Paid loot boxes in paid games are bad for game design, bad for the industry and bad for players.

When the topic comes up the argument frequently made is that the items are cosmetic, the thinking being that as long as the item doesn’t effect the game then there is no problem. Unfortunately that’s bullshit and here’s why.

Firstly – cosmetic items ARE important. People seem to think its ludicrous that someone will spend £1 on an in game hat but do you have the same response when someones buys a real hat? I have an R2-D2 hat which keeps my head warm but ALSO says things about me.

However – with loot boxes I argue that we’re not buying cosmetic items at all.

Getting to know us

To understand my reasoning you first have to understand why we play games. It’s not always the same and we play different games for different reasons. But the games I am looking at, and the ones that work with paid loot boxes, cover the ‘work -> reward’ pattern. We play them because we feel an achievement which we’re rewarded for. That reward might be a new area, a twist in the story or a random item.

People refer to random items as ‘Skinner Boxes‘ referring to the experiments by B. F. Skinner who showed that a rat could be induced to perform the same action over and over again by rewarding that action randomly rather than consistently. I don’t necessarily see this as bad. As a game designer I want my game enjoyed over and over again. If it is a short burst or repetitive game randomising rewards can give your game some longevity and a reason to replay.

But if you combine this with association you get a potent psychological cocktail.

What the deal with association then?

Association is the marketing technique of linking two unrelated items together. Just as Pavlov’s dogs associated being fed with a bell – so could be made to salivate on command, advertisers associate brands with sunny days, luxury lifestyles and happy beautiful faces. You feel that buying the brand is, on some level, buying the feeling.

This means that if you change your game-play loop from ‘work -> reward’ to ‘work -> box -> reward’ the player associates the box with the reward. And this is where the problem is. You can now effectively sell the reward – the reason for playing the game.

This will have three outcomes.

1. You buy the paid loot boxes to get the feeling of winning. The game stops being important as you can get the reward without it.

2. You find the game has lost it’s appeal. The joy of getting a reward has been diluted because you could have just brought the same thing.

3. You aren’t affected at all and you laugh at the poor suckers in 1 and 2 (you are also deluded and advertisers love you.)

Whatever the outcome the reward, and therefore playing the game, is now meaningless. The reason for playing the game is being held for ransom by the publisher.

And that’s why ‘It’s only cosmetic’ is a poor excuse for paid loot boxes.

On Friday the 13th Nintendo ballsed up their Switch launch event. They did so by focusing on things we already had and are bored of (motion control), introducing new things we don’t want (IR sensors) and forgetting that the device already has an awesome selling point – you can carry it around with you.

Add that to a very lackluster games line up and many are declaring it will follow the trend of Nintendo’s ever decreasing sales of home console.

I’d like to argue that this may not, and hopefully will not, be the case.
Continue reading “Nintendo Switch – What I think.”

Creating games is fun but it’s hard work. It’s fun, otherwise we would be doing it, but it can also feel pretty daunting.

One of the core principles we want in Space Farmers 2 is the ability to evolve the game. We want to take feedback from players and add it to the game. The idea is that if someone comes up with a cool new gadget we want to take it and add it to the game. Now I’ve written that down it sounds too easy – we’re not even coming up with the ideas!

Setting up the foundations for that to happen though is where we are at the moment. But trying to build foundations for a house, when you don’t know what the house will look like, is not simple. In fact it’s something that I find quite paralysing.

Space Farmers 2
We’re working on it!
Every thing we add to the game requires some kind of compromise. For example; the characters currently look like even more basic than Space Farmers 1. But the foundation has been lay for a far more complex avatar system. If someone now comes up with a great idea which required the players to have 3 feet (I would say legs but they don’t have legs). That would involve changing a fundamental part of the game so may not be possible.

Thankfully I am reassured by the knowledge that between us Andy and I have about two hundred years of experience of people asking us to perform impossible programming feats. I hope that by being open and honest about what we’re doing people will understand what we can and can’t do and why we make the decisions and priorities we do.

As 48% of us here in the UK think – we’re better together.

We need your help!

So with all of that said, we need YOU to help us add as many crazy features and cool ideas to our public Trello board as possible!

Space Farmers 2 Trello Board
Look at our shiny new Trello Board!

Get commenting below, tweet at Rich and Andy or, even better, come visit us on our weekend Live Streams. Let us know what your priorities are in the game. Talk about the features that we, and others, have requested. Together we can make this game even more awesome than the first!

Hey you. Are you thinking of pre-ordering a game, console or peripheral? Then stop, breath and consider if it might make you a dick.

I’ll offer a bit of background for my theory that pre-ordering can cause dickishness. I’ve spent a lot of time studying magic and working as a magician, so have spent a lot of time learning about misdirection. Many people assume that misdirection is simply making the audience look the wrong way while you do something sneaky. It’s actually a lot sneakier than that. A true master of misdirection makes your mind look the wrong way.

Continue reading “Why you should worry about pre-ordering games.”