Does Wizard101 Have a Pack Problem?

Most of the time, I stick to posts concerning in-game mechanics and features. But once in awhile, it's nice to step backward and out of the Spiral universe for a moment and talk a little more broadly. With the recent introduction of the Grizzleheim Lore Pack and some of the really awesome spells it drops, there have been renewed complaints about pack drop rates and the overall pack structure. Let's break it down.

A Little Background

Packs have been around for a long time now in Wizard101, all the way back to the Dragon's Hoard Pack some number of years ago. There's a renewed interest in this discussion not only because of the Grizzleheim Lore Pack, but also because KingsIsle is planning a Crown Shop cleanup in which an astonishing ten packs are being removed! It looks like they are being replaced by small Crown Shop bundles which will be available for a very limited time, as with the Pharaoh's Hoard Pack. On one hand, here's something people have been asking for - a simple, easy way to get pack items without spending a ton of crowns. On the other hand, it also means that everyone who spent a bunch of crowns to get those items previously loses out. There's a whole other discussion to be had about whether or not exclusive items should be made available in other ways, but that's a discussion for a different day.

AwesomeTheSauce recently did a video on his experience with the Grizzleheim Lore Pack, noting its poor drop rate and the fact that he didn't get any spell despite opening over 100,000 crowns worth of packs. Of course, this is simply a matter of luck, but that's a lot of bad luck. Is the chance of getting any of the spells really less than a third of 1%? Surely not. It is important to note that our Community Manager, Mathew (a.k.a. "Sparck" and "Bat Masterson") was nice enough to do a check into one of the claims in the video that the drop rate was changed after removing the pack from the Crown Shop. Sparck found that no such changes to drop rates had ever occurred in packs. But that doesn't mean there aren't other issues.

Packs, Loot Boxes, and Pay to Win Mechanics (Oh My!)

Loot boxes work similarly to packs in that they offer a number of items which could be cosmetic or actually impact game play and are awarded randomly upon purchasing the "box" or pack or whatever else contains the items. Overwatch and Star Wars Battlefront II really brought these into the spotlight, and the games have both been criticized for it. 

"Pay to Win" mechanics - or items and other features that require payments to get you ahead in a game - have never been a favorite among players. That said, the ultimate goal - even of a "free to play" game - is, of course, to get players to pay.

New Statesman America has this to say on the matter:

Some players will pay a little bit to ease their time in a free to play game and take the edge off the grind, especially if they hit points where progress really gets slow. Other players will play for free, forever. Others, known in the industry as “whales”, will spend money in large amounts. For a free to play multiplayer game a developer has to know how to keep all three groups of players on side, because to lose one is to inevitably lose them all. 

So how do you keep the players who are paying nothing interested in the game? Well the first thing you have to do is to convince them that they are not there merely as targets for the paying customers. This is not easy to do because anybody who plays a free to play game without paying money for it is exactly that. If you are playing a free to play game and you’re not paying anything you are not a customer, you are content. Maybe you’re a target in PvP, or maybe you’re there to make a town look more crowded, but you’re still there to keep the paying customers happy. That said the developers still need to keep the free players happy, if they lose them the game starts to feel empty and the other players leave. This means that playing a free to play game, even without paying, can still be fun.

KingsIsle Trends

KingsIsle has gotten some new marketing folks in the not-so-distant past, and the difference in overall strategy is apparent. They're targeting the "whales" of the game not just with packs (which can appeal to a variety of types of players, including those who just want to spend a little) but with the ultra-controversial Crowns Reward Events. This event is an effort to dress up a push for money from the wealthiest players as a "reward" for crowns players who are already spending crowns. Of course, no one is spending 550,000 crowns or even 150,000 crowns in a weekend. KingsIsle knows that and we know that, but the selling point is going to continue to be that "it's just a reward for spending what you already would." The problem is that this particular audience has seen right through that.

Gameforge, who gets Wizard101 from KingsIsle and distributes it to European countries, has used slightly different business models over the years. They're had free weekends and free tournaments and so forth, not just to attempt to reel in new players, but also to turn their free-to-play players into more content for their paying players, just like New Statesman explained. This approach has been part of what's prompted calls for a completely free Wizard City, and KingsIsle did a good job of responding to that call by having a weekend in which Wizard City was free, if only for a limited time.

Both Wizard101 and Pirate101 have been trying to also make the free-to-play portions of their game, and other early content, as engaging as possible. Pirate101 did this (somewhat unsuccessfully) several years back. Wizard101 is attempting it with their First Time User Experience update. It's one of many recent updates which add additional items to the Crown Shop or attempt to polish content accessible to all levels.

Overall, there has been an increased focus on microtransactions. That means more items to purchase in the Crown Shop, a new tier of crowns to purchase from the Wizard101 website for even more money, and new systems and events like the Scrolls of Fortune that are designed to provide additional rewards to people who can afford to spend a little extra. Leah, or "Professor Falmea," a producer for Wizard101 and Pirate101 (is there still any production to be done there, though?) wrote at length about the Scrolls of Fortune and what they were intended to be and not be, and while KingsIsle continues to take feedback into account, it seems that this feature is already set and open to the public for this fall. KingsIsle doesn't generally take a lot of feedback on its marketing approaches. Pirate101 has had a slightly different approach in which a lot of the mechanics there simply take time to complete - from training pets to companion tasks and companion "wounds," all of which can be skipped with crowns purchases.

International Regulations & the Senate Move to Ban Loot Boxes

Loot boxes haven't just generated complaints from players - they've generated legislative action! The Netherlands and Belgium have banned loot boxes. This law comes with incredible penalties, which include fines of nearly $800,000 and potential prison sentences, especially where minors are involved or being taken advantage of. Overwatch has complied with this law by at least disallowing the purchase of loot boxes with real currency in its game in those regions. Those bans aren't the only regulations, though.

China and South Korea are now requiring any sort of "virtual lottery ticket" to come with a detailed explanation of the exact chances of getting any one item. (This is one of the potential solutions to packs that AwesomeTheSauce discusses in his video.) This came in handy for Overwatch players, after the reveal of loot box chances in South Korea was confirmed to be the same across all regions. Thus, one country's law revealed the odds to everyone. That's a significant regulation given that China generated a whopping $34.4 billion - with a "b" - U.S. dollars in revenue from gaming last year in 2018 (see data here). The United States trails only slightly behind with $31.54 billion dollars in revenue. Countries like Australia, which don't make nearly the revenue from gaming, still have stricter regulations on their industry than the U.S.

There has been some debate as to whether loot boxes are the same thing as card packs. And what better comparison than with Blizzard's Hearthstone? They're digital packs of playing cards which can be purchased with in-game gold or real money, very similar to what Wizard101 offers. Despite the bans in Belgium and the Netherlands, Blizzard (who also makes Overwatch) has been able to continue to offer packs in Hearthstone, which may suggest that the packs are either okay or able to narrowly skirt the law, but they almost certainly meet the same sort of definitions of gambling. And Wizard101's "packs" more closely resemble Overwatch's loot boxes, offering items and goods rather than the playing cards that Hearthstone packs do. Still, even the naming complicates the situation - if digital card packs are banned for promoting gambling (data and research suggest that they do indeed have the same psychological effects), what about physical card packs? Aren't they the same thing? That may be the next question.

One of the issues is transferability. PC Gamer explains that this "refers to whether or not the items you get in loot boxes can be transferred from one person to another, which could allow them to become a commodity in real money transactions. This draws a line between loot boxes in a game like Overwatch, in which you can’t trade skins and sprays you get from boxes, and crates in a game like CS:GO, in which skin trading is a huge part of the metagame ecosystem. In some territories, the Overwatch model would not be considered gambling as per existing laws, while the CS:GO model could be." KingsIsle could be safe in that case given that they have never had any real trading system (I believe they've talked about fears of real-world purchasing of items and account stealing if trading were allowed.) Treasure Cards, though, are tradeable. That could be a big deal because some have suggested that Wizard101 is in a currency crisis. I'd argue that Wizard101 hasn't really established any kind of economy outside of TCs, which are hardly in a crisis state.

Packs would almost certainly have to show their odds of "dropping" certain items in China. But the Chinese and Taiwanese distributor Taomee, who brought Wizard101 to China and Taiwan after a painstaking change to many in-game visuals, shut the game down in those countries in 2015.

Recent events in the U.S. have put videogames in the spotlight, and led Walmart to ban the display and sale of violent video games, prompting swift backlash from gaming communities. This stems in part from a portion of the U.S. population sharing the opinion of Missouri senator Josh Hawley, who claims that videogames are "siphoning our kids' attention from the real world." His proposed bill would ban "randomized or partially-randomized microtransactions—loot boxes—as well as pay-to-win systems that 'artificially' manipulate difficulty to encourage spending or enable the purchase of competitive advantages in multiplayer games." (See the article on PC Gamer for more.) That would almost certainly include packs in Wizard101. The bill still has a very long way to go. It has to gain support within the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation before a full introduction to the Senate could even begin. That said, we could be hearing more about this bill later on down the line - it has bipartisan support in the Senate and a wide variety of gamers would also like to see these types of transactions disappear.

United States Consumer Trends

The United Kingdom is currently allowing the videogame industry to self-regulate (which doesn't always work out well) and the United States has been even more silent on these issues, having not passed any serious legislation regarding the loot boxes or gambling despite Senator Hawley's efforts.

The gaming community, however, can and does speak with the wallet. The response to Electronic Arts' Star Wars Battlefront II and its loot boxes cost the company $3.1 billion in stock value. Ouch. This eventually led to EA completely removing loot boxes from the game! KingsIsle - take note. While Asian territories tend to be more willing to spend money on microtransactions, the United States, along with Japan and Western Europe, are not. In China, microtransations make up 88% of all money spent on PC gaming! That doesn't mean that these microtransactions aren't gaining traction elsewhere, though - they are. And pay to win strategies work for gaming companies - including KingsIsle.

Following existing trends hasn't always worked out for KingsIsle, so they should continue to listen closely to their player base and be unafraid of big changes. IHS Market reports that mobile spending grew 55% in 2016 and was going to overtake spending on PC games in 2017, which did indeed occur in July of that year. This suggested plenty of promise in the development of those types of games. However, KingsIsle's attempted shift to mobile wasn't right for its audience - something the audience said early on.

An Exploration of Solutions

We've explored the issue on a pretty big scale. Now let's bring it back home. What, if anything, can be done about packs? What should be done about packs? Are packs even a problem, or are people just upset with their poor luck?

KingsIsle really doesn't have to do anything - and that's probably exactly what they'll do - nothing. They have a business model that is largely working when it comes to packs and has been for a long time. This can lead to frustrated players which means that changes to packs could have some positive effects for them, however. If they chose to implement any changes to packs, there have been plenty of ideas floating around.

AwesomeTheSauce suggests three in his video. One is disclosing the pack drop rates. The idea is that people are perfectly willing to spend money on a game. There's really no need to trick them as to what they're buying. If putting new mounts and gear in the Crown Shop doesn't do it for them, they could at least explain the exact chances of getting certain items from packs. We know that Overwatch has done it and I don't see any signs of Overwatch slowing down. Recently, Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony all committed to releasing loot box drop rates. Let's see the same for packs from KingsIsle!

For the Grizzleheim Lore Pack in particular, spells could be made craftable with TCs available only from the pack at first, per AwesomeTheSauce's suggestion. (Additionally, he makes an important note that Reindeer Knight and Headless Horseman still aren't craftable and only drop during the holiday seasons.) This obviously wouldn't apply to mounts or other drops from packs, but it doesn't necessarily need to. Most pack items - with the exception of a lot of wands and some gear - is cosmetic. The mounts definitely are, and pets can be hatched. But spells can change the whole game. And with this pack, a much-awaited four-pip Life AoE has the potential to make a big splash in the PvP meta and in how Life wizards play through PvE content.

The other idea that has been presented in a wide variety of forms is working toward loot. AwesomeTheSauce suggests getting to choose any reward from a pack after buying 100. Another user on Central suggests increasing your odds of getting something good with each pack purchase. This is similar to other proposed systems in which you build up some kind of tokens or value over time to cash in for rewards. It's not terribly unlike the way Wizard101 set up gear crafting in Empyrea.

Do you think Wizard101 has a pack problem?

Thanks for reading and see you in the Spiral!

No comments

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.