'Fortnite' UX Director Explains Why Some Loot Boxes Really Are Gambling

As the world's most popular game, Fortnite pleases millions of players each day. Part of that satisfaction comes from the strategies employed by Epic Games UX Director Celia Hodent. In simple terms, it's her job to help game designers make games that make players happy by appealing to human psychology. If you've spent many hours playing Fortnite this year, it's partly her doing.

Aside from keeping gamer retention numbers high, however, UX strategists like Hodent work with game creators to craft Loot Box schemes that satisfy players and cultivate an additional revenue stream for developers. Loot Boxes spread to the mainstream through titles like Overwatch in 2016, and hit peak controversy late last year following the release of Star Wars Battlefront II. Compelled by a randomized reward system that some politicians called " a Star Wars-themed online casino," players felt forced to spend real-world money on abilities and characters essential to the full Star Wars experience.

"Loot boxes are just like gambling. You have to pay for something, and you don't know what you're going to get," Hodent told Newsweek, clarifying that it's exceptionally true in cases where items can be sold back and recycled for repeated purchases

While Battlefront II has since redesigned its Loot Box model amidst threat of regulation in European nations, Hodent views such retractions as positive steps toward an industry-wide conversation about ethics. While she's fine with the cosmetic-focused Loot Llamas available in Fortnite that can't be resold, she believes there's inherent danger in Loot Boxes being made available to children and those with addictive personalities.

"We know that when there is randomization people are more enticed to open more boxes and get more things. We've been using that idea for decades in things like card packs. What's a bit different with games is that the dematerialization of money removes a barrier. When you buy a card pack as a kid, you need to ask your parents for physical money and the transaction is very concrete. When money is not physical anymore, it's way easier for people to buy it without the moment where you see the money leaving your pocket. It's harder to stop yourself," she said.

In order to be successful in that venture, "you need to pay attention to players' perception and motivation so people are happy to pay for your game," Hodent explained. "To do that you have to be very careful that the game is not-pay-to-win. First of all it's not a good practice, and second of all, people really hate that. If people feel that you're pushing them to pay so they can be more competent in the game, then you're going to have a huge backlash. The whole point is to make sure the game can be profitable without feeling predatory so everyone's happy." Studios might need Loot Boxes to stay afloat in a free-to-play economy, but those like Hodent and her team do their best to make sure the model is fair for everyone.

In Hodent's mind, those goals collide when dealing with teens or persons with low self-control. "Self-control is something that develops quite late in humans, so we need to protect kids. That's the reason why casinos aren't open to minors, because it's harder for teenagers to stop themselves," she said. "We need to talk about that, we need to have an ethics discussion about it."

While over-monetization through Loot Boxes has fostered what Hodent describes as a "dark pattern," the director also expressed confidence in UX concepts as long as they're implemented correctly.

Fortnite V-bucks
Loot Llamas can be purchased with V-Bucks in certain modes. Epic Games

"Anything about understanding how humans work and using that is not necessarily bad," she clarified, describing several non-gaming scenarios where similar mental "tricks" provide positive results. The same triggers that might compel us to buy a Loot Box, she says, also internalize the messages found in anti-smoking campaigns and traffic signals. Whether we're looking at the black lungs of a chronic smoker or the red hue of a stop sign, we're being nudged to behave a certain way on a cognitive level. UX directly impacts our daily lives.

Hodent closed our chat by insisting that the lens through which her science is viewed is "all about the intent." With new Loot Box legislation waiting in the wings, she hopes her fellow games industry specialists will work together to find a defined line of acceptability that both players and publishers can appreciate. If Fortnite's monthly million-dollar profits are any indication, Hodent and the rest of the Fortnite team seem to have cracked the code for loot and UX success.

Fortnite is in early access across PS4, Xbox One, PC and iOS.

What do you think of Fortnite's Loot Boxes? Will game developers ever agree on a fair monetization strategy? Tell us in the comments section!