*Seinfeld Voice* What's the Deal with Gacha Games?

Opening disclaimer: I know there are quite a few people on this forum for whom gacha games are a morally reprehensible object. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to look at the facts of the genre as laid out and come to that conclusion. In making this thread I am… not particularly interested in that conversation though, because it’s a closed conversation — there’s no new information to offer there. We all know how it works. I’m making this thread because I’m genuinely curious about how y’all think about your experiences with these kinds of games, in particular with things like work and production, and this is quite literally the only place on the internet where I think that discussion could exist.

So… anyway. This might be a long post.

I had a funny conversation with a game designer and Genshin-playing friend about two months ago, in which she expressed a complete lack of surprise at my being hooked by World Flipper back when it launched because of the one winter break where I tried out Stardew Valley and ended up doing basically nothing else for two weeks of my life. And I think it’s true — I like optimization and repetitive grinding as long as there’s some kind of narrative framework that gets thrown in here or there. I’ve meshed with some idle games in the past, though the idle games I’ve played are the kind of hostile deconstructions, not something I could go to for comfort (you know, things like Universal Paperclips or A Dark Room). As an outsider, I hadn’t realized that that kind of loop was at the core of these games, because the conversation around them outside dedicated spaces revolves so much around the gambling aspects. And WF really got me with its characters — they’re all quite strange and oddball in ways I find really compelling, and the writing is… genuinely really good? The localization team for this game clearly has a ton of fun with it.

But anyway — WF going into half-anniversary has made me think a lot about how I’ve been playing this game daily, usually for a couple hours at least (I like to run it on my phone while doing work, playing other games, while I write this post lol), for a pretty significant period of time, and the side-effects of that. I spend a lot less time on Reddit, Tiktok, and Twitter especially than I used to, because if I want to grind zero-stamina co-op matches I need the game to be open — and I actually feel kinda healthier for that at least. It’s gamified my life in ways that are kind of scary to think about (at this point I’ve built a sixth sense for when my stamina is about to be full and when I need to fire it up to avoid wasting any). But it’s also still a game; in a way, it’s taking these impulses I have as a product of capitalism (to be constantly productive, working, generating value) and giving me an outlet for them that isn’t actually making value for anyone else. Spending hours running virtual battles for virtual items to power up virtual characters who will all one day disappear… there’s something interesting there about production. And despite having thrown a not huge, but decent amount of money at the game at this point (as if I were buying a console game a month, basically), it still feels like the thing I’m paying the most into it is time.

And even still on a more personal level, I’ve spent years turning my biggest hobbies, writing and games, into an academic career — and this feels like the first time in a long time I’ve kept a hobby up for this long without some kind of motivation towards making money.

Anyway, forgive the long-winded ramble — I’m really curious about how y’all interact with and play gacha games, and even more so how y’all think about their time with them. It’s absolutely a fraught topic but I’ve been surprised by how interesting I found this space to be once I got here. If you’ve tried them as well, what’s it been like?

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As a Magic: The Gathering fan and someone blessed enough (and himbo enough) to think that “throwing money at it” is a solution to 90% of life’s problems and usually be right, gacha games are a big ol’ trap for me. I play Pokemon Masters EX (although I just dropped the iPod I’ve been playing it on and the screen died :face_with_symbols_over_mouth:) and I try to only spend money on characters I think are going to be insane (hello Cynthia & Giratina). With online CCGs, I try to limit things to “Okay, I will build this deck and that’s it.”

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The latest episode of Game Studies Study Buddies is about Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, and Cameron comes to the conclusion that all these gacha games are just slot machines with a “game” welded on top. That’s always been my opinion. Lootboxes are just gambling, that’s it.

I tried playing the Nier game and almost immediately got grossed out by it. Also, the only characters I wanted for 2B and 9S, and I finally got them after a week of free slot rolls and never played the game again. It’s not a good game at all. I’m not down for this at all.

If I need to kill hours with a task alone, I’ll play solitaire.

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I am definitely in the “gacha games are morally reprehensible” camp, but also, I do play them from time to time - I have no money, and I appreciate a polished, free game. But I think, ignoring the ethical issues I have with them, the worst thing I could say about gacha games is that I have never been able to play one for more than a week if it wasn’t based on a franchise I already loved.

Final Fantasy Dissidia Opera Omnia, Fire Emblem Heroes, and Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links are, like, the only gacha games I have ever played for more than a month. Duel Links is the only one I have played for more than a year, and I love Yu-Gi-Oh! so much that I have a tattoo from it. Could never get into Arknights or Genshin Impact or Dragalia Lost or any of these other unique ones, even though they almost universally have better writing, because I just feel nothing making gacha pulls for original characters.

Which kind of says it all about how I actually feel about these games, they’re just machines for me to get the JPEGs that make me smile. It’s a slot machine where the cherries have been replaced with Kuribohs.

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Coincidentally enough, I recently downloaded and tried out a handful of different gacha games on a whim because apparently I needed another one to play on top of the two that I’m currently playing. (For the record, I did indeed pick up a 3rd one after sifting through a bunch of games.)

In doing so, it seriously caused me to truly consider what the appeal of the genre (I think it’s fair to call gacha games a genre considering the mechanical overlap between them regardless of a game’s specific gameplay style) is for me considering how routinely miserable they are to engage with on a base level.

Like, the only gacha game I hard quit (meaning: a game I spitefully deleted and vowed to never touch again) despite really enjoying it was Fate Grand Order and the reasons why are almost universal across all gacha games. The rates for getting high value cards/units/whatever are terrible, the rate you acquire currency to play the gacha comes super slowly, the real money cost of rolling gacha is absurd ($30 USD/10 pull is pretty common from what I’ve seen) and there’s zero guarantee you’ll get what you want even if you do pour tons of money into it.

I’ve played dozens of gacha games since then and they’re all more or less in line with that in terms of monetization (which is, again, miserable and insidious), so what is it about the games that I have stuck with that still keeps me coming back to them every day? More than anything else, it’s really just that the game has to have any sort of appeal to its characters outside of their designs. It doesn’t matter how mechanically sound a gacha game is, I’ve played far too many of them that feel just as utterly soulless as their monetization schemes when it comes to how their characters are handled and presented. Granted, even in the cases where the writing in a gacha game is noteworthy, resonant or meaningful it’s still working in service of systems that are deliberately designed to exploit people.

One of my all-time favorite games is a gacha game that I’ve played every day since I started playing it nearly 4 years ago(!!!). It fits nicely within my daily routine and I think it’s probably one of the most generous gacha games out there. Even so there’s no reconciling that it’s part of the most persistent ills of the gaming industry. It just sucks, plain and simple!

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I don’t disagree really, especially in something of the Overwatch variety where there’s no other designed randomness in the game at all. I am someone who does a small amount of recreational sports gambling anyway, and it’s the same kind of feeling for sure, just compressed. But I guess I made this thread because I think there’s something interesting to be plumbed in thinking about the game side. Because I went into the one I’m playing expecting you know, the ur-cheap mobile game and instead I found like… a compelling idle/resource management game? Though—

I think maybe I’m finding out that idle games just work on me lol. The dopamine hit from new characters is very much great but the satisfaction of clearing out a set of event missions or a box gacha or farming enough resources to get a broken weapon does a lot for me. …which is more or less the same feeling I get in something like Stardew, or XCOM, with a similar grinding-and-resource-management loop. The gallery of cute JPEGs and voicelines is, I think, what keeps me here instead of going off to play something like Stardew or XCOM, but there’s also like the fact that I can lurk in a discord or go on a subreddit and talk with people about teambuilding 'n stuff.

Yeah, this is why I think I might have gotten lucky with the one I picked. Free roll income isn’t the best but at the very worst I think a tenpull in WF is like $15, and there’s quite a few regularly available for $4-$8 with some patience. I don’t think I’d have stuck around otherwise.

This sums up what I’m feeling really well too. The model is exploitative, clearly. But there’s a lot unrelated to the rolling part that tickles my brain in ways I need — the daily consistency of it and the ease of integrating it into a routine, the slow-build up of resources mixed with an occasional event — it just feels good to have something like that? I’ve never really had a “comfort game” before but this has really become for me what I think something like Animal Crossing is for a lot of people. Which was not at all what I expected when I started.

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I’m still pretty deep into Arknights myself. It’s totally a fun and largely well designed game, even if there’s a lot of dead time in it. Logging in to do dailies and maximize your stamina does occupy some space in my mind, as they did in Hearthstone when I played that. Some systems really feel like they’re put in more for daily engagement rather than improving the game (notably the base management). Those areas are where, as mentioned above, Cameron’s idea of a “game” slapped on top of a slot machine feels noticeable. I don’t really like that style of encouraged engagement but I’ll keep up with it for now.

One aspect I like is the collecting itself. I don’t want to get a complete collection or anything, but most new operators open up new ways of playing maps. More than doing dailies I spend a lot of my engagement with the game just dreaming of what I’ll do once I’ve leveled this operator, or gotten that one in a roll. I’m not sure what I’ll do once I finish the story since I’m not one to rerun old missions with new characters. Will a new event of 16 maps (most of them very simple) or so every month keep my interest?

I also engage with the game without paying for rolls. I’ve bought a couple of packs for materials, in part just to send some amount of appreciation to the developers (not that they care). I’ll pay for certainties (and really miss classic Expansion Packs), in part because:

I truly think the prices for character rolls in gacha are absurd and am surprised that some roll a lot for them. $20 is half my current monthly budget for gaming overall, spending that much on a small chance to get what I want boggles my mind. In Arknights you should expect to roll 100-200 times for a specific operator on their banner – still with no guarantee. Ridiculous odds, even if the game gives you plenty of free rolls if you do your daily missions.

Well, I shouldn’t say that I’m surprised, exactly. I don’t want to tell anyone how to spend their money if they can afford it. But we know that gambling is addictive and that loot boxes, rolls, card packs, weapon crates and most other “live service game” systems purposefully hook into that. This goes way beyond what games are typically referred to as “gacha” (east Asian F2P games with anime trappings and characters), companies worldwide have long realized that it’s one of if not the most efficient way to make money for any type of game.

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When I first played Epic Seven, my first impression was that it had a lot of mechanical and UI similarities to Darkest Dungeon. This got me thinking about what the game would be like in a parallel world where people were willing to pay $5-$10 for a mobile game, so free to play wasn’t so dominant.

If you couldn’t pay money for more pulls, then the game would be a tactical RPG where you have to build a cohesive team out of random characters. Since type matchups matter, you also want to have multiple characters for each role so that you can swap characters out for certain fights. Since you need to fight lots of battles to level characters up, get resources/new characters/etc., they would probably want to have dungeons be somewhat procedurally generated.

Voila! This game is now a fantasy handheld version of XCOM or Darkest Dungeon, both of which are pretty popular and well regarded games. I think there would be a lot of people interested in a game like that, however that game definitely almost certainly wouldn’t make as much money or be as popular as Epic Seven currently is and I feel that reality stifles the big budget mobile game space.

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I have a probably weird relationship with gacha games, loot games, MP games with leveling, and just live service games in general… They do absolutely nothing for me.

I first noticed this with CoD4. After months of playing Halo 3 in which the guns were tied to the game mode and map and the ranking system was built in a way that moves you up and down based on how well you played, I was playing a game where I had to level up to get stuff. I would hear in the matches between the racism and homophobia on XBL how they were leveled up and how the guitar riff was so satisfying only for me to have the thought “I don’t really know what I’m about to unlock and oh yeah I guess there is a guitar riff when you level up”. The complete lack of dopamine this design was meant to trigger led me to almost completely memory hole it after every time it happened.

Fast forward to World Flipper, I beat all the content that was available at launch in 5 days, playing it in bed, using the first 6 characters I got. At first I would run out of stamina and need to wait but soon I started leveling up and reset my stamina at a consistent pace that allowed me to never have to stop unless I was about to fall asleep. I feel like because I get no satisfaction from getting new characters, I never swapped them out and almost immediately broke the leveling curve creating a situation where I beat levels on the first try at least 90% of the time which allowed for me to level up the overall level faster constantly keeping my stamina topped off and I barreled through the game in 5 days.

My lack of dopamine response to these kinds of design are why gambling has never felt exciting or fun to me so there is an upside. The shift to games designed around these addictive mechanics is troubling to me not only because I feel they exploit players prone to addiction but also they’re not for me or fun to play.

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I’ve played Fire Emblem Heroes since launch (has it really been five years???) and it still does for me the one thing I want out of it, which is short time commitment, high intensity tactical gameplay. The monetization is both terrible and also one of the most generous gacha games out there in terms of how much free currency they give out (from what I understand, I don’t play many other gachas). The powercreep is out of control but I somehow manage to keep up as a light spender. Namely, I buy the FEH pass every other month (~$6.20/month on my schedule) and that seems to be just barely enough to stay competitive, combined with all the free currency. Honestly, there’s no better feeling than to win against someone who has clearly paid orders of magnitude more money than you. So it seems that spite is a powerful motivating force in gacha games for me and I suspect for a lot of people here like me who recognize their dark patterns and yet play them anyway.

The only other gacha I’ve played is the Nier gacha, which I still play as well. This one, I’m a strict F2P; never spent money in it and likely never will. It’s a severely unbalanced game, in my estimation. The most powerful characters are actually locked behind a (severe) time grind, not paywalled at all. So despite being F2P, somehow I’m top 10 in pvp and clearing all high end content using free characters simply because I was willing to let my phone battery drain grinding materials for longer than paid players. Looks like the spite is strong in me for this one as well. /shrug

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I like the idea of a full price gacha game with no microtransactions. Some nice gameplay to get you the currency you need to do the rolls, with sensible roll chances. And you can beat it in twenty hours. Basically the opposite how those games are designed.

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If you have an iPhone (or anything else that’ll let you sign up for Apple Arcade, I guess?) you should really check out Castlevania: Grimoire of Souls because it is, bizarrely, almost exactly what you’re describing.

It soft launched as a regular gacha game, got canned before it could release widely and was brought back on Apple Arcade with (from what I recall) zero ways to put money into it. You could pretty much just play it like it was a normal video game despite every single thing about it’s design screaming that it’s a gacha game. Same upgrade systems, same log-in bonuses, same gameplay cadence, same power curve and all that.

It’s really strange! Apparently they’ve also been updating it every month since it launched too?

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I didn’t play it, but doesn’t Xenoblade Chonicles 2 also use a roll system for acquiring party members? For sure fails the 20h criteria though, hah.


Saw this post on gacha by game designer Melos Han-Tani making the rounds, thought I’d repost it. It’s sardonic, and a lot of its criticisms go beyond what’s happening in the mobile space (he even calls out MMORPG’s for popularizing some of it and the “AAA” space has been playing with a lot of it for the past decade). This part is the kicker, to me:

Because so much brain power is being spent on designing the economies of Gacha Games, the retention strategies, I seriously worry that there are generations of game designers who arent’… game… designing. When your game is designed to have mediocre systems that are supported by addictive structures of retention, there’s no need to actually do something interesting - you can just pay your artist to make the new seasonal himbo character or boobs high schooler anime knight, because that’ll keep people playing.

I probably think that’s selling the game part of these games short (although I don’t have much experience with many of them, so I can’t speak generally), but so much design focus and knowledge going specifically into player retention is the worst current design trend. As we’re heading further into a decade where subscriptions of all sorts (the Xbox Game Pass, in game battle passes, more monthly subscriptions) become more prominent it’s hard not to think of how game design and the next generation of player and designers will be shaped by it.

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I play Marvel Puzzle Quest. A little mostly mindless match-3 is a nice diversion. And there’s something about the power/character design that I think is particularly good for a f2p game. There was a part of me that really liked the ‘just do your rotation’ aspect of MMO’s and this scratches that itch without the rest of what an MMO requires of you. I’ve spent a little money over the few years I’ve played it? Maybe as much as $30?

But being able to get any kind of reward and play only the amount I want to play requires thinking about when to play, what parts of the game to play etc… There’s a weird strategic layer to playing these things (effectively as a PvP with the developer of the game) that is mapped onto life that I think isn’t great. Even though I am aware of the trap here, I’m still walking into it. If this was a single player game with a typical arc, would I still be playing it? Probably not, and I don’t know how I feel about that.

For a bit, I tried WF, but I really couldn’t sustain two games like this and still have time for everything else (work, chores, spouse, other hobbies, sleep!).

Relevant Kotaku article today: Mobile Gamers Defy The Stereotypes About Hardcore ‘Gamers’

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That article is on point, and I think that meta/strategical layer is part of what’s made this so intoxicating for me. I spend a lot of time just surfing through fan-made guides, trawling the WF discord, going through team-building threads and documents and trying out different builds — there’s a communal aspect to it that has never felt quite as accessible to me anywhere else I think primarily because of the psuedo-endlessness of the game. The closest thing I’ve experienced to this, indirectly at least, is the way people talk about early Souls fandom, with community-made guides and deliberations about team-building and optimal builds and the like. It’s easily the least toxic gaming fandom I’ve ever experienced (a low bar, to be sure), probably because it really is like you said, a PvP against the developer in a game that emphasizes co-op and has essentially no real PvP. That combined with the mindless grind of it all has become kind of a balm for my brain when it’s overworked or frazzled.

This has all been making me flash back to all the Overwatch loot boxes I bought in college, and I wonder if that experience primed me to not mind spending money on this game. I don’t regret these experiences but that comes from a place of relative financial privilege, where I don’t really have other expensive hobbies or obligations and gaming makes up most of my entertainment budget. Even then, I’m absolutely being programmed to feel that way.

Well huh that definitely seems like something for me to try before my free trial runs out in a couple of weeks, lol. Thanks for mentioning it!

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Gonna indulge in a double post because reading that Kotaku article and the twitter discourse around it is really making me think back to my relationships with other games I’ve felt obsessed with. Because a sticking point in a lot of the analysis I’m seeing isn’t as much about the monetary aspect of these games, but the way they’re explicitly built to extract time and develop a constant presence in a player’s mind.

I opened this thread thinking about Stardew Valley and how that game monopolized my time to the point where I had to drop it entirely after about a week and a half of play. Like I reached a point very quickly with it where I woke up, grabbed a snack, and played it until I had time to eat again. Then again until I went to sleep. That is, I think, the most a game has ever strapped a saddle on my brain and ridden it without my conscious control (and that really is how it felt at the time). This was my last winter break of college, a few years ago, and a brief period where my part-time jobs were on break and I had no obligations — so it didn’t disrupt anything, and once it had the potential to I decided to put it down and not come back. But it’s interesting to me, because I don’t think I can experience that game in a healthy way — a game with none of the pitfalls around monetization that these games have, but, honestly, a pretty insidious design choice in how it only allows saving at the end/beginning of a day (which last about half an hour of real-world time). That was really what kept me going, because I would always leave something unfinished, and the next half-hour didn’t feel like a substantial amount of time until I’d strung 10 of them together and it was nearing 3 AM.

That was not a wholly unique experience, just the most extreme one. Breath of the Wild (and most open-world games that click with me) absolutely did the same. Returnal did it this last summer, because even after I finished basically every designed objective in that game, I felt compelled to keep playing it. I dropped it before my term started because I knew the way it monopolized my time wouldn’t combine well with academic expectations. Dark Souls and its kin do this to me every time I open them. Pokemon is the original version of this, and And XCOM — oh my god, XCOM, I know never to start an XCOM campaign unless I have a couple weeks of uninterrupted time to drop into finishing that run.

The difference between these games and World Flipper is that a) I can sink a lot of money into WF if I want to and b) being a mobile game and quasi-idle game, I don’t actually have to devote my full attention to it to scratch the same kinds of resource-gathering, level-farming itches. Those are not incidental but they’re also aspects of medium, not design. This also isn’t limited to games — it happens with TV, film, and other media all the time.

Which maybe is just an indictment of the ways I interact with media, lol. But I think some of the surprise that sparked this thread for me was that the way I’ve been playing this gacha game for the past few months isn’t particularly different from the way I would play most games if they fit into my day-to-day routines so easily. Which was just… not at all what I expected.

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Interesting article. I see a lot of myself there in the way I play Fire Emblem Heroes. I know most of the common meta builds for enemy teams before I even check their loadouts. It’s necessary to have absolute fluency in the meta as a low spender because I can’t just rely on $ for a win button. I also have a too-thorough grasp of how the AI works because it’s critical for gaining an advantage against whale teams. The amount of deep understanding of game systems needed to stay competitive at this power level is huge.