So, what games do you play?
Gamers these days are spoiled for choice. Back in the early days of the gaming industry, the relationship between players and companies was a whole lot simpler. You went to a store, bought a game, and went home to try your new game out on a PC or console. That is until mobile games became a thing.
With the advent of the smartphone, it became increasingly clear that gaming could be more compact. While consoles and PCs aren’t going anywhere, it’s hard to deny that the fastest growing platform for video games is on mobile. Unlike the basic games found on earlier phones, think of Snake and Bounce, newer mobile games are optimized for maximum performance on minimal hardware requirements. This was major: It made video games available to everyone anywhere and at any time.
It didn’t take long for gaming companies to figure out that the mobile market was different from other demographics of players. This new group of gamers was more tolerant of limited playtime and microtransactions.
Mobile was the perfect environment for gacha games – a genre of video games designed to suck its players dry at a level comparable only to a casino.
What Are Gacha Games?
Anyone who’s been to Japan has probably seen a gachapon machine. They’re everywhere. You can spot them outside convenience stores, inside Disneyland parks, and, if you happen to stop by Ameyoko, right across the street from an izakaya.
Gachapon, sometimes romanized as gashapon, is the name for a type of vending machine that dispenses small toys and candy. It gets its name from the sound it makes. You put in a coin, turn a knob to hear “gacha,” and wait for the toy capsule to drop for the “pon”. Now here’s the fun part: Did you get what you wanted?
It’s better to think of a gachapon as a slot machine or a roulette wheel. With each coin you put in, there is no guarantee that you’ll get what you’re looking for. The only thing you’re doing is buying the chance to win the prize you want – whether that’s a plastic Pikachu sitting on a pool float or a 2D sprite.
When Konami came out with one of the first mobile games based on gachapon, they likely already had an idea of how widespread the concept would become. There’s an argument to be made that Konami is best known for being associated with Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear series and Silent Hill games. Even his last Silent Hill game, P.T, has left an indelible mark on indie horror games.
But it takes more than talent to keep a company happy. Kojima made great games but they were also resource-intensive. By comparison, Dragon Collection was a company wet dream. Aside from its new, clever monetization scheme, there’s nothing particularly exciting about Dragon Collection, especially when compared to Konami’s previous games. But it was relatively dirt cheap to develop and it, along with other gacha based titles, made Konami enough money to last them ’til kingdom come.
Other gaming companies in Japan quickly took notice of the virtual gambling scheme. They called it compu gacha and it quickly dominated the Japanese mobile gaming scene. One of the most famous and notorious of them to date is Fate/Grand Order, a tactical RPG with turn-based mechanics that gave the player control of several units called “Servants”.
Players can collect Servants by using an in-game currency called Saint Quartz the same way you could drop a 100 yen coin into a gachapon machine. It was true to its origins too: Fate/Grand Order is notorious for its lack of a pity system, a term used in gacha game communities to refer to the maximum pulls, summons, or draws you have to make before the game just gives you what you want.
The lack of a pity system in F/GO often leads players down the slippery slope of sinking hundreds to thousands of dollars into the game just to get the units they want.
“I think I’ve spent about $70,000 on the game. Maybe more.” 31-year-old Daigo told the Wall Street Journal, “But I don’t like to think about that.”
Daigo still lives with his parents and seems to be doing his best to help around the house. But neither of his folks know how much he’s spent on F/GO,
“I think it’s fine as long as I’m having fun.”
Gacha games make it too easy to fall into this mindset.
The Cost of Gacha
Fortunately, not all gacha games are as risky as Fate/Grand Order. Many gacha games have a proper pity system in place that gives players a safety net from spending their entire life savings.
One of those gacha games is Genshin Impact. It’s one of the fastest-growing gacha games on the Play Store and the Apple App Store. With about 50 million average monthly players as of September 2021, the game easily beats out most of its fellow gachas. F/GO and Fire Emblem Heroes are big, but it’s this newer title that sits at a comfy third spot on Sensor Tower‘s list of top-grossing mobile games as of July 2021.
It’s also a lot of people’s first gacha game. While the gacha industry has been doing fine on its own, it wasn’t really mainstream before Genshin Impact. Though players in South Korea, Japan, and China are practically desensitized to gacha games, Western audiences were left blindsided by the game. It looked a lot like Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild and even delivered on the promise of an open-world experience. What Western players didn’t expect was that the gacha gods can be cruel sometimes. The general lack of experience with gacha games led many Westerners to call the game’s gacha system a scam even though it’s one of gachas with a safety net in place.
But is it really that bad? In a way, it is. While the pity system will keep you from leaving each time-limited banner empty-handed, you can still expect to spend anywhere from a minimum of $225 to a maximum of $450. That’s assuming you don’t try to get multiple copies of the same unit to boost their abilities.
That picture up there? That’s three single copy 5 stars and one four copy 5 star, amounting to five in total. What you’re looking at is $3,600.
There’s no sugarcoating it: Gacha games are anime-themed casinos on your phone.
Casinos in real life are often subject to gambling laws and regulations. Though gacha players can be quite defensive about gacha not being gambling, many countries’ legal systems aren’t of the same school of thought. Even in its home court of Japan, gacha games have been reined in with stricter anti-gambling laws.
Loot Box Laws and Digital Casinos: Regulating the Gacha Industry
Compu gachas were put on trial on April 24, 2012 when the Japanese Consumer Affairs Agency started to consider whether gacha games were screwing their users over. A CAA secretary had brought up at a regular briefing that perhaps gacha items should be considered as “prizes” and therefore should be subjected to prize regulations. If you think the current gacha system is terrible, it was worse back then. Compu gacha, meaning “complete gacha”, had worse rates than today’s gachas and forced players to gamble on materials that they needed to collect before they could even get the items they wanted.
Okay, so there are low chances of winning. What’s the big deal? The Yomiori Shimbun, a local news agency, interviewed a social game engineer for one of the compu gachas available on the market at the time explained that he would routinely change the odds of winning based on real-time item sales, the number of players, and other factors in order to maximize profits. The rates weren’t just low: They were actively deceitful.
It was a big hit to their revenue, but compu gacha games opted to self-regulate before they could be struck with the CAA’s ban hammer. Industry giants quickly jumped to deescalate the situation by removing their compu gacha systems and replacing them with the gacha we know, love, and hate today.
Before Genshin Impact could be released to take advantage of looser gacha laws, China put several new regulations into place sometime in 2019. The regulations covered both gacha games and loot boxes. It’s no longer fine to just give players a static drop rate. The chance to get a rare item has to adjust as the player spends, giving them a guaranteed reward in exchange for the purchases made.
China is taking it a step further this year by restricting the playtime of minors under 18 years old. Under new regulations, Chinese kids will only be allowed to play from 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Other permissible days include public holidays when the kids wouldn’t be going to school or be expected to do school-related work.
It’s an attempt to keep Chinese kids from developing gaming addictions and to put a stop to the way that in-game purchases, like gacha games and loot boxes, practically encourage minors to gamble.
You’d think gaming companies would be up in arms about this but it’s barely a drop in the bucket of their earnings. Tencent, which owns League of Legends, Fortnite, and Call of Duty Online, really doesn’t mind since minors only make up less than 3% of their gross revenue.
Many gacha game players still insist that restrictions on playtime will hurt the companies they patronize but the effects will likely be from minimal to non-existent for all of them. As u/tyw214 puts it, “Who do you think are the whales? 90% of the whales are people with jobs, no longer in schools, with larger disposable incomes at will.”
Even with minors out of the picture, the gacha industry will be fine. That said, even players with their own money to burn sometimes get burned themselves by gacha games.
Gacha Is Gambling: The Real Consequences
“I may as well spend more to get it.” 23-year-old Jen Tan told CNA Insider. She’s an avid player of MapleStory, one of the first games to employ a gacha system. She’s been playing the game since she was 8 years old and has gone deeper into the gacha rabbit hole as a way to cope with COVID lockdowns. She admits the feeling of FOMO she gets when she sees other people with items she wants makes no sense. But that’s just how gacha is designed.
“I completely fucked my life over,” is how Genshin Impact streamer Tectone described his time with Summoner’s War, a gacha game with fantasy RPG elements, “Four months. Had nothing. I lived on the streets or I lived in my car.”
Is there a chance that gacha games will be forced to tone things down? Maybe. But companies will find a way to work around it. According to developer Javier Han, there’s just no downside to implementing a gacha system into a game. Players can spend as much as $5,000 in one go, a massive jump from subscription-based games like World of Warcraft which only charge players around $15 a month. It’s a no-brainer for companies.
If you’re suffering from spending problems related to gacha games and loot boxes or you believe a friend or family member is, you can reach out to the National Council on Problem Gambling through their hotline number 1-800-522-4700. You can also contact a therapist who specializes in gambling addiction recovery through Psychology Today‘s database.