I like to play gacha games. A lot of people here don’t, for reasons I rarely challenge because they are perfectly legit concerns. But I still like them for legit reasons of my own. This has been a bit of a source of a personal struggle for me for a while. If I think something is worth enjoying, why don’t I do more to defend it? That’s what I asked myself about a year ago. So I did defend it, but not without simultaneously drawing attention to its flaws with criticisms that I rarely hear in detail when people rail on it. It has, undeniably, grown into a large problem in places where it should never have gone. It's only right for me to be critical of a type of game I enjoy.
I still like to think I did a good job dissecting the reasons why gacha appeals to its supporters and disgusts its detractors, but the recent news about how big publishers are reacting to Belgium’s anti-lootbox laws -- and myself acknowledging that I am 100% in favor of Belgium’s rulings against them -- has led me to reflect on how I feel about these games again. Like I didn’t dig deep enough into why I so adamantly support one while I will gladly advocate for banning the other.
While a lot more has happened since to make that response less reactionary and to tilt the potential future of this topic, I want to finish this reflection for my own sake. So forgive me if this response is a bit late to the party and if it's not exactly rebellious in the wake of the subsequent news. I'm taking one more introspective dive into what I enjoy about these games and why I feel the way I do about them.
Firstly, a quick recap of my terminology. “Gacha games” are games (usually RPGs) wherein you pay for a chance at getting characters, weapons, etc. from a random pool of said stuff. For convenience’s sake, I will call that stuff “cards”. Also, I am specifically referring to free-to-play games. Like, actual free to play games. Not what EA is trying to do with their fully priced games.
Second, to quickly summarize my previous defense of gacha games, my explanation amounted to two things. Firstly, the formation of wider and more tightly knit player communities. This is mostly a free-to-play thing in general, nothing off about that as long as the game is actually free-to-play, which is an important distinction but one that’s also very easy to make. The other point I made was that gacha games are fun because of the element of not expecting to complete or get everything. It’s an interesting stipulation for thousands of players to tackle challenges with vastly different toolsets than most other players, and I stand firmly by that claim.
I also stand firmly by my definition of gacha’s biggest ethical issue, that they regularly encourage players to buy chances to win specific things that they may not get. To make purchases they may regret one instant later and compel them to keep spending until they get the thing they do want. Or in other words, gambling.
You might have already noticed this, but I just outlined a bit of a paradox. While that was intentional as I wrote my original blog, I didn’t reflect deeper on what that means back then. Gacha games are at their most fun when you go with the flow and roll with whatever you happen to get with normal play. Yet they make all of their revenue from making players do the opposite and attempt to fight against that flow with their money until they get the things they want the most. So… why spend money on gacha games? Doesn’t that go against everything that gives them their good unique properties, according to me?
And then I realized the true crux of my internal conflict. I cannot, in good conscience, encourage supporting the primary source of revenue for these games. That, in turn, challenges the very right of these games to exist, because free-to-play games need some sort of income to remain viable in the eyes of their publishers. I previously said things to circumvent that problem, explaining that it should only be worth paying for it if you can embrace the worst possible result. Reflecting further on that, I now realize how unrealistic an expectation that was on my part. That’s simply not how these games are built to work.
So long as they explicitly divide cards into rarities of increasing quality, there will be some undesirable result by design. That tends to be okay in trading card games because they are built around entire 50+ card decks where even weak cards can have some niche value in an overall strategy (or be resold/traded to other players), but less so in RPGs where you build a team out of 5 members (where digital resale is also a much finickier matter by nature).
On that note, different rarities don’t really have a place in what I enjoy out of gacha design either. I don’t have a problem with a lack of perfect balance, that’s a natural consequence of stuffing 50+ characters into a single system with individual strengths and weaknesses, but gacha games tend to assign arbitrary power levels based on rarity. That amounts to randomly selected difficulty and encouraging still more “specific result” spending. It also creates a very literal “pay-to-win” economy that gates the ease of progress behind both randomness and money. This may be an impassable gate, or instead one that can be overcome with skill and strategy and grinding with low-rarity cards (as it is in many good gacha games), but in either case it fits the definition of one of our biggest pet peeves in microtransactions.
And yet, I usually feel more disgust towards cosmetic only lootboxes in retail games than traditional mobile gacha games. It’s a weird and self-contradictory thought of mine, to think that I’m growing more and more tired of paid lootboxes in fully priced games where I’ve remained mostly complacent with pay-to-win variants in freemium games.
A part of that is because they simply aren’t equivalent mediums. Of course, a fully priced game shouldn’t need randomized microtransactions, that’s what their full price is there to cover. And if a free-to-play game is designed as a profitable product it needs microtransactions or some other purchasable content to turn any profit whatsoever. But contrasting my support of recent anti-lootbox rulings against my gushing in favor of gacha games has made me wonder whether I might be judging them by a double standard.
The very details I previously described in favor of gacha games -- giving each player a unique set of cards to give them unique playthrough experiences and enforce community interaction -- requires that they be gameplay related instead of cosmetic. On that principle, I continued to endorse gacha games, likening them more to untradeable trading cards than anything else. But then I confront the even more outrageous examples of retail game lootboxes like Shadow of War’s orcs. We can all agree that made that game even worse than other lootboxes, pushing it from a game I’d maybe consider picking up into something I changed to a hard pass. All because it’s a system where you randomly buy power, with more powerful cards locked behind greater rarity and goading players into spending even more. Just like literally every gacha game.
This “double standard” of mine hinges on a single principle -- that there are positive gameplay experiences only possible in gacha games. Only, upon closer examination (and given some conversations I’ve had on the Destructoid Discord -- I’m especially thankful to good pal and awesome community member Kerrik52), that principle doesn’t hold up. Gacha games are more likely to lean towards those gameplay experiences by nature, but they are not mutually exclusive design philosophies.
Me and (most of) my friends enjoy gacha games without spending a dime anyway, so you don’t need to spend money on gacha pulls to make them enjoyable! Even though the exact specifics that pull me into gacha games are mostly absent in traditional RPGs, similar factors can be found in any RPG with loads of collectible characters (or even making your own) like Pokemon, Disgaea, Suikoden, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and so forth. Heck, XB2 is almost literally a gacha game without microtransactions, and it’s pretty darn good! You don’t even need rules hard coded for random party members in the game, you can just commit to an honor system like a Nuzlocke. Games which do hard code such randomness into their unlocking systems have a place in the gaming industry, depending on how it's executed, but that place shouldn’t involve players spending their hard-earned money on addictive pulls.
I’ve concluded that I can no longer endorse gacha monetization models, not even in free to play games. Will I continue to play gacha games? Sure. A lot of them have a lot of effort put into them and are solid games in their own right, even without caving into their microtransactions. I will spend free currency on gacha pulls with anticipation over what I might get. I continue to endorse gacha mechanics as progression models in F2P games -- I enjoy that kind of constant grind of an ever increasing cast of characters -- but not as a microtransaction.
I want to see more of Granblue Fantasy’s stories. I want to return to Fire Emblem Heroes and test my armies with new strategies using an ever-expanding array of options. I want to collect rad dragons and fight action RPG battles in Dragalia Lost (... assuming my outdated phone will play it once it launches). Heck, I plan to keep on playing Dawn of the Breakers, which is one of the most mediocre gacha games I’ve ever played, and I enjoy that because it happens to fill an extremely specific niche I enjoy dipping my toes into in very brief sessions. But I refuse to ever spend money on gacha pulls again (FYI, I only ever spent $20 on Fire Emblem Heroes and that was it).
This issue of overspending on lootboxes always has, and always will be, a two-way street of shared responsibility between the industry and the consumer. But one of those sides has a lot more money and a lot more control over it, not to mention the ability to coerce even responsible consumers into chasing after their waifus for unpredictable and unhealthy costs. It’s quite fair to make the industry take much more responsibility by either seeing that it regulates itself or forcing it to comply with legal regulations. I already said that it’s important for the law to catch up to these practices and enforce tighter restrictions on them, but now I believe we must double down until they comply with the same exact restrictions as traditional gambling regulations.
Such regulation could possibly threaten a bunch of good games me and my friends regularly enjoy. I consider that a small price to pay for better ethics in game design, but more importantly, any gacha game that puts in the effort to be fun to play is capable of putting in the effort to adapt to consumer-friendly legislation while keeping their best parts. Heck, they already did comply to new laws from Japan in recent years requiring disclosure of rates and et cetera! They can go further if legislation makes them.
Thankfully by the time I actually finished this blog, several more countries have taken notice and are investigating their own outlook on how gambling laws should relate to lootbox and gacha mechanics. So I can scrap my original paragraph here about “I don’t think lootboxes will be gone for good anytime soon” and replace it with this acknowledgment that the battle against exploitative design is accelerating. While nothing’s guaranteed yet, it seems increasingly possible that we could scrub out the worst parts of gacha games within a decade, if not sooner.
It also makes me wish I finished this blog earlier, but… ehhh! I did my reflection, I shared it with the community I first shared my gacha thoughts on, I accomplished my personal goal, and that’s what matters most to this blog.
Perhaps someday in the future, I’ll write a blog detailing the unnecessarily detailed custom rules I've started to draft in my head for playing RPGs like Disgaea or Labyrinth of Refrain or Etrian Odyssey or etc like a gacha game or a Nuzlocke. When I have more time for silly stuff like that. And when I’ve finally beaten the main story of Disgaea 5. For now, I’m dialing down the pro-gacha gameplay talk, and steering my focus as a Destructoid writer back towards other types of games I enjoy. Such as all the good games! Except for good horror games. Everything else is cool.