A Kinder Surprise Egg does not collect your data. The Kinder Egg does not learn more about the person buying and opening the Egg, such as his or her preferences for its contents. The Kinder Egg does not adjust its contents according to an algorithm based on population data. People do not link their credit cards to Kinder Egg vendors. Kinder Eggs are physical and can be given away or traded, unlike virtual items.
-Dr Daniel King, quoted at GameIndustry.biz
I like this quote because it gets to something I think people miss when it comes to the lockbox debate. I often see people go straight for the idea that randomness equals gambling and therefore lockboxes should be banned.
And, while randomness is an element of gambling, it is not the sole defining factor. That something like Kinder Surprise Eggs exist and are sold legally in many countries tends to indicate that randomness is not the only thing we should be considering.
Randomness is not necessarily bad. And while I tend to discount when devs tell us people enjoy opening up lockboxes… I am sure the payday loan industry would tells us that people like getting money from them as well… you can find players who enjoy the randomness of loot drops and such. Bhagpuss, one of the sources that pointed this quote towards me, is on that team.
This makes the gambling argument feels like a dead end to me. You either have to change the laws to widen the definition of gambling (wait for the push back on that) or go the Belgium route and make a special exception for a specific set of circumstances, which leaves people with the question about why this one outlier is special.
Fortunately, the quote nicely brings up how randomness isn’t the sole factor that makes lockboxes odious to so many people. There is the virtual nature of any prizes, the persistent reminders and offers from the cash shop, the fact that you have to pay to for a random chance to get things otherwise not obtainable in game, the manipulative practices, and the suspicion that the whole thing is rigged just to get you to spend more money. Another quote:
“The ‘not forcing anyone’ argument is undermined by the fact that many of these games appear to employ systems that are designed to present constant in-game purchasing opportunities,” says Dr King. “The promotions and solicitations are unavoidable in some cases, and the game may have design elements that make it very frustrating to players unless they spend money.
“Our review suggests that there are some emerging designs that aim to capitalise on player data to present individualised offers that the system ‘knows’ the player is more likely to accept. So it’s not about being ‘forced’ — it’s about the game anticipating or making the best judgement about what the player is likely to accept.”
And while some people would be on board with the suspicion that things are rigged no matter what, the game companies have helped feed that paranoia themselves. Further down in the article there are some patents game companies have filed for mechanics designed to get people to spend more.
Activision had an especially good filing back in 2017 for a system that would deliberately match players with people have superior gear from lockboxes to make you feel you need the same gear in order to compete.
Randomness is not bad in and of itself and we appear, as a society, to be okay with gambling, but when you start targeting people based on their behavior and rigging the system against them on the fly, all algorithmically and invisibly behind the scenes, we have strayed into what some might label as predatory practices that strikes against a basic sense of fairness.
Going down that path in pursuit of the most effective lockbox scheme is how you end up with legislators and regulators taking a close and person interest in your industry. It has all been rather haphazard up to now, but momentum is building.
So it was probably no coincidence that there was a press release from the ESA about how various companies are now committed to displaying the odds of obtaining items from lockboxes on the very day that the US Federal Trade Commission was holding a workshop about industry practices around lockboxes.
The ESA isn’t dumb. They know they need to do something as any regulation is going to hurt them. They know they need to get in front of this issue and make some concessions before laws or regulations force them to back off their lucrative lockbox schemes. And so they have a grand announcement.
And posting the odds somewhere would be a big step forward.
Of course, the ESA isn’t saying where the odds have to be posted, if they have to be in-game, or even linked to in game. Posting them on some dead end path on their web site might be what they have in mind. And how often do the odds have to be brought up to date?
This is the problem with something as empty as a “commitment” to something like the ESA has announced. They want to sound like they are doing something good for the consumer without actually being bound to follow through in any reasonable fashion. With no laws or regulations in place, what are you going to do if half of those committed platforms fail to follow through while the other half does so in the least helpful way possible?
Companies don’t go out of their way unless it is in their best interest. Right now I am sure the ESA sees their problem as a few loudmouths that need to be appeased so they can go back to business as usual. There will need to be a lot more government scrutiny before the ESA follows through. But follow through they will, if the pressure gets high enough. I remain convinced that the ESA will do the minimum amount needed… pinkie swear promises and strategic campaign contributions… to stave off regulation at least in the US.
And, in a final twist to the comparison in the initial quote, Kinder Surprise Eggs are not allowed in the US. It has nothing to do with gambling or manipulation and everything to do with the FDA not allowing you to sell candy with toys embedded inside. So we only get the Kinder Joy eggs, sans surprise… and given how rare they are here, few seem to buy them just to eat.