Cosmetic items are no excuse for loot boxes.

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.

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