News ex-Cryptic Studios (Neverwinter f2p MMO) dev talks about gambling mechanics and addiction in modern games

lashman

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it's a pretty long twitter thread and since twitter embeds are kinda shitty, i'll just post the quotes themselves ... but here's the entire thread if anyone wants to read the original tweets:


(it was a comment about now-deleted tweet from Unity about including new features for developers in the gambling sector [think Konami's pachislot machines etc.])

I worked on Neverwinter, the free-to-play MMO that came out several years ago. Many F2P game systems are lifted directly from the gambling industry, so let me give you an idea of what supporting that means for video games, gamers, and developers.

Loot boxes in games are a familiar topic for a lot of people, but they often discuss the wrong angle. Most gamers comment on how annoying they are, but few people address how harmful they are.

First, to deconstruct what a loot box is for those who don't do F2P games: It's a package you open that has a % chance you'll receive one of a number of cosmetic or gameplay-altering rewards when you open it. You pay for the privilege to open the loot box.

This pay-for-potential-rewards structure is lifted directly from casino gambling — slot machines in particular. In fact, most of the win rates and feedback systems for loot boxes are lifted directly from slot machine design. Here are some aspects that are similar:
  • Pay-to-play
  • Sounds and visuals designed to heighten excitement and anticipation
  • Low initial investment
  • High accessibility
  • Intentionally stingy rewards
  • Highly broadcast high-end rewards
Let's break these down.

Pay-to-play means you're locked out of content until you drop some money, and that does some weird psychological things I'm not qualified to talk about. Regardless, it sets a barrier to entry, but it's designed to be low enough (penny slots, anyone?) that anyone can play.

Sounds and visuals play a huge part in making loot boxes. They have a specific cadence built into them which increases tension over a short time, and then they flash pretty lights and play exciting sounds. Slot machines perfected it, and now video games crank it to 11.

Low initial investment is incredibly important for gambling because it tricks your brain into thinking you're not spending much money, even if you end up spending dozens or hundreds in the end. This ties in well with the intentionally stingy reward cycle, which I'll get to.

Accessibility in slot machines is walking up and popping a penny in, but accessibility in loot boxes is even more insidious; you spend some time playing the game, you get a free taste, and then you have to pay to play once you get that initial adrenaline rush.

Intentionally stingy rewards keep people coming back, and spending more money over time by constantly teasing the possibility of a greater reward. You see this with slots, and you see it with the possibility of winning a sweet new skin, only to end up with ugly poop.

Highly broadcast high-end rewards are things like the bright flashing lights, loud bells, and other aspects of winning you see from slots. You get the same thing for free in video games because people want to show off their shiny loot, and they even make videos about it.

So. What all these reward systems do is give you a trickle of excitement with the occasional punctuation of winning a little bit, and that system is incredibly addictive for many people. Let me give a couple of examples.

You hear about people with gambling addictions blowing thousands of dollars at a casino. These people get addicted to the risk/reward cycle of gambling; it literally makes happy juices squirt into their brain. The EXACT same happens with loot boxes, and there are metrics.

Those metrics aren't just "this person is spending X." No. When I was on Neverwinter, I heard a conversation about one of our highest spenders who was a single mother of 3-4 kids in Kentucky. The people making the game knew who this individual was and how much she spent monthly

That may not sound super terrible, until you hear that this single mother was spending over a thousand dollars a month on in-game items, people knew her salary range, and could literally stick a pin in a map with her physical address.

It's important for people running these games to have metrics and info like this so they can tailor the experience to you. This is where video game loot boxes are actually more insidious than casino gambling; they don't just take your money, they tailor your personal experience.

Companies who produce games with loot boxes tailor your experience so that the amount they make off you is maximized. For most people this is pennies per month, but for some people they're literally tailoring the game to take advantage of your gambling addiction.

The killer thing is that, without whales — without the people with gambling addictions — these systems fail. If you've ever done any reading on how airline ticket pricing works, it's a similar business model. A small number of high spenders keep the whole thing afloat.

So, to get back to the Unity link: Supporting the gambling industry is lucrative, but also INCREDIBLY unethical. You're supporting a system designed to literally, not figuratively, LITERALLY prey on the addictions of a relatively small number of people.

All those talks at GDC a few years ago about monetization? Preying on addictions.
Loot boxes in Overwatch, Apex Legends, Fortnite? Preying on addictions.
Monetization and marketing experts? Preying-on-addictions experts.

Interestingly, this is the same system Valve uses to exploit artists who make skins and items for TF2 and DOTA2. A few "lucky" people get their items selected (by a black box selection process) which strings others along to keep creating free content for them.

They pay for none of the labor involved in making skins for DOTA characters, but reap 70% of all profits, which equates to millions of dollars per year. Good times.

Anyway, this is why I'll never work on another F2P game again, and this is why seeing Unity openly talking about how they're supporting the gambling industry makes me never want to touch Unity's tools again.

They deleted it, so here's the original text of the @unity3d tweet:
 

Digoman

Lurking in the Shadows
Dec 21, 2018
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Always... "nice" to see confirmation of what goes on behind the curtain of these games.

It's because of all of this that I really don't care for the argument that is not "gambling" because you can't cash out or you have a fake currency that you can
obtain a small amount for free.

They are using every dirty trick in the book (and some new ones) to prey on the addiction of people to get money out of them. That for me is enough to classify as gambling and regulate as such. Who cares if the reward is actual money or something else.
 
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lashman

lashman

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Always... "nice" to see confirmation of what goes on behind the curtain of these games.

It's because of all of this that I really don't care for the argument that is not "gambling" because you can't cash out or you have a fake currency that you can
obtain a small amount for free.

They are using every dirty trick in the book (and some new ones) to prey on the addiction of people to get money out of them. That for me is enough to classify as gambling and regulate as such. Who cares if the reward is actual money or something else.
yeah, exactly

it's basically like 95% gambling, just without the last 5% of actually being able to pay out ... which actually makes it MUCH worse

and people are defending this ...
 
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xinek

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Wow, this might be the best way I've seen the arguments against loot boxes laid out. It especially makes an impact coming from someone in the game industry, considering its secretive and circle-the-wagons culture. I'd like to see this get a lot of visibility, especially with USA politicians starting to become aware.
 
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lashman

lashman

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Wow, this might be the best way I've seen the arguments against loot boxes laid out. It especially makes an impact coming from someone in the game industry, considering its secretive and circle-the-wagons culture. I'd like to see this get a lot of visibility, especially with USA politicians starting to become aware.
yeah, same

it's all pretty damn scary .... like imagine how many people are involved with doing this - and no one is really saying anything ....
 

The Queen

Pro Gifting Queen Of Harassment
Oct 19, 2018
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i literally said this ages ago about loot boxes and made an indepth post about it on era, i work in a arcade myself as many here know and its ereily obvious just how much backend stuff is taken from gambling, its something alot dont realise about gambling it isnt always about the machine or press the button to spin, their is many layers and factors involved to keep people playing in a mental and visual and audio way,
 
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daxy

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Dec 6, 2018
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And yet I'm sure people will continue to defend or shrug off these practices because it's just a factor of "bad parenting", "learning to have self-control", "making games is expensive" or whatever is the latest hot excuse.

This is by far my least favorite trend in videogames over the last decade.
 
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lashman

lashman

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And yet I'm sure people will continue to defend or shrug off these practices because it's just a factor of "bad parenting", "learning to have self-control", "making games is expensive" or whatever is the latest hot excuse.
oh, you can be absolutely sure of it ... some people just can't even imagine stuff like that might actually be beyond someone's control ... and all those companies are only preying on the weak
 

Line

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Dec 21, 2018
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It's hard to stop at this point, because those designs seeps everywhere into the industry.

Why do you think every game needs to last 100 hours, with fake progression thanks to a gearing system going ever so high (but not really, because you need to rehash the same copy/paste items and or/monsters with a higher level to keep the game lasting longer), Diablo-like loot galore, tons of cosmetics that you can get ingame... or get faster with the cash shop?

And yeah, Cryptic is fucking trash.
However I blame Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft as IMMENSELY more damaging, all their games have been converted to gacha games. The ones that didn't are dead anyway. And they've been so successful that everyone is following.
Now we have legions of fans that won't even look at your game if you don't have weapon unlocks in their FPS and stop playing once they've got everything (convenient for the 69.99€ game + 49.99€ season pass every year); only play open world checklists that don't even bother hiding they're just reskinned (hi Far Cry Primal)... and we get games that totally "don't have microtransactions" because they only sell them directly (hi Randy).

F2P and mobile are complete trash.
But the AAA industry is worse. It's just as predatory, but doesn't even come for free. The free games can and will fail when players stop paying. The AAA games certainly won't go anywhere, after all you've already spent a pretty penny on them before starting to play, you can't just leave. The sunk cost fallacy appears even faster.
 

Blizniak

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Sep 19, 2018
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I'm really glad lootboxes do absolutely nothing for me and I find all the animations and stuff more annoying than enticing but it's an abhorrent practice, especially when it changes based on your spending or some other factors just to get to you even more.
 
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lashman

lashman

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It's hard to stop at this point, because those designs seeps everywhere into the industry.
it's just so fucking sad ... and annoying ... isn't it? :/

especially when it changes based on your spending or some other factors just to get to you even more.
that's what makes is ESPECIALLY fucking awful ... people are saying "oh, it's not really gambling" ... and they're right - it's MUCH worse than gambling!
 
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Tart Toter 9k

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And yet I'm sure people will continue to defend or shrug off these practices because it's just a factor of "bad parenting", "learning to have self-control", "making games is expensive" or whatever is the latest hot excuse.

This is by far my least favorite trend in videogames over the last decade.
I have no doubt that most people know that this is wrong and that companies are preying on the weak but they simply don't care because they get "free" content for their favourite games.
As long as this doesn't affect them or anyone they know personally they'll keep defending it!
 
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fspm

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Nov 1, 2018
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And no need to get your ass to a casino, so convenient. Burning through $$ with a simple click.
 
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708

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Oct 20, 2018
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Interestingly, this is the same system Valve uses to exploit artists who make skins and items for TF2 and DOTA2. A few "lucky" people get their items selected (by a black box selection process) which strings others along to keep creating free content for them.

They pay for none of the labor involved in making skins for DOTA characters, but reap 70% of all profits, which equates to millions of dollars per year. Good times.
It's kinda funny (and sad) that the media doesn't criticise (like, at all) Valve for the one thing they deserve to be ripped apart.
 
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lashman

lashman

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It's kinda funny (and sad) that the media doesn't criticise (like, at all) Valve for the one thing they deserve to be ripped apart.
yeah, absolutely ... like i've been saying for the longest time - there are LEGITIMATE things to hate about volvo .... but no one cares about those, nope ... we need 500 more articles about "unfair" instead

just like everyone already forgot about epic grinding their employees down ... but now we have 2894829343 articles about how awesome and pro-dev their sale is
 
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curi0usBystander

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While this is not exactly the same (althought something similar is kinda mentioned), when I was in university there was this subject where we had to develop an app so we didn't really had classes but rather they used to invite people who worked in various fields of software development.
One of the few that I remember was one dude who worked in Game development, at the time he was working in one of those facebook games. I remember how he felt really proud when he explained that they knew their exact target audiende (women around 50s) and how they tailored the game so they spent more and more money.

At the time it surprised me but then when MTX and Lootboxes became big I always remembered that guy and it didn't really surprise me anymore.
 

Nyarlathotep

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Apr 18, 2019
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I really cba to debunk his post point by point, but he is not posting as a 'behind the scenes expert', he is posting as someone who was a modeller on an F2P MMO, and you should not give that more authority than that.

If you don't think Shigeryu Miyamoto has any particular insight into contemporary hard surface modelling techniques because thats not his job even though he 'works in games', or that Devolvers twitter account manager has any particular insight into business development even though they too 'works in games', you shouldn't put too much faith into the expertise of a character artists 'insights' into design and monetisation techniques just because they 'work in games'.