By now, it seems that just about every free-to-play game includes some form of lockboxes. I’ve picked up a gazillion in Team Fortress 2, The Lord of the Rings Online, and Star Trek Online (and have over a hundred in the non-F2P Guild Wars 2), and my feelings about them are mixed. On the one hand, I can see how they’re an easy way for F2P games to give players an attractive option for spending money: buy a key, get loot. Instant gratification!

On the other hand, there’s a certain kind of… I don’t know if I want to go so far as to say “deception.” Obfuscation? Insidiousness? Maybe those are better terms. Lockboxes aren’t an evil on par with pay-to-win, but they’re definitely a cunning way to make you pay for something you already have.

Well, even that’s not really accurate. Just because a lockbox dropped for you doesn’t mean you really “have” any loot. You have nothing until you go to the cash shop and buy a key. Depending on whether you can sell the locked boxes, you might be better off with a piece of vendor trash you can hock for a few pieces of copper.

The lure is there, though… you’ve got this shiny little chest that contains untold treasures, and all you have to do to access them is plop down a dollar or two. Of course, the game could just sell you something called a “Random Loot Box” direct in the cash shop for the same amount that a key costs, but you probably wouldn’t be as enticed to buy it because you don’t already have half of the equation sitting in your inventory, tempting you with its promise of riches.

Amazing revelation here: Some companies are really good at figuring out clever ways to separate you from your money. It’s how the casinos stay in business. In effect, a lockbox is really just an ad directing you to the cash shop to buy a key.

And if your attitude is, “I don’t really like lockboxes, but I buy a few keys every now and then,” I’m sorry to say you actually do like lockboxes and you want to see more of them. Because when you spend money on keys, that tells the developers that they can make money on them, and thus encourages them to put more in the game, or in their next game, or to add them to their game that doesn’t already have them. Lockboxes keep popping up for the same reason you keep getting e-mails offering cheap Viagara from the work-from-home (making $55/hour) Nigerian Finance Minister – because they work.

Lockboxes aren’t quite as deceptive as e-mail spam, since they generally give what’s offered, albeit randomly. Me, I prefer not to spend my money on random loot; I got enough of that during my trading-card-game days. Maybe you feel differently, and that’s fine. After all, these companies have to make money somehow, and if they can find someone willing to shell out for treasure of dubious quality, good for them. As always, the power is with the player to decide what will and won’t be acceptable, and players by and large have spoken.

What’s your opinion on lockboxes? Do you open them or junk them? And how do you feel in general about the practice?

By Jason Winter

34 Readers Commented

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  1. vixion on July 1, 2013

    in Tera i got a few millions off some keys i got for free from an event and the boxes sell well but there’s so many that the price is insignificant but they have a chance of having gems that you can sell at vendors for A LOT of gold…

  2. Padsoldier on July 1, 2013

    I do not like lockboxes. They can be auctioned to stupid people for some quick money, but other than that, they just take up some inventory slots and do not allow useful items in there.
    I do not open them and probably won’t open any of them, because paying a subscription or using real-money to get in-game advantages isn’t fair, and the bigger problem is, that it costs money. I do not play F2P games or buy games so that I can spend money later, I buy them to be able to play without further expenditure.
    Also, they’re a very annoying kind of advertisement, just like the ones before a video on Youtube (thank goodness AdBlocks exist).

  3. DMflatron on June 30, 2013

    btw. hopefully tf2 has a trade system and you can trade keys for items

  4. DMflatron on June 30, 2013

    i stack them on my inventory just in case i win the lottery and spend some money on the game to unlock them all 😛

  5. Tatsu Ayers on June 30, 2013

    Lockboxes are pretty idiotic. If you can assure a customer they will get something they WILL pay for it. If you make it a chance then only those prone to gambling addictions will be idiotic enough to use them unless you are rolling in the cash.

    Videogames are not Vegas. We are not winning the megabux lotto with a lockbox.

    Simply offer a player the ability to pay outright and they will fork over cash happily. Where I live it isn’t Asia. Lockboxes have limited appeal to me as a US gamer. Sorry to the companies that use these. They could be scoring my cash, but lock boxes will never be anything, but a novelty to me.

  6. GamingMaster on June 30, 2013

    well on star trek online I sell master keys that open lockboxes and I made over 10 mil selling them..

    never going to open one cause waste of money…

  7. Gravy on June 30, 2013

    Sell them in the Auction House to fools who would buy them! (e.g. games like Neverwinter and Tera)
    The world is wide and huge, just like eBay, you’ll never understand why some people buy junk stuff. But hey, i’ll cool as long as people kept buying all my junk boxes, tht helps me out by earning some in game cash to spend on pots.

    • Bic Boi on June 30, 2013

      This is true. A fool and his money are soon parted.

  8. anip on June 29, 2013

    It’s just a concept developed from “Gachaphon” (which is partly illegal now in Japan)

    Because it was deemed to be “online gambling with real money by kids”

    IE: Minors Gambling on Poker with Real Money (same thing, it’s just a game, but it still have money involved)

  9. Golgo28 on June 29, 2013

    Well I look at it like this they rarely give out the must have loot so there is no reason to buy the keys.Unless you have a couple bucks and looking to do a little gambling.If someone is unable to control their gambling is more the fault of the individual.I personally only buy the keys on rare occasions usually when I had bought some points for a cash shop and have some points leftover.I do this on EQ2 I’ll sometimes buy some station cash buy some appearance items or exp potions and sometimes have some leftover points.So I’ll buy a booster pack for legends of norrath.Just on the off chance I’ll get a loot card.Is it a gamble?yes.Do I need to buy them?no.But like lottery ticket if you got a couple bucks extra I figure take a chance.If you end up dropping hundreds of dollars on the keys,booster packs or lock boxes you should seek help.Cause moderation is always the key to anything you do in life.

  10. Monsterfurby on June 29, 2013

    It’s always kind of a balance that needs to be kept. Yes, you can stay away from them and save a lot of money, but Booster Packs made Magic the Gathering a huge success, and Lockboxes are nothing different. They appeal to a very basic instinct, the same one that makes people enjoy gambling.

    Here’s the catch, though: Gambling is not bad per se. Lockboxes can provide some fun in the thrill of getting that awesome item you wanted or being surprised by something you didn’t even expect would be cool. What IS bad though is UNCONTROLLED gambling.

    Lockbox systems basically circumvent the legal checks on gambling present in many jurisdictions – and THAT is not okay. These systems should be able to be switched off client-side (disabling lockbox drops) and, when enabled, come with a WARNING regarding their potentially addictive nature.

    In summary: lockboxes, as a form of gambling, are not bad per se (gambling CAN be fun if you have a grip on your spending), but they should be declared as what they are instead of being imposed on gamers through frankly dishonest means.

  11. Kendah on June 29, 2013

    First lockbox i ever seen was in STO, ofc had no idea how it really worked so tried to open few and was really pissed, rage on forum 🙂

    Lockboxes in sto and gw2 are the worst, I have opened quite few in swtor & neverwinter (same developers of sto I know) and stuff that comes out of these are at least useful to use or to sell…my main objective in opening lockboxes in neverwinter is to collect enough tarmalune bars. As for sto, keys are for auction only….& gw2, haven’t logged in for long time now.

  12. Thiagotw on June 29, 2013

    And who knows how they control the “lucky” system… i stop to belive on lucky when i see a padron on Champions Online lockboxes

  13. longtimegamer on June 29, 2013

    I remember in some games like Champions Online the lockboxes are random… you more than often get junk in them. Some games are like this they don’t give you automatically good loot some have a “chance” at good loot so its like playing the lottery, buy a ticket (key) and play for the chance at big winnings (most the time you get junk).

    I hate lockboxes its just another way a gaming company tries to milk more money from its players. Even if it was guaranteed to give you a piece of gear you might not even get an upgrade or something you can actually use like a caster getting a 2 handed warriors sword. I would prefer a game drop lottery tickets you take to an NPC to try for a good chance at loot for free and sell a cash shop item like a good luck charm to put in the NPC’s ticket redeem window to increase the chances at a good item that way I could use tickets for free and those that like the “buy from cash shop” lockbox system could still buy the charms and get the same items or chance at items they did with the keys.

  14. DubGuySeven on June 29, 2013

    In Rift u have the Option buy for real money or in auctions for Ingame Platin
    And u can get Boxes and Keys in Instances.

  15. removalmitt on June 29, 2013

    If ppl are dumb enough to spend real cash on obtaining the keys then gratz to the the company. I find it funny when those ppl then post in the forums complaining they spent over xxx amount on currency/keys and got just useless stuff. I play GW2 and there are periodically yet frequent posts complaining about this.

  16. Thedevilr on June 29, 2013

    Thé lockbox are a really bad idea, you pay for nothing cause they give you an another item … dont but this **** .

  17. jonathansty on June 29, 2013

    I don’t really mind there are lockboxes in games like TF2 or Guild Wars 2. A gaming company has to make money out of something! I rather have lockboxes than a cash shop full of gear you can buy. If you can buy gear in the cash shop. The game is entering the “pay to win” zone. Lockboxes generally don’t give a lot of gear. There is a chance you get gear. In TF2 it gives you weapons. But you can find weapons. And a “special” weapon doesn’t necessarily mean a better one. I use the default sniper although I have most of the “special” ones. All those people that say. That lockboxes are another way of making money, are right. But let me ask you this question: “How would a f2p game make money without selling stuff?”

  18. 70calories on June 29, 2013

    I never pick em up lol

  19. Bic Boi on June 29, 2013

    SWTOR has pretty much these, except they’re called Cartel packs or something. Admittedly–they do contain a pile of awesome stuff that you can’t get EXCEPT from these Cartel packs..but still, the fact it’s only a chance keeps me from ever dropping money on it because if I get something I’m not interested in (or even want to use) I will start dropping F-bombs and wondering why I dropped the coinage when I could’ve had more –guaranteed– satisfaction from a bag of Doritos.

  20. Razer on June 28, 2013

    It’s another shyster tactic from shyster video game companies. If you’re stupid enough to buy these, then you deserve to have your money taken away from you. Gambling is for morons that can’t comprehend probability.

    • Razer on June 28, 2013

      Stay free, kids.

      • Kyle Roy on July 1, 2013

        Actually, people with a moderate understanding of probability should be gambling. The reason /most/ people lose all of their money is because they couldn’t even /begin/ to understand something as simple as “always Hit at 16, Stay at 17 85% of the time” in Blackjack.

        I’ve never gambled (with real money, at least) a moment in my life, but various simulations have proven that anyone with a high enough knowledge of probability can win enough money for a casino to kick them out with relatively little effort. Does that mean everyone should be able to? Nope. Not in the US, at least, because Americans are taught by the schools to be too stupid for that. Does that make it impossible? No. Highly improbable? More or less. Does that mean if you gamble that immediately makes you a moron? Not even remotely. Most morons will gamble, but not all gamblers are morons.

        But enough proving wrong someone who, perhaps ironically, words their statements in a way that makes them sound like an arrogant tool.

        Lockboxes, which is the actual topic at hand, /can/ be considered gambling. However, it can also be considered small monetary support to the game’s developers when you’re the kind of person who has little cash to spend every month. If you choose to look at it as gambling, you think about things rather negatively but hey that’s your choice.

        Personally, I believe the smarter thing to do would be for people to merely save up enough money for a few months of Subscription to the game because MOST MMOs with such things have a subscription option and USUALLY they offer some kind of free openings for subscribers. Whether it be like DCUO where they got X amount of keys per 24 hours or whether they get to open them for free indefinitely, the logical option would be to stockpile them until you had the subscription and then go on a spree. It would still be supporting the developers and it would potentially cost you as less as 20% of how much you would normally pay for lockboxes. Of course, how much you save is purely dependent on how many lockboxes you stored.

        What the companies choose to do with the popularity of the boxes, however, will not only create statistics on the average frequency of lockbox loot drops with which the players are comfortable — It will also show whether or not the company is trying to please their playerbase or trying to stuff their wallets like a turkey.

        In general, I feel it would be better to buy the keys (in moderation, of course) in order to discover the true nature of the developers. An MMO could be the best on the market, but whether or not the devs do what they do more for the players than themselves should decide if they deserve to be further supported regardless of the method.

        • Razer on July 1, 2013

          “I’ve never gambled (with real money, at least) a moment in my life”
          Apparently you don’t even have a “moderate understanding of probablility”? And you call me the arrogant tool…

          Blackjack is the exception, not the rule. That’s the only one where you can beat the system without modifying variables. I was aware of that but it has little relevance here. Would you prefer it if I had said “Gambling is for morons that can’t comprehend probability unless you have the advanced arithmetic skills for mastering the technique of card counting in one specific game”? For the sake of brevity I chose not to.

          When it comes to finding the odds on a lockbox, I would prefer to look for a consensus in the community. It’s much cheaper to let idiots blow their money and reveal the results than to do it with your own money.

          I’ve bought some keys for TF2 in the past to unlock specific crates when all outcomes were desirable but at that point it isn’t really gambling, is it?

  21. FPS2RPG on June 28, 2013

    Never opened them because you pay for loot you can get for free…

    • ed on June 28, 2013

      How do you get the loot for free if it’s only available in a cash stop?

      • no on June 30, 2013

        you dont…you leave and give no shts

  22. Han Shot First on June 28, 2013

    I hate lockboxes. Hate, hate, HATE lockboxes. Or more specifically, I hate gambling.

    When I go to Vegas, it’s for the free booze and cheap buffets. I do NOT gamble. And that’s precisely what lockboxes are: the stupidest form of gambling ever.

    I never, ever buy “keys”, but if one comes my way via random drop or quest reward, then (and only then) *might* I use it to open a lockbox… but only if I can’t sell the key itself.

    • endii on June 30, 2013

      phattest BS i have read in a while !
      Cool story tho !

      • ooh ooh let me! on July 1, 2013

        Pretty Hot Ass Tenderest BS? lol
        Sorry, I wanted a go at the “phattest” spelling there XD

  23. Ed on June 28, 2013

    I have a love hate relationship w/lock boxes. Much like lottery tickets, I know I’m very likely not to win. But, it’s the hope of winning that I can’t resist. Ultimately I feel it’s a dirty business. When I first heard of micro-transactions I thought they would be much more micro. This week I spent about $35 on gems in GW2. Almost as much as the game cost me originally. I did this because I wanted a dragon skin weapon. Was it smart? NO. And it didn’t end well for me. I got a mini-pet after opening 25 “rich dragon coffers”. I miss my subscription to WoW. $14.99/month is dirt cheap and I have the ability to get anything the game offered if I’m willing to work at it.

  24. dirtyzerg on June 28, 2013

    never opened one and not gonna start..

  25. UmiBrumi on June 28, 2013

    MOUNTED !
    And btw loot boxes are shit :/ I cant believe people spend money on this :/

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