Free-to-Play vs. Gambling

The Kleps kicked the never quite dead F2p-debate back to life this last Monday, and another interesting series of posts (Rohan, Tobold, Rowan, Telwyn) emerged as a result. With Rift now also F2P and upcoming titles like Wildstar or TESO having not yet disclosed payment options, many gamers are wondering who will ever be bold enough again to dare the subscription. Personally, I seem to care more for debating principles than the answers to these questions. If Zenimax Online want me to pay a sub for TESO, I will. If not – well, either way I’ll raid the shop.


Blogging buddy Liore and I go way back when it comes to discussing F2P back and forth on our blogs, so it was only a matter of time until we’d put on our boxing gloves and get into the ring together. No really, it was my great pleasure to finally have a personal chat this past week as guest on the delightful Cat Context Podcast (our exchange starting around 31 mins), with both Liore and co-host Ellyndrial speaking for the F2P skeptics. We tackled many of the core issues and realized that we disagree mostly on details rather than what matters most to us in MMOs. No surprises there.

That’s not where the discussion ended though – no, this is a persistent one. Belghast went forth and shared this interesting follow-up on his F2P “conversion”, sharing his past experiences with EQ2 going free to play (which then also spawned another reply from Liore here). I am always looking for personal recaps like this; what’s changing for you when an MMO switches to F2P? What tangible consequences does it have that possibly impact on you negatively?

Random drops vs. gambling

In an exchange with Ellyndrial on the podcast, I mentioned that I do not believe random lockboxes (for which keys can be bought via ingame shops like in GW2) or lottery tickets can be compared to real world gambling, the way it happens in casinos for example. The basic assumption being that cash shops may cause players to lose control of their spending, getting addicted to a luck-based system looking to relieve them of their money. To be clear, I absolutely feel casino gambling needs to be regulated – I do however not believe that lockboxes dropping in MMOs follow the same psychological pattern or harbor the same potential for addiction. Not claiming professional expertise on the subject (and those who do may come forth please), I see some distinct differences between the two activities.

Interestingly enough I happened to watch a documentary recently on David Choe, graffiti artist and facebook millionaire, also pathological gambler, which added to my inner monologue. Choe made his first million gambling in Las Vegas before turning 30 years old. That first milestone was preceded by years of a vagabond lifestyle, being notoriously broke and loosing vast amounts of money at the gambling table. Self-proclaimed gambling addict, Choe had this to say about his “fever” (paraphrased): I always felt I was winning, even when I lost everything. I won most of my games, only to go and lose everything on the last one.

There’s a devious quality to gambling in the sense that it continuously conveys feelings of both success and control to its victims. Gambling is a game of many stages, there is a progression to the gambler’s journey in which he feels that he is learning, improving and even winning. Winning is a big part in that quest for more, raising the stakes and then “gambling it all away” in one fatal loss (endorphins and adrenaline = powerful drugs). All of these elements are essential to developing addiction (biological dispositions aside) – the sense of control/strategizing (poker pros will tell you that the game is 90% nerves), reassuring mini-successes, progression of risk and potential winnings.

Virtual lockboxes do not share any of these psychological hooks. They’re completely random, there is usually no influencing outcome, improving one’s own performance or “getting closer” involved. It is therefore not nearly as motivating to spend endless cash on keys because there is no “game” aspect. Which doesn’t mean somebody might not spend ludicrous amounts of cash on the off chance of epic pixel – but to speak of addiction or danger to a wider audience feels off in this scenario. That person is likely after a very specific drop and generally there’s nothing wrong with spending money (or time) on something luck-based in games. We do this all the time?

There’s more to this though, even if we assumed a way simpler analogy such as a slot machine with very random outcome (I do not know how many people get ruined by this rather than card games). A big difference between gambling and pixel-hunting is that gambler’s play for money. The Faculty of Economics at the University of Zurich, Switzerland (ya, I live here so that’s my resource), recently revealed intriguing study results on the development of “altruism” in children. Test results were based on children’s social sharing behavior between ages 3-6. The perplexing part: while children, especially older ones and therefore already more socialized, were happy to share candy equally with peers, results changed dramatically once money was substituted. Children would either change the ratio in which money was shared or share none of it. This lead the leading researcher to assume that children learn the social and economical significance of money early on. He then elaborated on why humans react differently to money than to any other type of resource: money is a tricky currency because money is abstract. Money isn’t so much goods as it is potential; to give money away is to give away opportunities and power that we cannot control or estimate. We can imagine few things anyone could do with candy – but money, money holds as many plans as there are people.

Gamblers gamble for money and when they gamble for money, they gamble for plans and dreams. For one person it might just be a dream of winning or wealth, for another the resolution to very imminent and dire life circumstances. Not only that – gamblers gamble with money for money. When I spend coin on the slot machine, there’s a very clear, calculated ratio/equation between input and output. I’ll make a mental note à la “if I put in 10$ and win 100$, that is ten times more” or “if I lose, that’s still only 10% of my potential winnings”. That makes it seem alright and in some cases probably adds fuel to a perilous journey.


Again, lock boxes / lottery tickets hold neither abstract appeal nor absolute value in MMOs. Usually players hope to get a very specific drop, most likely an epic item or rare pet or similar. How much that reward is truly “worth” is impossible to measure (unless sellable – but this is not the chosen avenue of gold farmers) and therefore also cannot be equated to how much money was spent in order to get it. Sparkle ponies may be worth 10 keys to one player and 50 to another. Add to this considerations of “what other mounts are there in the game I could go for instead?” and meta-currency systems that also allow ingame currency to be converted in some cases, and you’ll see how much that differs from casino gambling or even real life lottery.

Wrapping up

To return to the topic of F2P, I believe it is very important to continuously question and observe the practices developers and publishers engage in to make systems more profitable. I’m very critical of pay-to-win in MMOs and shy away from games mentioning their cash shop at every occasion. I also agree with Liore that F2P only works because of micro-transactions and therefore needs to try draw players in. To me, that is a legitimate cause – without anyone spending money in a F2P game, there is no game. I have faith in players managing their own money and knowing what they want though. What matters to me is how cash shops are implemented, what kind of wares they offer and how their presence impacts on gameplay and overall immersion. We’ve recently experienced just how much of a difference the audience can make in this business and it remains our job to keep both an open mind but also open eyes to changes in this industry and how they may affect us.

At the present stage where F2P is still being adopted and shaped into a better model for western MMOs, I’m personally not seeing signs of a pay-to-win culture developing the way we know it from East-Asia (Gamasutra has an interesting clarification on this, check it out!), nor do I find items for sale that would significantly impact on player economy or endgame (just to name two examples of what’s popularly deemed unacceptable) in the F2Ps I am personally playing. Cash shop items remain optional and practices transparent – if not without inherent advantages, triggers and temptation, especially where cosmetics are concerned. If that’s where we’ll stay with upcoming MMO titles, hopefully offering more hybrid models à la LOTRO, I am completely okay with F2P.

Happy weekend everybody, with or without virtual shinies.


  1. Syl! You’re awesome, and I’m so glad you could come on the show. You’re welcome back any time.

    But mostly I’m bug-checking your comment system. >.>

  2. From my point of view, I see you covering three different mini-debates here: the morality of the F2P model, the discussion of whether lockboxes are gambling, and a discussion on video game addiction specific to the lockboxes phenomenon. I have thoughts about each.

    The morality of the F2P model is no different than the sub model. I\’d suggest it\’s more in-your-face than the sub model, as it has to be; rather than getting a set amount of money each month, the devs have to eke out whatever little micro-purchases they can. As a result, they have to consistently deliver desirable merchandise to a population that\’s likely more and more familiar with that merchandise. That could mean more costumes to wear or pets to own, but it can also mean consumables. Here we get into the \”pay to win\” argument. Is an scroll that grants an XP bonus a good or bad thing for a game? In-game, it\’s \”unfair\” that one person can level faster than another, but without those types of transactions, the game may not profit enough. There\’s only so many cool jackets that can be designed; in the end, you need some sort of consumable that skirts the line between \”pay to win\” and generally acceptable.

    By contrast, the sub model has to keep you playing over a long period of time, so we see incremental updates that go out every few months to keep people playing. I\’d argue that at some level that\’s more abusive, even if it\’s more indirect and invisible than a cash shop. So really, I\’m fine with the F2P model for what it is; I still prefer subscriptions, personally, but they\’re a dying breed.

    As for the gambling portion, lockboxes absolutely are a form of gambling, and they\’re gambling with money for a non-currency item. The argument that it\’s not addictive I think misses the point about addiction – anything can be addictive. Anything. Check out \”My Strange Addiction\” sometime for evidence thereof. However, I tend to agree it\’s less addictive than a cash-for-cash scenario.

    I think a better gambling metaphor for lockboxes would be a cakewalk or some other type of \”social\” gambling event where cash goes towards non-currency items. Rarely do you hear about people becoming addicted to cakewalks; the prize is simply not important enough and the game is not designed in a way to elicit addiction – more on that later. That doesn\’t mean it\’s impossible, though. Plenty of people get addicted to video games – that\’s irrefutable regardless of the DSM\’s refusal to put it into its list. The addiction comes precisely from the adrenaline and dopamine rushes provided, which are often tied to challenges and loot respectively. I can easily see someone purchasing a massive stockpile of black lion keys and chests and slamming through all of them for whatever prize they seek, but it won\’t be as addictive as slots.

    Here\’s why (and I encourage you to listen to the entire Radio Lab which I\’m referencing at, but the story I\’m referencing starts at 28:33, and it\’s a crushingly sad story – I\’m getting misty right now hearing it for probably the 10th time); many gambling games create the illusion of pattern, which is incredibly powerful to our brain. We want to find patterns that lead to reward; that\’s precisely where learning evolved from, finding patterns that lead to food or reproduction.

    We seek patterns, in other words, and most gambling addictions start there. Slot machines have lights, sounds, timing, and various other tricks that make people believe they can figure out the pattern to guarantee success. Looking back at your story of the gambling addict who believed he was always winning, he\’s a prime example of that; he always thought he\’d solved the probabilistic equation of gambling even while he was losing all his money.

    Lockboxes have no such mechanism. They\’re not going to trick you into thinking you can \”solve\” them. They\’re just a fun diversion that costs a little money, like a cake walk. So could people become addicted? Yes. Is it likely? Are they set up in a way that makes addiction likely in the way gambling does? No. Not at all.

    So I am, as is frequently the case, somewhere in the middle. The brain is a terrifyingly simple mechanism, despite being infinitely complex. Anything can become addictive to the right – or wrong – person. However, some things are more likely to become addictive than others. F2P can certainly take advantage of this, but I suspect that it\’s often no different from the sub models; the addiction\’s likely to come from the patterns of gameplay itself or the probability of loot drops than anything else.

    At any rate, great post, and thanks for the invitation to check it out!

  3. I’m not sure I’m sold on the points made here overall. At the same time I don’t really know what to think about the connection between gambling mechanics and lockboxes, which I think is the most important part of this argument.

    I liked the point you made about there being no “getting closer” argument, but then Stubborn highlight the same issue I take with it: patterns leading to rewards. There can be no doubt that players must feel on some level that the more lockboxes they buy the closer they are to beating the odds. In fact, that money is abstract makes it much more likely that it is akin to lockboxes (mechanically) than not. The abstraction of games means we might feel more comfortable shelling out unlimited cash each month for virtual products because we believe that the behavior isn’t indicative of any malign behavior (such as addiction).

    Still, when looking at the mechanics of gambling and those of lockboxes it’s very difficult to deny the similarities which is why I think it’s very difficult to claim they aren’t analagous. Slots are more akin to lockboxes, but they are definitely still a form of gambling. I’ve not seen anyone believe otherwise because it seems so silly; of course slots are gambling machines. It seems then that lockboxes are too.

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