Dota 2

In the PC Gamer Q&A, we ask our panel of writers a question about games. This week, the theme is neglecting loved ones. Which game have you snuck off from family to play during the holidays? Let us know your suggestions in the comments. 

Jody Macgregor: Terminal Velocity 

Terminal Velocity was one of the only shareware games I owned the full version of, thanks to a rich uncle who was my main source of videogames. (He also gave me a copy of the original Warcraft, which I still have in a jewel case somewhere.) It was a flight sim that played like a first-person shooter, similar to Descent but with more open levels where you flew through the sky over alien planets. After I unwrapped Terminal Velocity I spent the rest of the holiday ignoring the rellies to play it, and I still remember the way trees popped into sight before the ground they sat on, the way Target Destroyed appeared up in big white letters every time you turned an installation into a blocky explosion, and the sections where you flew inside the planet through hexagonal tunnels and I always hit the sides.I tracked down a digital copy a while back but still haven't played it again. It's enough to know that it's there in case I ever feel the need to get away from everyone. I bet I'll still get crushed by the steel doors that iris shut in the tunnels.

Andy Kelly: Euro Truck Simulator 2

Spending time with family and all that other holiday stuff is fine, sure, for a bit. But sometimes I get the urge. The urge to truck. This festive period I'll be enjoying a bit of Euro Truck Simulator 2, which has recently been expanded to include Italy. So while people are watching films they already own on DVD on the telly, peppered with adverts for January sofa sales, I'll be delivering 16 tonnes of ice-cream from Rome to Milan. But because it's the holidays I'll be doing it accompanied by rich chocolates and luxury ales. Keep on truckin'? I never stop, mate.

Philippa Warr: Dota 2

Let me tell you about a small, obscure game you may not have heard of: Dota 2. A few years ago it was a far bigger part of my life. Writing about it as a freelancer helped me pay my bills and playing it with a regular crew helped me build up a framework of friendships, new and old, after a horribly drawn-out breakup. As a result it ended up as part of my new routine and I leant on it during newly solitary holiday periods. Playing Dota 2 on my terrible laptop over Christmas in 2012 during an in-game event called The Greeviling is one of my fondest memories in gaming. It was daft, it was funny and it was time with people I love.

Tim Clark: Metroid Prime

Will anyone mind if I answer a console game? Probably, but on we go regardless. One Christmas I received Metroid Prime for the GameCube, and managed to make it to the first boss just as Christmas lunch was being served. Without being able to save before the boss, I refused to sit down and eat (bear in mind I would have been 26 at the time) until the fight was done. Somehow, despite the stress induced by my mother's obvious fury, I managed to down the boss with only a sliver of health to spare. But as soon as I entered the corridor leading from the boss room to the save point a small bat flew into my head and killed me. With it went several hours of progress. I sat silent for the most of the meal, cheeks burning with a mix of shame and resentment. The most magical time of the year. 

Samuel Roberts: Assassin's Creed Brotherhood

A few Christmases ago, instead of politely talking to my parents while they were making dinner, I sat in my room and played the challenge rooms of Assassin's Creed Brotherhood over and over again. First, it taught me that this game has some amazing kill animations, and secondly, I learned that Assassin's Creed's combat really isn't the best match for score attack modes. Still, I appreciate that they tried. 

Dota 2

Dota 2 has reworked its Ranked matchmaking system, swapping the old stacking matchmaking rating value (MMR) for a range of Seasonal Rank Medals. With it, the game's inaugural six-month Ranked Season has also kicked off.   

As detailed in this blog post, the new system represents players' "highest performance level for the current season"—meaning medals reflect their highest rank, despite the tier they play in. "A Seasonal Rank Medal never decreases in rank once you’ve achieved it. Initial calibration games will be seeded roughly based on your previous skill," reads the post. 

Across seven levels—Herald, Guardian, Crusader, Archon, Legend, Ancient, and Divine—progression is hinged on a five-star system, which looks something like this:

The post adds: "Your performance in both Party and Solo games is considered when evaluating your skill and determining when your Medal gets upgraded, with Solo games having a bigger impact. In order for players to achieve either the Ancient or Divine Medals, only Solo-game performance is considered.

"This update also expands the Leaderboard system to include many more players. Players with 5 stars on the Divine Rank Medal (the highest rank) will now have a leaderboard number listed with the medal that broadcasts their position amongst other players. This leaderboard position will always be displayed alongside the Medal, and will be visible to all players in the game and on your profile."

Dota 2

Turbo mode was one of the headline announcements when Dota 2's Dueling Fates update hit. It's a version of the main 5v5 mode where everyone picks the hero they feel like playing (no bans or particular pick order or anything) but it's a lot shorter. It's also the best thing Valve have added to the game in years. 

I think Turbo mode got a bit lost in the excitement about two new heroes—one new character is such a rare occurrence in Dota so two is like early Christmas. Plus the patch notes themselves were more than 11,000 words long, each sentence detailing a new change. With the sheer volume and complexity of stuff to parse—nap time for neutral monsters, free mangoes for particular heroes—I feel like Turbo mode ended up not exactly overlooked but, as one of the changes which was actually easy to understand, you could give it a nod and move on. 

The way it achieves brevity is as follows: each hero earns gold and experience faster so they can buy items faster and level up faster; defensive towers are weaker so it's not as hard to knock them down; respawn times are reduced meaning you spend less time definitely not grumpily tabbing out while dead; and you can buy anything from anywhere instead of summoning a long-suffering donkey or dithering in a side shop.

All of this leads to a quicker, lower-stakes style of match which is more forgiving to newcomers and rusty returnees alike. I think it might actually end up being my main mode in the same way that ARAM (all random, all mid) is in League of Legends.

Pretty much everything about the game is set up to lower toxicity.

I think the best thing here is that pretty much everything about the game is set up to lower toxicity. The matches are shorter so if you botch things up the experience will be over soon. I usually take forever to try out a new champion or step outside my comfort zone because the idea of potentially wasting an hour is a significant obstacle. It also carries the threat of other people being furious about you wasting their time. 

Defensive tower changes also mean that you don't get stuck trying to end a game. The respawn timer tweaks mean there's less downtime and thus fewer opportunities to get bored, or to be significantly absent from fights in a way that your team can feel let down by a careless death.

That doesn't mean stakes have vanished entirely. In one match I played, an Anti-Mage who had been doing sterling work needed to leave. Three of the remaining four of us were pretty chill about it and one person was hell-bent on reporting them for the abandon. I mean, I get that it's frustrating to have wasted time and we probably lost the game based on that sudden absence. But it was nice that most people on the team were typing variants of "it's fine—it's only Turbo mode" into chat instead of having a big old barney.

Dota 2 has had various forms of practice mode for a while. There's a sort of singleplayer tutorial thing where a parrot teaches a dwarf with a gun some basic principles; there are a bunch of custom game modes which let you get practice last-hitting creeps and things like that; there's a third-party thing which lets you practice the typed combos which produce the ten Invoker spells; there's a demo hero mode which lets you set your hero level, toggle invulnerability, experiment with builds and so on in an isolated mid lane scenario. None of those feel sufficiently like a real game to help ease you into playing "real" Dota matches. 

Turbo mode tends to head to clown town after about 10 minutes —for me it's the point at which I've earned more gold than I would ever normally do, bought all my support items and am eyeing up a casual Mjollnir—but before it does you still get a bit of the laning experience. You still do some warding or some ambushing. You still need to figure out pathways around the jungle, or guard against being jumped by a suddenly invisible enemy team. You still need to actually get to grips with your character's abilities. It's just that you're a kazillion times less likely to get abuse for not knowing that stuff perfectly. 

With destination clown town in mind it's not really a place where you'll learn late game strategies or how to break into a foe's base (although a couple of the changes in 7.07 might help with the latter anyway). But it's far more of a helpful playground for a Dota experience than the previous options, and far more likely to be populated given it's an official game mode rather than something hidden within custom games. 

I stopped playing Dota 2 a fair while ago because I'd ossified into a specific type of support role and the game didn't really support breaking out of that in a fun way. Since 7.07 I've actually been playing and—perhaps more surprising given previous attempts to return—genuinely having fun.

Dota 2

Months of Dota 2 fans going stir crazy for a new patch finally came to an end this week. The game's newest major patch, which comes around this time every year, is finally here to shake up Dota 2 with new items, new ability changes, and even two new heroes in the form of Dark Willow and Pangolier.

As with any big Dota patch, the Dueling Fates update will alter or break most of the winning strategies that have defined the game's current meta. We likely won't won't understand just how vital these changes are for weeks to come—especially regarding the two new heroes. The overriding motivations of the patch, however, seem clear: to make Dota more inviting to new players and to encourage more action at every stage of the game.

The first pillar of the patch is obvious. "Turbo Mode" is a new game-type that increases XP and gold gains, while letting players buy items anywhere on the map. Valve's self-professed goal with the mode is to cut match times (and the accompanying emotional investment) for new players. That seems obvious, but it's just the flashiest accessibility change among many in Dueling Fates.

Jungling has been severely nerfed with the removal of Iron Talon.

Character guides are also easier to access in-game, I noticed some new menu tooltips after starting my first game on the patch, and a rotating selection of 10 daily heroes receive bonus items just for being selected. Together these seem like a solid second step for theoretical new Dota 2 players who've cut their teeth on Turbo Mode.

For old and new players alike, Dueling Fates also generally encourages more fighting. That's been a common thread among previous patches and it makes sense. Player-to-player combat is where Dota's mechanical interactions are at their most dynamic—their most exciting to watch and perform. You rarely see Lifestealer, a character that can climb into and explode out of allies, hop inside map-wide sprinter Spirit Breaker just to harvest gold from NPC creeps, after all.

There should be a lot more opportunities for skirmishes now. Jungling has been severely nerfed with the removal of Iron Talon—one of the most essential tools for killing hearty jungle creeps. Meanwhile, lane creeps actually provide more XP and gold than before. So there's greater incentive for opposing players to dance around each other in-lane, harvesting creep waves and haranguing each other out of position.

Bounty runes (which periodically provide free gold and XP) have also shifted to more contestable locations. That means junglers can no longer offhandedly snag the golden shards between creep culls. It also likely means we'll see more fights around the runes, as players try to steal them.

While it's common for Valve to make map changes and add items, Dueling Fates is ostensibly the first patch to remove equipment entirely. The loss of Iron Talon seems like a clear message from Valve that they want players out of the jungles and closer to where things get ugly.

Speaking of items, this update includes a few new ones, too. One of the most interesting of which is Meteor Hammer. The blue basher summons great big fireballs after a three-second cast time. That's not very interesting on its own, but the kicker is that it damages buildings—making it the first item with a spell that can. Heroes like Pugna, Techies, and Jakiro have always been able to siege buildings indirectly that way, but an item is much more versatile in that anyone can carry it. 

Meteor Hammer is also just the tip of a very siege-centric iceberg. Bases no longer sport shrines, for instance, meaning defending players can't periodically heal while defending their own high ground. Extra hard-hitting siege creeps now spawn 10 minutes earlier than before—not to mention they can be made invulnerable, thanks to map-wide defensive glyphs now affecting creeps as well as buildings. And tier four towers, which defend the all-important ancients in Defense of the Ancients, no longer regenerate health.

Straightforward fighting is the order of the day yet again.

That's all a shame if you happen to be losing, but whichever team has the momentum is now more likely to keep it. It was tremendously easy to win fights for most of a one-hour match in the previous meta, only to collide into protracted battles outside the opposing team's doorstep. Even if you didn't lose, it usually meant a long, dull game of chicken where neither team wanted to make the first move. So straightforward fighting is the order of the day yet again.

To help you with that, every single hero has different match-permanent talent options, plus total ability reworks for six existing characters. Talents already drastically altered Dota 2 when they were first introduced in 2016's The New Journey update. Now the developers are fine-tuning them further in ways that totally overhaul certain heroes' roles. The longtime spellcaster Bane, for example, seems like he might find new life as a physical damage character thanks to a talent that lets him drain it from enemy heroes.

Between those hero changes and the renewed emphasis on player-to-player to combat, it seems like Valve has a definite direction in mind for Dota 2—one that puts the complex game's best features forward more frequently. Meanwhile, Turbo Mode and more accessible guides mean this is happening at a time when the company is courting more new players than ever. If Dueling Fates succeeds in making the game more exciting more frequently, as appears to be the goal, it really does seem like the perfect time for those new players to hop aboard.

Dota 2

The patch notes for the Dota 2 7.07 update, "Dueling Fates," fully reveals the new Pangolier and Dark Willow heroes who were teased back in August. The update will also make a big change to the matchmaking rating system, updates the Ability Draft, adds a new Dota Turbo game mode and Ping Wheel functionality, and changes the Guide System to make it more accessible and useful. 

Donté Panlin, the Pangolier, is a dashing, Puss in Boots-style swordsman, but instead of a cat he's a sort of anthropomorphic pangolin, with natural scales that provide a handy, always-on defense. "There is no monster he won't slay," Valve said. "No creature he won’t woo. No tyrant he won’t stand against. And no noble immune to his silver tongue." 

The Dark Willow Mireska Sunbreeze, the daughter of a fae merchant, also appears to be a mischievous sort, but of a much darker bent: "While she was quite adept at navigating the etiquette, unspoken laws, and social rituals that permeated every element of her life, she found the whole thing rather boring. So, Mireska did what most rebellious children do: burn down her family estate and set off with her pet wisp Jex to live the life of a wandering grifter." 

To ensure that the matchmaking rating [MMR] system is "recent and accurate" for everyone, MMR for both ranked and unranked players will now work on a six-month seasonal system, the first of which will begin in two weeks. Players will be given a profile medal for each season based on their peak skill during that season, which will be displayed, along with their previous seasonal medal, to all players before each match. 

"At the start of each season all players will recalibrate MMR, seeded by their previous season’s MMR," Valve explained. "Your current historical preseason MMR value will be recorded and selectable in your profile, and ranked players will continue to be able to track their current seasonal MMR value." 

Other changes of note: Turbo Mode keeps the same game rules as All Pick but grants more gold and experience to heroes, weakens defensive towers, and reduces respawn time, all of which will simplify the process of trying out new heroes and strategies; the Ability Draft has been given a new interface; the Guide system is more easily accessible; and new functionality has been added to the Ping Wheel. We'll have a more in-depth analysis of everything that's going on here for you soon, and in the meantime you can dive into the patch notes yourself at dota2.com.

Update: The post originally indicated that the Dueling Fates update was live today, but it will not actually be out until November 1.

Dota 2

It was the middle of a Monday afternoon when Marco Cuesta, co-founder of the blockchain esports platform FirstBlood, gave me a call. After plenty of jargon and esports talk had been thrown around, Cuesta's vision for FirstBlood was clear: The future of esports, he says, is one where high-quality competition and rewards systems are made available to everyone, not just professional gamers, and FirstBlood is going to help bridge that gap. But whether or not blockchain technology and cryptocurrency will really help usher in this new era is not so clear.

What is blockchain, and how can esports benefit from it? 

Blockchain is basically a decentralized network that's powered by peer-to-peer communications and transactions. If you're a fan of HBO's Silicon Valley, think of what Richard Hendricks was trying to accomplish with a decentralized internet—it's similar, but different. Instead of having companies maintain everything on a few servers, entire groups of people can interact with each other on a "block" that records data and transactions specifically for those people. Once the interactions are complete, the data is recorded for as long as the network exists, and the next "block" on the "chain" is created after a new set of interactions begins. You can think of each block as a unique page in an ongoing ledger.

FirstBlood takes advantage of blockchain by offering a "juror" system that allows people to review the results of a match if they're disputed.

A big draw of blockchain is the use of encrypted currency, or "cryptocurrency". This is a type of digital currency that's usually invented by a company or organization for its customers or users. What makes cryptocurrency secure is a process called "mining". As defined by Digital Trends, "Mining uses algorithms to go through each transaction, encrypt the cryptocurrency, and add it to a digital ledger, essentially verifying it and cementing its position online." The currency is visible to everyone on a specific block, so it's virtually impossible to counterfeit. 

Esports and blockchain intersect in uncharted and untested waters. While the benefits of this relationship need time to fully manifest, there are a couple of topics we can discuss with some certainty right now. The first is security. Blockchain-based platforms aren't vulnerable to DDoS attacks, which are annoying to users and can cost companies a ton of money to clear up. Since blockchain replaces centralized servers with distributed systems of thousands of nodes, there's no single target for a DDoS attacker to hit.

The second is more pertinent to esports: the need for better scoring systems. Nothing's worse than losing a match due to lag or some other anomaly that was either out of your control, or abused by your opponent. One way that FirstBlood takes advantage of blockchain is by offering a "juror" system that allows people to review the results of a match if they're disputed, and adjust the outcomes accordingly. 

So what is FirstBlood?

In the simplest of explanations, FirstBlood is an app that syncs up with your Steam account, allowing you to compete against other players on a ladder for in-game rewards. Only Dota 2 is supported right now, but more games will be added down the road. Once the competition window is live, FirstBlood tells competitors which in-game custom lobby to join. They risk tokens (FirstBlood cryptocurrency) on themselves, play the match, and the winner walks away with the tokens. The more you win, the more you can compete, and the leaders win items that have real monetary value. It's still in beta right now, and while I can tell you that the ladder rankings have been fluctuating, FirstBlood could not provide user numbers at the time this article was published.

FirstBlood also wants to break more into the professional level of esports. The company already has its feet wet in that regard with Dota 2 thanks to BITS (Blood in the Streets) EU, a tournament the company hosted back in June. Some big names including Team Singularity, Danish Bears, and Gambit Esports fought for their piece of a $5,000 prize pool in front of Twitch audiences that capped at about 3,500 viewers per match. While these numbers aren't a whole lot to write home about, if nothing else, it tells us that blockchain is up to the challenge of hosting significant events down the road. BITS Americas is currently being planned for next month in early November.

Most recently, and perhaps most significantly, FirstBlood partnered with the China General Administration of Sport to host the China University Esports League (CUEL), in which players from thousands of universities compete in each year. If successful, it could be a very big step for the integration of blockchain technology into the esports industry. 

Though these tournaments and partnerships are great for blockchain, it's still a very new and unproven technology in the gaming world. Even in the business world, where blockchain is most popular, analysts suggest that companies be wary of how they utilize this technology.

"Blockchain won't be a competitive differentiator," according to an article by Forbes. "It's an eventual commodity function that will be embedded in every organization's processes where it's needed most. The differentiation will be in how companies use blockchain for competitive advantage." 

The burden on blockchain esports platforms to establish what that competitive advantage is seems hefty. Think about a game like Overwatch for a minute. There's already a built-in ladder, as well as a reward system that's easy to engage with. It's simple, you don't need to constantly win to earn rewards, and your rolling stats are saved to your player profile after you're done playing a match. Blizzard even uses the regional Skill Rating system as a measure of one's worth to Overwatch esports. This isn't unique to Overwatch, either. It would seem as though the highest skilled players would prefer to stick with the in-game ladder for practical and professional reasons rather than compete on another platform, and casual gamers wouldn't have the need for anything beyond what the game already gives them.

There are quite a few possibilities for blockchain in esports, but the real question is whether or not the technology is in a unique position to help the esports industry evolve. There are plenty of companies out there that have some sort of technology aimed at improving or advancing competitive gaming. Some of them tweak latency, some of them have special products, and some even track your stats to give you a tailored path to improvement. Most, if not all, even host their own tournaments with the help of various sponsors. The addition of cryptocurrency is a nice touch if you're into that sort of reward system, but it's difficult to say whether or not the enhanced security and other amenities of blockchain will have a meaningful impact on esports in the long run.

The fact remains that the future of esports is one where the professional product exists alongside similar experiences for players and fans of all levels. In a sense, as certain esports leagues begin to adopt franchised structures to help pull the industry into local ecosystems, other evolutions need to occur at the casual level to propel esports to a visible space within mainstream culture. It may or may not be blockchain that brings about that change, but companies like FirstBlood are ensuring that progress never stops.

Dota 2

Valve’s been tormenting Dota 2 players for a while now. The 7.07 update, The Dueling Fates, was coming, but when? And what would it bring with it? There were teasers, sure, but not much solid information. Lost and confused, players started wandering the streets, grabbing strangers and demanding to know when The Dueling Fates was coming out. The strangers didn’t know. 

But now we all do! Finally, Valve has announced the release date for the big update, and it’s soon: November 1. Now everyone can just relax. 

We still don’t know much about it, mind. Two new heroes are on their way, however, so that should shake things up. 

Everything will be revealed soon enough, however, as we can expect the patch notes before November. 

Dota 2

The Dota 2 Midas Mode Tournament is as clever as it is simple. Teams are given equal amounts of virtual money called "Moonbucks"—named after Moonduck, the outfit that came up with the idea—which must be used to finance every action they take over the course of the tournament. Judicious money management will enable teams to make the right moves at the right times, but blowing it on bad calls will leave them struggling to compete with a no-budget lineup of Dota chumps. 

Each hero will be assigned a cost based on its capabilities and popularity, which can change from match to match depending on its performance. But it's not just drafting a lineup that costs money. Want to ban a hero? Pay for it. Want to choose a side of the map? Pay for it. Want to pause the game? Pay for it. Everything has a cost, and so everything must be considered within the big strategic picture. 

"Shit gets lit," as the video puts it, when a team blows its budget: They'll have to choose heroes from "a basket of peasants—the worst of the worst," or live with the results of a randomized draw. And of course they won't be able to make bans or pauses, putting them even deeper in the hole. It is possible to earn more money, however, by completing community-suggested "bounties." Teams can also wager their Moonbucks on matches they aren't taking part in.   

The structure of the tournament hasn't been revealed, but the lineup of participating teams is impressive: Evil Geniuses, Immortals, Digital Chaos, and OpTiC for Team America, and Liquid, OG, Natus Vincere, and Mid or Feed for Europe. Midas Mode was originally announced in February and was expected to take place in April, after the Kiev Major. That didn't work out, but the schedule has now been nailed down to November 18-28. Find out more (although that's the extent of it for now) at midas.moonduck.tv

Team Fortress 2

Image via Deviantart user GtkShroom

Loot boxes are everywhere. They're in shooters, RPGs, card games, action games and MOBAs. They also take the form of packs, chests and crates. They're filled with voice lines, weapon skins, new pants or materials to get you more loot boxes. They're in free games and paid ones, singleplayer and multiplayer. They can be free to open and paid for with real money. You may feel an almost violent antipathy to the very idea of them, but you've probably also opened a fair few.

The appeal isn't hard to grasp. Opening a loot box is a rush: a moment of anticipation followed by release. That colourful animated flurry is often accompanied by disappointment, but is sometimes with the joy of getting exactly the item that you wanted. And then you feel the gambler's pull to open another, pushing you back into the game to grind or digging into your wallet to earn or buy your next one.

"It's that moment of excitement that anything's possible," Ben Thompson, art director on Hearthstone, tells me. "In that moment I could be getting the cards I've been looking for for ten or 20 packs. That anticipation has always been a key point in games in general; successful games build on anticipation and release, whether a set of effects or in gameplay."

Loot boxes' ubiquity might be fairly new, but they've been around rather longer than you might think. Economic sociologist Vili Lehdonvirta has suggested that they appeared in their modern form first in the Chinese free-to-play MMO ZT Online in around 2006 or 2007. A Chinese newspaper described how for a yuan you would buy a key: "When the key is applied to the chest, the screen will display a glittering chest opening. All kinds of materials and equipment spin inside the chest like the drums on a slot machine as the wheel of light spins." Yep, sounds like a loot box. 

But they've also been around far longer in the form of baseball cards and Magic: The Gathering packs, and, if you think about it, even in identifying magic items in D&D. In each case you experience the same notes of suspense and reveal, and also the way the reward is separated from the action you took to earn them. That's an important distinction. Loot boxes aren't quite the same as the shower of loot you get for killing an elite monster in Diablo. There's more of a build-up, and rather than being focused on moment-to-moment play, your view is being pulled out far wider, into the meta game, into the larger systems that give you reasons to keep swinging your sword.

Loot boxes are appearing in more triple-A games, like Gears of War 4.

The psychology of loot

Why do loot boxes provide such a dark compulsion? Psychologists call the principle by which they work on the human mind 'variable rate reinforcement.' "The player is basically working for reward by making a series of responses, but the rewards are delivered unpredictably," says Dr Luke Clark, director at the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia. "We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards. Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis."

We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards.

Dr. Luke Clark

What's more, the effect of variable rate reinforcement is very persistent. Psychologist B.F. Skinner conducted trials during the early 1930s in which he conditioned animals to respond to certain stimuli in closed chambers that became known as Skinner Boxes, and showed that even when the rewards were removed, the subject would continue responding for sometimes hundreds of trials, trying to recreate the circumstances in which it got its reward before.

"Modern video games then amplify this idea by having many overlapping variable ratio schedules," says Clark. "You're trying to level up, advance your avatar, get rare add-ons, build up game currency, all at the same time. What this means is that there is a regular trickle of some kind of reinforcement." Whether you're watching your XP climb up to the next level in Overwatch, or you're collecting scraps in Battlefield 1 by breaking down skins, there's a constant sense of reward leading to reward.

The clever—or insidious—bit is how a loot box is wired into a game, and how it doles out its baubles, keeping a player on the knife-edge between feeling hungry and feeling rewarded. One such system is Battlefield 1’s Battlepacks. Standard Battlepacks are earned by playing multiplayer matches. They used to be randomly awarded, but they recently switched to an Overwatch-like progression bar system for more regular drops. Each one is a guaranteed weapon skin or one of a number of pieces of a unique weapon. So that would seem satisfying, if it wasn’t for the scrap system.

Here, you can turn your skins into scraps an in-game currency called Scraps, which will buy you more Battlepacks. And they’re the only way without spending real money that you can access Superior and Enhanced Battlepacks, two upper tiers which have rather better chances of dropping Distinguished or Legendary weapon skins. The result is a system which ekes out rewards and then asks you to question them and wonder: should you dispose of them in the interests of getting better stuff?

It’s a complex system with a lot to get your head around, and remember: Battlefield 1 is meant to primarily be an FPS, not a lottery game. In other games, loot systems sit more centrally, and few are more central as the card packs in Hearthstone. Since it’s a collectible card game, they’re perhaps so fundamental to the game that it's inaccurate to consider them loot boxes in the same vein as the controversial packs of skins and items added to recent big-budget games like Destiny 2 and Middle-earth: Shadow of War. Still, they're a great example of the loot box's principles. 

How Blizzard designs loot boxes

The clever or insidious bit is how a loot box is wired into a game, and how it doles out its baubles, keeping a player on the knife-edge between feeling hungry and feeling rewarded.

You can buy packs in Hearthstone with an in-game currency called gold. There are several ways to earn it, but the key methods are that every third game you win awards you with 10 gold, and for each daily quest you complete, such as winning games with a certain class, you'll get at least 40 gold. A card pack costs 100, so you can expect to earn at least one every couple of days. This system is subtly integrated into play; most quests gently encourage you to try classes and playstyles you're not used to, while also rewarding you for simply playing the way you like. Or you can just buy card packs with real money. Classic card packs cost $3 for two, $10 for seven, and the scale goes up to $70 for 60. Despite the pride some take in being free-to-play, most will spend money at some point, while those who don't get the reward of telling themselves they're saving money by playing. 

The five cards you get in each pack will be taken from across all the game's classes, at least one of which will be 'rare' quality. "We're just straightforward with it," says Thompson, but it has other benefits. "People are more inspired to try different and new things. So if I get a number of Shaman cards, maybe it's interesting for me to start to build a Shaman deck? Or I can craft them into cards I do want in the game. We allow player agency to dictate it, but we also avoid putting them in a position where they choose themselves out of experiences." 

The loot box's place in Overwatch is quite different since they contain cosmetic items—skins, emotes, voice lines and victory poses—rather than the very thing you play with. But you acquire them in a similar way: play with any character and you earn XP, with various bonuses granted, for example, by playing with friends and for good performance. Level up, which is possible every hour or so, and you earn a loot box.

"We aimed for players earning a box or two in a gaming session, so that you wouldn't walk away from a session empty-handed," principal designer Michael Heiberg tells me. "An earlier version of the game's progression system had per-hero experience levels, with rewards at various hero levels. In testing, though, we saw players picking heroes based on these hero level rewards instead of picking based on what the team needed, or even what they felt like playing. It was a bust, and we knew we needed to disassociate your hero picks from the rewards. Based on that, we shifted to a system with randomized rewards that you could earn by playing as any hero."

Overwatch's loot box is a masterpiece of audio-visual design. "It's all about building the anticipation. When the box is there you're excited at the possibilities of what could be inside," says senior game designer Jeremy Craig. Click the ‘Open loot box’ button and the box bursts open, sending four disks into the sky. Their rarity is indicated by coloured streaks to further build the suspense. "Seeing purple or gold you start to think about what specific legendary or epic you've unlocked. This all happens so fast, but it was those discrete steps that we felt maximized excitement and anticipation."

Hearthstone's opening animation is likewise engineered to trigger anticipation, and also to make the cards desirable objects and to imbue them with a sense of value. From the start it was important that they'd evoke real collectible cards. As Thompson says: "Ripping that foil pack and feeling it give, that moment of excitement that anything's possible."

Rather than hitting a button and watching, as you do when opening most loot boxes, from Battlefield 1 to Overwatch, you have to drag a pack over to what Blizzard calls the altar. There's a brief moment as blue magical power builds, and then, in the case of the classic packs, the cards suddenly burst out in a shower of glitter and gold. With Journey to Un'goro packs, they emerge in a crackle of lightning (which echoes its evolve mechanic), and a shattering of ice in the Knights of the Frozen Throne packs.

The challenge was to design a sequence that would feel special to those opening a single pack while not wearying those opening 50 in a row. "If you buy that many you don't want to spend half your day opening them, you want to get them open and start building decks and experience the real focus of the game," says Thompson. "As much ceremony as we want to put into the pack opening, we need to keep it concise." The sweet spot, it turns out, is about two seconds. 

As Overwatch does, Hearthstone indicates the rarity level of the cards you'll be getting before the cards are actually revealed. Mouse over their backs and you'll see a colored glow on rare, epic or legendaries. "We don't immediately flip them, we let player agency take a seat in the sense of controlling what order they flip them in, how they flip them, the time between each flip."

Loot makes you superstitious

That hint of control is quietly important to the design of Hearthstone's card packs. "What we found in talking to people is that superstition sets in," says Thompson. "What you'll find in psychology is that if the outcome is of high import, you know like, 'Gosh I hope I get a legendary in this,' and if player agency is unclear in terms of your ability to manifest any kind of change in the outcome and there's a little bit of randomness involved, superstition takes hold. That agency and sense of involvement and choice is super important in terms of the experience and the enjoyment of it." 

You've probably dabbled in something like it too, by performing some kind of personal rite before opening a loot box. Here's YouTuber Jordan 'Kootra' Mathewson mass-opening Team Fortress 2 crates his own way. This behaviour is actually common across many species: Skinner discovered in 1947 that even pigeons exhibit it. He observed that they’d practise little rituals in the hope that they’d cause food to appear, including turning around in their cages or nodding their heads, and yet the food was given to them at entirely regular intervals. The absence of any explanation of why the food appeared had conditioned them to believe their actions caused it. On a deep level, our own minds work the same way.

Skinner observed that pigeons practised little rituals in the hope that they d cause food to appear, including turning around in their cages or nodding their heads.

Overwatch and Hearthstone contrast with the common way loot boxes are presented. The Counter-Strike: Global Offensive model, in which the gun skins in the crate scroll by, slot machine-style, is a direct evolution of the old ZT Online design. Their distinct lack of visual pizazz is compensated for with the graphic way they show you what you could have won, and when the needle just misses the item you wanted, it's hard not to reach for another go, even though as far as CS:GO is concerned it's as black and white a result as rolling a die.

This design closely mirrors the near-misses in many forms of gambling, from horse racing to roulette. As psychologist Luke Clark has said, "A moderate frequency of near-misses encourages prolonged gambling, even in student volunteers who do not gamble on a regular basis. Problem gamblers often interpret near-misses as evidence that they are mastering the game and that a win is on the way."

In most countries, including the US and UK, loot boxes are not legally considered gambling because the winnings have no intrinsic value outside the game (in China, laws have actually forced developers like Blizzard and Valve to publish the drop rates of their loot boxes). But in being expensive to buy and based on the same psychological principles, we have to treat them with the same care.

Why do we love collecting stuff?

Loot boxes also plug into another facet of psychology: collection. In 1991, Dr Ruth Formanek in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality suggested five reasons we feel the compulsion to collect, including 'extending the self' by obtaining knowledge or having sole control over one's collection, the social benefits of collecting leading to meeting like-minded others, creating a sense of continuity in the world, financial investment, and addiction or compulsion. Alternatively, Freud suggested that it's rooted in a deep desire to reclaim the poo you excreted as a baby. 

We don't want players getting frustrated because they're earning none of the best rewards. We also don't want players getting bored because they earned all of the best rewards at once.

Michael Heiberg, Overwatch

Whichever theory you go with, loot boxes are almost always filled with collectibles. Overwatch's boards of sprays and percentage counts for completion rates on characters remind you of what you've accrued, and Hearthstone is a collectible card game. Games as a whole highlight an interesting distinction between freeform and structured collection. Collecting, say, baseball caps is freeform collection because you can accrue them indefinitely. But games present a very structured form of collection, tapping into several powerful motivational principles. You're working towards a clear and achievable goal and you can see your progress towards it. During matches you get to show it off to others who are also immersed in collecting the same items, a chance to feel both kinship and bask in the status your collection confers. 

And there are systems of scarcity, driving value towards certain items. But managing them is a delicate art. "We use rarity levels primarily to control the frequency of getting our most exciting content," says Overwatch principal designer Heiberg. "We don't want players getting frustrated because they're earning none of the best rewards. We also don't want players getting bored because they earned all of the best rewards at once. Rarity levels give us some control over the pace of these rewards."

Both Overwatch and Hearthstone's designers are careful not to dictate value. "We learned that the value of our cosmetic content varies widely from player to player, and that no distribution of rarities was likely to really jive with everyone," Heiberg continues.

"Some players are super excited about that rare card and the legendary doesn't mean so much, and similarly you'll have someone trying to build an all-Murloc deck and they're going to be more excited about a common Murloc as opposed to the legendary of a class they're not after. We let those moments be fun at every level and not focusing on legendary cards being awesome and how you should get all of them, but rather let the player get excited about any aspect of the opening."

It's easy to feel uncomfortable with loot boxes. They have a powerful capacity to manipulate your behaviour and extract considerable amount of time and money from you with systems that aren't the core game you actually want to play. The bad ones use these tricks to make you value in-game items that you might not choose to in the cold light of day. They can pull you to do things to acquire them that you’ll regret in the long term. But the well-designed ones give you space to find your own value in the trinkets they dole out. That's an indicator that they respect you, and a sign that they recognise—correctly—that collection should be a reward in itself.

"Pack opening is an area that took a fair bit of time to develop because it's a moment players will spend a lot of time with," says Thompson. "More importantly, they'll spend money there and any time our players are investing time and money we want to give them a very fair and honest return. We want people to walk away feeling they got value from it, and that value can come from not just a return on that time or money but also fun. We say we make decisions in Hearthstone based on how much fun players are having, and pack opening is no less of that."

Dota 2

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ unstoppable rise continues, with the game hitting yet another milestone today. The massively popular battle royale shooter has now broken Dota 2’s record for highest concurrent player count on Steam. 

Yes, Dota 2’s 1.29 million record has been shattered, with PUBG hitting 1.3 million concurrent players. That’s the most people playing at the same time any game on Steam has boasted. 

This is even more impressive given that PUBG is still in Early Access, and the previous record holder is a free-to-play game developed by Valve.

SteamSpy was charting the game’s growth, and spotted the moment when it beat Dota 2’s record today. The number continues to rise, however, with Steamcharts showing a peak of 1,305,536. 

The number might continue to rise, though, as more people jump in to see the new update. The September update adds a new town on the east coast, and more importantly, foggy weather. This new weather has a low probability to occur, but when it does, it changes the game entirely. You can barely see in front of you, so the already tense game becomes even more nerve-racking. 

Are you one of the 1.3 million?

...

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