Lockboxes Suck, So How Should MMOs Monetize?

I don’t write a lot about bad monetization, because honestly, I mostly just shake my head and try to ignore it. As MMO players get more and more spread out across more games than I can count, populations of individual games keep declining. Unfortunately, in reaction to this, studios seem to have shifted focus from trying to bring in as many players as possible and keep them there to simply trying to milk the loyal players for more and more money, and the cash extraction method of choice in recent years has been lockboxes. And it’s not just an MMO problem. Physical TCGs have been doing this forever, and digital ones are no different. Pretty much every mobile game I’ve ever played has some kind of gacha mechanic. And now it’s starting to show up in mainstream AAA games like the new Star Wars Battlefront II (the 2017 one by DICE, of course… I really wish they had given the new series a different name or subtitle or something from the ones from the twenty-oughts, but that’s a whole other rant).

Then Massively Overpowered posted an article entitled “But seriously, lockboxes suck, even if the ESRB doesn’t think they’re gambling. Stop buying lockboxes.” (I love that title, by the way), and it got me thinking about how, yes, lockboxes suck, but what model should MMOs be using? Monetization is a necessary evil in MMOs. Yes, it’s an evil that keeps getting eviler, but game developers are not charities; they do this to make money. I hear people talking about what monetization scheme is “ideal,” but the problem is that the player’s “ideal” and the developer’s “ideal” are in opposition; the player’s ideal is that they get everything for free forever, and the developer’s ideal is that players throw unlimited money at them for doing nothing. Neither situation is remotely possible, so the question, then, becomes what monetization method is best for both parties? Below are a few options, ranked roughly from worst to best.

You get a lockbox! And you get a lockbox! EVERYBODY GETS A LOCKBOX!!!
…that’ll be $5 a pop for a key to open them. Seriously, this is debatably the worst case scenario. Perfect World’s Neverwinter and Star Trek Online are kind of the worst offenders for this one. Yes, their games are free-to-play, but you’re constantly reminded that you should be giving them money by them filling up your inventory with lockboxes you can’t open and on-screen announcements when someone else out there opened a lockbox and got a ship that’s cooler than yours (you can technically turn those off, but you have to do it in a bunch of different places that aren’t very obvious). But even Guild Wars 2, who I think of as having one of the most generous models in the industry, does this to a certain extent. Enemies occasionally drop lockboxes–not anywhere near as often as STO, but often enough–and a simple double click will show you all of the treasures that might be contained within. What’s the point of dropping a lockbox if I have to pay for the keys? Especially when you hand them out like Halloween candy so they’re absurdly cheap on the auction house. The answer is that they need a way to remind people with more money than sense that it’s time to feed their gambling addiction, but in a way that doesn’t feel like a popup ad. And make no mistake, lockboxes are literally gambling, and if you believe anything else, you’re not paying attention (despite whatever the ESRB says). The aforementioned Massively OP article has some links to some great articles discussing this far better than I could.

I put this term in scare quotes because everyone has a different definition of “pay-to-win,” in one of the few genres where there is literally no set win condition. Is Star Trek Online pay-to-win because the highest tier ships–with stat bonuses a few percent above their lower tier counterparts–are cash shop only? Is Guild Wars 2 pay-to-win because you can buy gold with money, buy crafting materials, then craft gear with the best stats in the game? Is World of Warcraft pay-to-win because you can buy a level boost token? Is Elder Scrolls Online pay-to-win because one of the classes, which happens to be considered to have the best group healing, is only accessible to players who have the expansion? I’ve heard all of these arguments and more.
Personally, I don’t consider a game pay-to-win unless the best gear in the game only comes from the cash shop (or if there is a cruel and unusual amount of grind for gear that is bypassed by paying money). These games exist, especially in the mobile realm, but most of them chase away their players, so I wouldn’t consider this a viable long term solution for any game.

Pure Subscription
I don’t like this kind of model because I have so many options for MMOs, and I would really rather not be tied down to any one at any given time. But if you’re not into multi-gaming, this is actually not a bad model for you. Developers get a steady, fairly predictable stream of money, and can, in turn, crank out consistent content for players. World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV are really the only major games that survive on this model anymore, and that’s only because they both of large, devoted player bases. Smaller games simply can’t compete this way.

Pure Buy-to-Play
This is my personal favorite monetization scheme. You had to at least pay the price of entry to play the game, so the developers at least have some revenue from every player. Developers are incentivized to keep cranking out expansion/DLC content, because otherwise players aren’t going to be giving you money. This can be good or bad, since one bad release that no one buys can set a game on a downward spiral in that vicious cycle of not enough content to keep players paying, not enough money to create content players want to buy.

Buy-to-Play with Optional Sub
…but seriously, if you want to play the game a lot just go ahead and sub because it’s not worth it otherwise. I think Elder Scrolls Online is the best example of this. I can play all I want for free, but I’m going to have to resist the urge to pick up crafting materials or I’ll be running out of bag space every hour. If I’m really serious about playing this month, I can shell out my $15. I’ve met players all over the spectrum; from those who bought the box when the game went buy-to-play and haven’t given ZeniMax a dime since, to those who buy each DLC outright but don’t subscribe, to players who haven’t stopped subbing since the game launched. I put this at the top, not because it’s my favorite, but because it’s probably the best compromise for the good of the game. I can play for free, but it’s clear that the developers really want me to sub so they get that constant, predictable revenue stream we talked about in the Pure Subscription section. This can go wrong, as it has, in my opinion, in Star Wars the Old Republic, which is basically trying to be a Pure Subscription game while still keeping its free-to-play players, but I think it’s the most ideal situation.

If there was a perfect monetization model, everyone would be doing it, but there isn’t. Some models are worse than others, but it’s a very subjective matter. Different players would put these models in a different order. Everyone has different preferences. I feel like my preferences have changed over the years as well, because of fluctuating time constraints and financial situations. But some of them, I think we can all agree, do suck. Let’s all vote with our wallets and our playtime, and encourage developers who have good business models to keep doing what they do best.