High Ceilings and High Floors: Random Prize Box Design

Microtransactioned Random Prize Boxes
They go by many names: Treasure chests. Lockboxes. Random prize boxes.

As the Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) industry has begun a tidal shift towards a Free to Play (F2P) model from the traditional subscription model, developers and publishers have begun a wave of experimentation and metrics analysis to determine both what sells well and what kinds of microtransactions are acceptable as a whole to players.

Perfect World Prize Box

In an era of downwards pressure on MMORPG development costs on top of a tough economy in general, the stakes are high. It is important to understand that while profits are, as with any business, an aspect of the general shift towards F2P models, the more important factor is survival; this is not a boom time for large MMORPGs, and the number of high profile studio failures is impossible to ignore.

There is a significant degree of vocal discontent about the mechanic including frequent charges of gambling, and depending on how you want to define gambling, it is certainly possible to come to the reasonable conclusion that the mechanic has significant elements of what is thought of by the word “gambling”. Legally, however, the mechanic has – at least so far – generally fallen on the side of being more akin to random packs of collectable cards rather than conventional gambling.

Despite the vocal discontent, however, the mechanic has also proven to be a robust financial method in an era where studios are struggling, and this has resulted in the odd situation where public relations furor has co-existed with a revenue surge.

In an ideal world, there would be a F2P mechanic within this approach that is both financially successful and acceptable in general to the player base. From the limited experimentation by studios so far, what might such a mechanic look like?

The argument I am putting forward for this is simple: High ceilings and high floors.

The basic model for the lockbox mechanic is a player microtransactions the ability to gain a random item or items. There are a lot of permutations of this; frequently the lockbox drops randomly in the world but can only be opened with a key that must be purchased with real money. Keys and lockboxes may or may not be tradable for in-game currency. These details certainly matter both psychologically and in terms of the in-game economy, but right now let’s just focus on the essential equation:

Player pays $X in order to receive a random in-game something.

That random item – or items – is usually of low value, but has a small chance of being of exceptional value, or at least exceptional rarity, and often has a limited time availability mechanic on top of all that to further create additional spike demand.

Setting aside all of the framing aspects mentioned above – method of availability, key mechanics, tradability, limited time, etc. – there are two essential questions: What drives people to want them enough to pay the microtransaction? What drives people to accept the result as a fair transaction?

The evidence is actually fairly consistent for both of these questions:

The High Ceiling
People are driven to pay the microtransaction if they deem the potential value is very high compared to per unit cost. From a psychological perspective considering known Skinner Box behavior, this means if the price is low, not only is an individual able to rationalize it by saying, “Well, it’s only $1…” creating a low initial barrier to entry. What happens, of course, is then after buying the first one, there is a great temptation to buy a second, then a third, each time justifying it by the per unit cost rather than the total end sum cost.

This also means the potential prize must be judged to be good. Humans instinctively associate rarity with value, since in real world economies, rarity does indeed create upward pressure on price an economy places on an item. In the same way that diamonds are more expensive than emeralds despite the former being noticeably more common than the latter, however, it is possible to artificially manipulate this instinct by creating scarcity. This is why, for example, limited time offers are so effective, and why if one is offering a grand prize item through this mechanic, this must be the only way such an item should be acquirable.

Aside from artificial values, the item really must be good. What is good varies from game to game depending on the game systems in each game. Metrics can determine this, but it is usually possible to predict this fairly easily; combined with rarity, things that create significant visual and functional difference and effectiveness are generally the surest path to what a player will consider good.

Note, too, the use of the word “and” rather than “or”. While visual-only differences are valued and very useful to communicate unique effectiveness, they are generally lackluster alone to drive interest compared to gameplay functionality. Functionality needs to be unique, but note too that it need not be better. Better is, certainly, the easiest thing to design for, but unique gameplay is actually more palatable while still being prized.

So, basically you want a grand prize that is awesome, rare, functionally unique and visually distinctive to communicate that uniqueness, and you want the price for the chance at it to be modest. For this kind of mechanic, $1 is good. $5 is not.

You want a high ceiling.

The High Floor
Grand prizes are valuable as a draw and effective because of their rarity. In fact, psychologically inconsistent reward schemes are somewhat paradoxically more effective than consistent reward schemes, meaning that most of the time what a player gets for their $1 or whatever the cost for the microtransaction is not going to be the grand prize.

The situation unfolds like thus: a player pays $1, probably multiple $1 purchases, and most likely does not get the grand prize. How does a player react? The reality is, even if the player is angry, because of the above psychological mechanics they will still statistically keep buying. Angrily keep buying. Possibly posting furious raging on forums, but they will still probably keep buying.

For the short term this may be acceptable, but in the long term it is bad business. The short term revenue may be robust, but over time this will damage the perceived value of the transaction, and it will slowly raise the barrier to entry for additional players to make that first purchase and start the psychological cycle. In the long term, the rage will impact the bottom line; it won’t be overnight, however, and it will be indirect, and that makes it much tougher to identify via basic metrics, but it will be felt in it being increasingly tougher to match those initial revenue numbers. Not impossible, note, but unnecessarily tougher.

There actually is a solution, however, which is to make what a player does receive on a non-grand prize result fair value. Fair value is not determined by the developer; fair value is determined by consensus of the player community and on an individual level by each player who receives the non-grand prize result.

The rules for making the non-grand prize result desirable are the same as for the grand prize result, simply on a lower level. Complicating this somewhat is that the result must be repeatably useful. Getting one Super Munchkin Ray may be great, but is getting five? Ten? Twenty?

Consumables are often targeted for this kind of prize, particularly things that accelerate a player’s progress, but consumables are inherently valued less than permanent-ish rewards, so inevitably have an uphill battle. Best are things that are not intrinsically consumable, but have aggressive functional sinks for them in the game.

You want a high floor.

High Ceilings and High Floors
Needless to say, creating a system for providing sustainable, repeatable, long term rewards both for grand prize results and non-grand prize results that are deemed appropriately valuable to players is much easier to do before the design is finalized than after.

When the economics of a game come together as a game is being developed, different activities are linked to different rewards: sometimes in kind, sometimes in degree, sometimes both. Figuring out where a game’s random prize boxes fit into this structure both makes things more intuitive – and thus more accessible and with a lower barrier to entry for a potential microtransactioning player – but also can make it easier for such a system to be sustainable over the long haul.

There are those who prefer the subscription model over the F2P model, and I expect that there will continue to be games who operate on the subscription model. However, the days are gone where the subscription model was the assumed convention. F2P games will continue to aggressively experiment with various microtransaction strategies.

Over the long term, developers and publishers will be most successful in practicing strategies that are both robust engines of revenue while at the same time creating the long term acceptability and good will from their customer base, the latter of which will always dominate the overall trending health of any product – game or otherwise.

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