Why Opening Loot Boxes Feels Like Christmas, According To Game Devs

Opening Overwatch loot boxes or Halo 5 REQ packs adds a special drama to a gaming session. The crate shakes. A jingle chimes. Lights peek out from the cracks. It swells with potential. Game developers make subtle design decisions that stoke the hope that keeps players opening mystery boxes, crates and packs. And not just on the stats side of things — just as important are the cosmetics of the experience.

A combination of visual and aural factors can make it feel like Christmas, and that's intentional according to people we recently spoke to who explained the designs of three totally different mystery mechanics.

Here's the thinking behind each:

Overwatch Loot Boxes

During Overwatch's Lunar New Year event, I tore through loot boxes with a single-minded goal: Roadhog's "Bajie" skin. It drove me crazy. I'd watch the special edition box's gears churn and shake until it exploded in fireworks. When the items hit the ground, gold nuggets rained from the sky. The whole experience is kinetic, a song and dance of lights and movement. It dulled the pain of never getting that skin.

Overwatch loot boxes are like live animals, active and full of mystery. From the plain loot crate to the Christmas gift to the Lunar New Year fireworks, they always feel like wrapped presents, hiding something that could satisfy some desire. That's because their developers Michael Heiberg and Jeremy Craig were deliberate in their designs. Originally, for their Halloween crate, they briefly considered a sinister jack-o-lantern before deciding it didn't give off that "present" vibe. "It looked really cool and hit the Halloween theme well, but it didn't evoke a feeling of being inviting and desirable," Heiberg said. But he acknowledged that most people don't really want to open up jack-o-lanterns. "Instead, we went with more of a jack-o-lantern themed candy bucket that (if you have a sweet tooth like me) definitely hits those notes."

Overwatch box animations maximise on anticipation. They break open, shake, spit into the air and rain down items, never revealing what you receive until the very end. The rewards almost feel tacked-on to the opening experience. "When you start opening a loot box, we want to build anticipation," Heiberg said. "We do this in a lot of ways — animations, camera work, spinning plates, and sounds. We even build a little anticipation with the glow that emits from a loot box's cracks before you open it." Originally, coloured lights preceding the spinning plates hinted at the items' rarity. It drew the eye to one item in particular at the expense of others. "We quickly learned that this was too early, and it killed your anticipation of the box's contents," Heiberg said.

Duelyst Mystery Crates

Collectible card game Duelyst's mystery crates look like some combination of layer cake and wedding ring. They come in tiers: Common, rare and epic, each garnished with the requisite amount of gold. "We wanted them to look like nice, futuristic Pandora's boxes," Counterplay Games co-founder Emil Anticevic told me. The "Intricate metalwork, hyper-stylised" look was originally drawn by hand, and then rendered in 3D. The sound design, which Anticevic describes as "a lightly-shaking silver spoon", adds to their tinkery, jewel-like feel. "There's a physicality to they key and the crate opening, but once the items are revealed one by one, you hear a subtle chime that feels close, but not assertive," Anticevic explained.

Unlike games like FIFA 17, Duelyst wanted a quick opening experience. There's no reveal animation. The anticipation mostly rests in the crates' design, which Anticevic says he crafted to look valuable. "The crate blows open, each side flies off, and we shoot off some wisps of light that carry into the cosmetics [items]," Anticevic said. He emphasised that the design isn't aimed at players who want to open several crates — they steered clear of "gacha" design decisions.

Halo 5 REQ Packs

YouTubers are obsessed with opening Halo 5 REQ packs in long, rushed strings, sometimes over a hundred at a time. That's because they feel a little like potato chips — perfectly understated and best consumed in bulk. The packs are plain, Spartan card designs that, when opened, burst into about a dozen other cards displaying won items. Confetti and a small tinkling sound or cheer accompany their opening, but essentially, the design is totally downplayed, even for higher-tier packs.

"We never give anybody everything they want right away," Halo 5 lead progression designer Christopher Bloom told me. "We designed from a place of empathy. We wanted it to be this festive Christmas experience. You're waiting for your kid to open a package, but you can't do it all the time or you lose the specialness."

Bloom didn't want to the REQ packs to be too ornate or the opening experience to be too drawn-out, or it could take away from the rush of opening several at once. His team didn't want to "distract the player too much," he said. "You don't want to make anything too long because some users open multiple in a row. You don't want to frustrate them too much."

Bloom explained that the packs' pulsating opening can feel a little like slot machines or a dealt poker hand. "It's the possibility you might get extremely lucky. Ideally there's value in everything you open. You like what you get but there's always something else you kind of want to get."


What are your favourite mystery mechanics and why? Tell us in the comments.


Comments

    These developers have done a good job of making the act of opening loot boxes or packs visually appealing, but often I don't care about any of the contents. Having played both Overwatch and Halo 5 I open the boxes/packs because they're available but it is all very anti-climatic, especially in Halo 5 where 90% of everything you get is consumable XP/REC boosts or Warzone cards, neither of which I use.

    Where you see loot box animations and are praising them... I am a bit disgusted cause decades of research has been done on this by casino and poker machine companies. That visual and sound design influences spending and effect the pleasure centres of the brain to entice more spending (and distract players from the money they spend)... they go so far as to patent and copyright design elements (graphics and sounds) that influences a persons spending on one armed bandits and how it influences addictive gamblers.

      Gaming (video/tabletop/etc) has a much longer history of driving behaviour in players by stimulating reward centres of the brain than slot machines do. An old friend of mine who used to work for Aristocrat in the 90s noted that video games were a major research reference because of how well they manipulate player behaviour.

      The only difference with slot machines is the behaviour they encourage is less healthy, but they work in fundamentally the same way.

      It looks and feels dirty and I feel that taking people's money and only giving them a chance at what they want is the worst kind of micro transaction but I suspect it is also the most profitable. People and devs will defend it with mental gymnastics. Anything to avoid calling it what it really is. Gambling.

      They sit in an unregulated space and they know it. 'Real' gambling is regulated. What they do is not. The devs, with their own online services, often sell prepaid cards or credit too. Loot boxes look, sound and walk like the proverbial duck.

      Yeah, but this is worse than regular gambling because this actually targets kids.

    Yes its fun to an extent, now its just annoying opening boxes/packs and so forth and get the same thing over and over. This is where gambling comes to play. (I hate Overwatch lootboxes currently cause every 2nd box is 4 duplicates ...)

    It's exactly like Christmas. You get a delicately wrapped present full of mystery and wonder. Then you open it and it's just a pair of socks.

    I spent way too much money on Mass Effect 3's multiplayer packs trying to get a particular character. I only wanted that one character, so I justified to myself that I wouldn't buy any more as soon as I got him. I probably could have bought a second copy of the game for what I ended up spending :/ Won't be making the same mistake with Andromeda.

    "Overwatch loot boxes are like live animals, active and full of mystery."

    Until you get into high levels and then every standard loot box is pretty much guaranteed to be 4 duplicates. The only mystery is in how many credits you'll get from all the dupes.

    Last edited 21/03/17 4:02 pm

    Christmas for the devs maybe

    And then they add it to something like Horizon: Zero Dawn, where a "reward" box either contains useless materials or a specific, predetermined item, rendering the former predictably dull in every case, and the latter an unfathomably odd game-design choice.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now