and gamers come to an agreement on how to make loot boxes enjoyable for both sides.

Also, I'm open to discussion and/or disagreement. :)

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I'm a B.Sc. Games Engineer and I created this blog to share my ideas, theorycrafting, thoughts and whatever I'm working on or doing.