Clickbait proof: I hate exploitative practices in freemium games. I only advocate playing these games spending a budget comparable to an MMO subscription, if not less (actually always less). I do not consider microtransactions exploitative by default, but they are extremely easy to go off the slippery slope with, especially in retail priced games. We clear? I hope so, because I’m aware I’m treading on thin ice with this topic.
Do Ya Feel Lucky, Punk?
The gaming market has become oversaturated with the concept of paid lootboxes, both in standard console affairs and free-to-play attractions. There’s a lot of self-explanatory ethical reasons to be unhappy with the concept of paying money to more or less enter a randomized lottery for game content. And yet, one particular subset of them - colloquially known as the gachapon game - maintains a degree of goodwill. Free players flock around them. Including myself, my friends, and even several other Destructoiders. Here, on one of the platforms with the most vocal outcry against that type of monetization.
I want to be transparent about this subject matter. During the Unpopular Opinion meme that QToid perpetuated near the time I first joined this website, I said the following:
I didn’t elaborate on this post at the time because I wanted to write an article on it. But the more I reflected on this, the more I felt there was something wrong about that thought. The connotation of that opinion felt far too positive for what was obviously mutating into a harmful trend. I was definitely going to address the exploitative nature of gacha games in my original article idea, in a way similar to my clickbait proof above, but I wasn’t going to place a lot of emphasis on it. As I noticed more and more examples of this practice being used for blatant predation, such as in Shadow of War, I felt I needed to do some soul-searching before I knew how I really wanted to approach this subject matter.
Today, I’ve decided to dive deep into the uglier half of that topic too. I want to deconstruct my own opinion, and explain why we still enjoy these types of games knowing their blatant flaws, and to explore how we might see the model iterate beyond those ugly ethical issues. So let me ask you the question… why do I, and other people, still enjoy gacha games?
I’ll admit that, for me, it’s partially a matter of my oddly specific tastes. I like leveling up a personal army of RPG characters, but I could just play Pokémon or Ever Oasis to achieve that. I like the extreme convenience of playing on my phone while I listen to a podcast or something, but I could just buy Super Mario Run instead. I like fighting alongside dozens of friends as a community marches ever farther towards newer endgame content, helping each other out along the way, but I could just play Final Fantasy XIV or Dragonball Xenoverse and catch up with my pals there. No, there has to be something unique to gacha games that pulls me, and others, in.
I said what I did on QToid because there is one specific appeal the random nature of gacha pulls offers. One advantage that can’t be replicated without that random element, which makes or breaks personal interest in the formula.
We tend to define "gacha games" as games where content the player uses to build a loadout or team - such as equipment, party members, cards, or the like (for simplicity, I’ll refer to them all as cards) - is obtained at random. That’s their most basic definition, but they also tend to be freemium games-as-services that receive continual updates with new cards to pull, more content to challenge, and so on so forth, funding that content through microtransactions players buy for digital card pulls. This changes everything about the typical dynamic games have with their equivalent of cards, but for the sake of being specific, I’ll compare Final Fantasy VI (an excellent classic JRPG) to Granblue Fantasy (one of the most popular gacha RPGs).
In Final Fantasy VI, all the cards available to all players, just with certain prerequisites set in stone. You need to reach X story point to get Y character into your party, you need to open Z treasure chest to obtain Q weapon, so on so forth. Everyone has the same toolset, the same options, the same strategies available, so on so forth. You could write a guide for every player to follow to optimize their playthrough, and provided everyone is roughly as skilled as each other, everyone who tries to follow that guide to the letter will have the same experience. Compare that to Granblue Fantasy, where most cards are obtained by random pulls, which can theoretically happen at any point of a player's playtime. Several endgame cards - such as Omega weapons and Eternals characters - are obtained via special conditions anyone can fulfill with enough time and effort, but for the most part the core of most players’ loadouts and teams will be made of gacha cards. Every player has a different toolset, different options, and different strategies available.
The gacha dynamic with how you obtain cards can be interpreted in two ways. On one hand, it’s annoying to not be able to have exactly the tools you want without forking over an unreasonable amount of money. On the other hand, because every player has a unique and randomly assigned toolset, every player can have a unique experience, even if just slightly different. Even if you religiously study the game’s wikis and guides, you won’t know which tools you have available for your next big challenge until you face that point, having spent as many or as few of your rolls as you chose beforehand. It introduces an element of uniqueness and personal individuality to your cards and how you progress through the game. This dynamic appeals to players who enjoy exploring and experimenting with game mechanics, at the expense of players who like to collect and complete everything. Drawing parallels to the Bartle taxonomy of player types, it settles games which follow this model into a niche that favors explorers over achievers.
But my old QPost didn’t just say I believe this dynamic to be a benefit to (certain) players; I said it benefits the community of players. What I meant by that is that this dynamic promotes community interaction, intentionally or otherwise. Because every player has their own individual set of cards to play with, you can’t create a single all-encompassing strategy guide for the game. Well, theoretically you can, but either it’d be littered with labyrinthian Choose Your Own Adventure page directions or it’d be so broad that it can’t possibly address every single question you’d have. Yes, there are dozens of guides available for Granblue and similar games, but they can’t offer nitty-gritty advice like the guide to a Final Fantasy VI 100% playthrough or what have you. Instead, players are constantly refining and reiterating upon their own strategies with their own cards, depending on what their cards are. Social elements such as borrowing friends’ cards in battle already encourage interaction, but that only applies on a surface in-game level, and usually a very limited one at that. The open-ended nature of building loadouts with random cards? That opens up tons of opportunity to make discussion with other players, extremely similar to the appeal of discussing strategies in trading card games. To exchange ideas on how to make the most of what cards you have. To share card collections and discuss what you like or dislike about them. To debate over who is the best girl!
Freemium games have the added bonus of lowering the barrier of entry into themselves (As a quick aside, the whole barrier to entry thing is why power-based gachas/lootboxes in retail priced games is a bad and counter-intuitive idea for the consumer). By requiring that players only invest time into them instead of time and money, they open the floodgates to more players to join them. More players means more opportunities for their playerbases to find other players to compare cards with. More opportunities for people to connect. I’ve said before that I consider one of the greatest strengths of gaming to be its ability to bring people together. This mechanism, thanks to its random and freemium nature, incentivizes countless players of different mindsets and different toolsets to connect and mingle with each other.
These are the big reasons why I think me and my friends have gotten into so many gacha games. But there are a lot of conditional “ifs” that, when dissected, caused me to question my prior advocacy for the genre.
Let’s backtrack to what I said about the dynamic gacha systems create with their cards.
”On one hand, it’s annoying to not be able to have exactly the tools you want without forking over an unreasonable amount of money. On the other hand, because every player has a unique and randomly assigned toolset, every player can have a unique experience, even if just slightly different.”
Unfortunately, this logic neglects one very prominent subset of players; those who will have exactly the tools they want because they keep forking over an unreasonable amount of money. It’s common knowledge that such players, known as whales, are the primary source of income behind this model. These games don’t need to convince 100% of its playerbase to spend $5 when they can instead convince 1% of its playerbase to spend $5,000.
Which brings us to this model’s elephant in the room.
Every gacha game I’ve ever seen is designed so that you always roll from banners that promote a specific set of cards. Sure, you can just roll whatever from them, but they’re prominently advertised as an opportunity to pull whatever is featured on the banner. If you watch a video or a stream focused on a player making gacha pulls, chances are there’s something in the title or on a sidebar or from their mouth mentioning a “target” card; a specific result that is their primary concern. This is the mentality that banners promote, encouraging you to spend more and more until you obtain your “target”, because banners are your best shot at getting a target. Now, if you approach these games with a mentality of “never spend more than $5 or $10 per banner”, that point becomes moot… to you. The problem remains relevant to hundreds, thousands of whales who will buy as many pulls it takes to obtain their target. And hey, if you have the money to spare and if you enjoy spending it on this kind of stuff? There’s no problem in that by itself! But that brings us to the bigger ethical questions; do you actually have the money to spare, and do you actually enjoy spending it?
Oftentimes, when gacha players are rolling for a target card in front of an audience on video, their reaction to not getting their target isn’t “oh, at least I got this other good thing”. They might have that reaction if they get lucky, but if they just get a bunch of low-rarity pulls or even a high-rarity pull that isn’t what they were looking for, you can expect them to show regret. That they didn’t enjoy spending their money because they didn’t get their target.
Furthermore, whales are not just people with money to burn. Whales are also easily exploited people who will throw away so much money that they put themselves into a financial hole, just because they believe they need their target card for a myriad of personal reasons. Because if they miss that one-week banner, it’ll be a heck of a lot harder to pull their target in the future, if still even possible at all. So why do they spend so much of their money anyway?
I’ve spoken with some of my friends, who are also into gacha games, about this whaling dilemma before. One of them responded with “it’s their money, and it’s their responsibility if they use it wrong”. I agreed at first, but as I stewed over it, something didn’t sit right with me about this sentiment. After all, people don’t always make their own decisions; they are often influenced by others. Peer pressure tells us to go with the flow, role models tell us to be like them (even if they never say so), and advertisements - hint, hint - tell us to spend our money on specific things. The way people spend money is every bit as much of the seller’s responsibility as it is the consumer’s, because the seller has the power to convince people to buy things they might not buy otherwise. It’s why people hate sleazy used car salesmen; because they sell crap is part of the reason, but the bigger reason is that they convince people to buy crap.
Gacha game developers are most likely aware of their players’ spending habits, and the ethical thing to do would be to spur players to spend money with responsible limitations. Of course you want to tell people to give you their money, that’s how you keep a free service running, but there’s a threshold where suggesting purchases to run a free service can be more harmful than good-natured. Hey, what do gacha game advertisements say, again…?
That you should keep pulling until you get your target.
The reason legal systems are giving to not recognize lootbox/gacha models as gambling is because every time you spend money on them, you obtain something you can’t get otherwise. If you look at these games the way I outlined earlier as being the model’s unique strength, you maybe kinda sorta could argue in favor of that ruling, but there’s a gaping hole in that logic. Their developers and publishers are obviously promoting a radically different mentality that primarily rewards that tiny chance of a 5* SSR Omni-Level card. They want people to gamble on their targets. They are convincing people to gamble. It’s fudging gambling.
Which brings me back to my original question… why do we still enjoy gacha games? And what can we do about that huge issue?
Playing a freemium game without spending any money on it doesn’t really do much to support the model. It’s not like the conundrum of paying $60 to play a retail-priced game that uses lootboxes to gate off content and progression previously taken for granted (Cedi says as he nervously sweats and flashbacks to a statement in Destructoid’s Shadow of War review nobody remembers him saying but he regrets saying and has since backpedaled on oh gosh he’s dwelling in monologue get out OUT OF THE PARENTHESES) because, well, these games are free. That’s the whole point of the model. You choose how much you want to support the model as you play it, including zero dollars for hundreds of hours. I see no ethical quandaries with continuing to pour hours into it. If anything, it could send the message of “this game does enough right for me to put so much time into it, but I’m not happy to spend money on it”. So… really, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying these games that way. As long as the gameplay is good in the first place, of course I keep enjoying them!
Unfortunately, this doesn’t change the issue much because we’re not as loud as whales. We could debate over whether it’s right or wrong to ever spend a few bucks on these kinds of games, but in the end, it wouldn’t actually make a strong impact either way. Like I said, these games don’t need to convince 100% of its playerbase to spend $5 when they can instead convince 1% of its playerbase to spend $5,000.
Whether you enjoy these games or not is a personal matter; the same can be said for how much money people are willing to spend on these games. Instead of thinking about whales, we should turn our attention back towards the law. Legal institutions don’t have a great track record for understanding the impact games have as a medium. To get them onto our level of understanding, we need to raise our voices with facts and logical threads of cause and effect. We need to speak up not on the principle of what these games offer, but on the principle of how they promote themselves.
A handful of gacha games have inched towards relying less on that high-stakes only gambling mentality. I can’t say they definitely aren’t exploitative, because they still cling to the same trappings I’ve outlined as problematic in this very article, but we need every step in the right direction we can get. Granblue Fantasy in particular makes a few interesting choices, such as low-rarity only quests, but the Surprise Ticket (or Suptix) is the biggest one. It’s a 24-hour offer that becomes available at random times, usually in intervals lasting a few months. The Suptix lets you choose any character currently available in the gacha with a single purchase, and though you can only buy one every 24 hours, you may buy another when it’s offered again. Granted, paying approximately $30 just for a single character feels like too much (even though it comes with a 10-pull ticket too, but that’s not why people buy Suptix) unless you really like the game, but my point is that it’s the kind of microtransaction I know I'd be satisfied with if I bought it regardless of RNG. My hope is if we see the ESRB and other groups threaten to bring down the hammer, Granblue and other games may pick up the pace on those steps in response, since they’ve felt the path.
When a demon possesses your friend, your first thought isn’t to kill your friend. Maybe it’d work. Or the demon might find a new body to possess instead. Rather, the best outcome is to exorcise the demon, to save what we love while getting rid of the root problem. I’m not saying I believe this model exploded in popularity because of what I consider to be its unique positive. On the contrary, I’m pretty sure the games that pioneered this model did so mostly to emulate the lucrative TCG market for profit first and foremost. And profit it did. That’s why we continue to see this practice spin out of control. But to assume the entire design model in all of its implementations is sustained through malice and greed alone is too shallow an argument to kill the demon. Some of these games have done a lot of good for a lot of people. They’ve spawned communities with deep webs of friendship. They’re inspired passionate fanart. They’ve spunoff into less dubious models to great effect, such as Puzzle and Dragons getting a 3DS game with zero microtransactions. I myself have spent hours rambling about Fire Emblem Heroes and Granblue Fantasy with my close pals as we play them together, and I enjoy every second of that time! That’s why I want to see these games leave behind their ugly exploitation. Is it realistic for me to expect that? Not particularly so. But it’s probably more likely than pulling a 5* Tana and Bluecina in the same summoning session.