Natalie Rambles About Gacha Games

Because crack is wack, coke ain’t woke, ya don’t need weed, and generally speaking drugs are for thugs.  But indulging in regulated vices is good for the economy and government, so gamble to your heart’s content!  

About two months back I got my first smartphone, and I decided that, hey, if I am going to have this thing, I may as well use it for something more than just activating my workplace’s accounting software.  For most people their primary activity is web browsing, but since I am not partial to web browsing on such a small and vertical display, I decided the best way to make use of this new fangled doohickey of mine is to dabble into the wild world of mobile gaming.  Now, there are a large number of quality titles on mobile platforms spanning a vast number of genres and structures… so naturally I opted to stick with what I knew, and from a 13 month investment in Fire Emblem Heroes, what I understood best was gacha games.

Part 1: You Gotta Gacha 

Gacha games are predominantly focused on accumulating a collection of assorted creatures or characters through a system wherein they are summoned, recruited, or drawn in exchange for a piece of in-game currency that itself can either by completing assorted tasks in-game, or by purchasing this in-game currency using actual money.  The characters players get through this system are determined randomly based on probability tables, with common characters being notably weaker and less valuable than the rarer offerings. Thereby encouraging players to use actual money in order to theoretically boost their odds of getting elusive characters who, depending on the title, may only be available for a limited amount of time, thereby adding a fear of missing out within potential buyers.

It is a deceptive tactic implemented in order to monetize interactive game software, and has proven to be immensely successful, particularly in Japan, where it has become the de facto game genre for mobile gaming.  But the practice has since been adopted by other Asian and western developers, which is kind of bizarre, because the word gacha is a Japanese onomatopoeia for the noise a capsule toy, or gachapon, machine makes.  

Upon hearing this descriptor, some may be poised to comment on how this just sounds like another word for Loot Box and, well, the principle is basically the same.  Both involve randomized transactions in exchange for currency that may be purchased with real life money, and encourage a good deal of grinding. However, there are some key differences.  Gacha games are typically free-to-play affairs, while loot boxes are most prominent within full retail titles. Gacha games tend to provide players with characters, whereas loot boxes tend to provide them with tags, skins, emotes, maybe weapons, and so forth.  And while loot boxes are often implemented in competitive multiplayer affairs, gacha games are predominantly mobile titles with more passive multiplayer offerings, but both use a social stigma of seeing other players with things that you don’t have as a means of encouraging monetization.

At the end of the day, they are just different renditions of the same core concept, and that concept is gamified gambling.  Now, I think that gambling mechanics are very dangerous things to implement in any game, as, well, you do not put in the ability to drop $100 on something unless you want someone to take the plainly presented bait you actively advertise.  This sort of thing can be manipulative, gross, and objectionable due to how susceptible certain individuals are to this sort of thing, and how these games can wind up costing more in the grand scheme of things, while ultimately being less rewarding..  

I am personally not prone to impulsive digital spending on these sorts of games.  If anything, I view the concept of paying for just about anything in these sorts of games to be… stupid.  Really stupid. Gacha games are live services that depend on a central server, meaning they almost certainly will die and your investment will lack any value aside from the memories and footage you salvaged from it.  The rates for exceedingly rare characters, who are often mechanically superior, are so low that it is statistically improbable that a player would get what they wanted, even if they invested a large sum of money into the game.  Money that could very easily go elsewhere. And not just boring stuff like utilities and personal care products. You could buy figures of waifus, buy retail games full of waifus, buy trading cards of waifus with a resale value, or pay someone to make fan art of your favorite waifu.  Or just find one of those 3D waifus and pay them to hang out with you.

But when one stops worrying about monetization and does not even consider the option of purchasing in-game content, then many gacha games become a very peculiar type of RPG.  One where the player almost always has a variety of tasks to do in order to earn assorted currencies and materials by engaging in grandfathered content, themed events, and daily tasks for the player to complete.  At their best, they are games meant to be fiddled with and prodded periodically, with the stamina meter preventing players from getting in too deep with a single session, and encouraging them to get on with their lives.  It is a genre provides something personal, low maintenance, filled with small rewards of debatable value, and is often packed with aesthetically appealing characters and imagery.  

As for how exactly this genre came to be, I really am not sure as to the broad specifics, but the origins can be traced to changes in gaming habits, the rise of smartphones/mobile devices as the most popular means of playing games, and specifically a change in player habits and time investment in countries like Japan.  Where a busy work life and small dwellings have discouraged the use of console gaming, while the use of public transit and small instances of downtime have made mobile gaming more attractive than the more cost intensive offerings of handheld systems and games. Also, mobile games tend to have shorter play sessions than handheld games.  This popularity brought forth innovation, which led to the gacha genre, and over the years it was experimented and iterated upon, eventually resulting in something that has spread across much of the world, and became a massive money maker. One that turned niche Japanese media series into entities that are capable of bringing in hundreds of millions, if not billions, in revenue.  Revenue that, in many cases, broke people financially…

…Yeah, I think that about covers the genre broadly speaking, but as I said in my preamble, I played a variety of gacha games as of late and as I did so I began thinking about the challenges and mechanics unique to this genre, analyzing what each title was doing, and comparing and contrasting them in order to determine what makes a gacha game enjoyable… at least to me anyways.  Every game I covered has done things well, and not so well, and I quite simply feel like cataloging my thoughts on each individual title, starting with my most played game of all time that I dropped back in 2018, picked back up in early August, and dropped again about two days later. Fire Emblem Heroes!

Part 2: Fire Emblem Heroes

With their marquee franchise given a second life thanks to… waifus, basically, Intelligent Systems poised Fire Emblem as a prime candidate for a mobile gacha game, given the expansive cast of every game, potential for character-based variants, and core gameplay that would adapt to mobile touch-based interfaces easily.  So by shredding the expansive SRPG battles of the series into bite sized chunks with only a few characters, and adopting a fairly boilerplate narrative that gradually grew into something far more ambitious and detailed with subsequent iterations, they were able to create an unquestionably successful mobile game.  I already reviewed Fire Emblem Heroes back in 2018, and had a lot to say about the game, so I’ll just jump into my big takeaways from revisiting the game for a few days earlier this year. 

Let’s begin with the characters.  In gacha games, obtaining duplicates of the same character is expected, and when the player receives a duplicate, they are given some valuable materials, or alternatively something that can be used to strengthen the player’s copy of this character.  Well, FEH looked at this and decided to make matters a mark more complicated, and instead gives players the following options when they receive a duplicate hero:

1: Send them away in exchange for upgrade materials.  2: Merge them with another copy of the same character, thus giving them a bonus level and additional skill points.  3: Transfer 4 of their unique skills to another character, thus making the other characters more versatility and viable by giving them more options.  4: Raise the character even though they are a duplicate and use them alongside the original.

Why on earth would you want to do number 4?  Well, that’s because every hero summoned has a set of unique IVs, which despite the name are more comparable to the nature from the mainline Pokemon titles.  Where one stat has an “asset”, while another incurs a “flaw”, and this change in stat distribution can greatly alter the usefulness of every copy.  Or, you could merge them to eliminate the flaw, but doing so would require having a duplicate, and would eliminate the ability to transfer their skills.  The ability to customize and exchange the skills inherent to each character, or rather each unit, and the unique stat distribution inherent to each of them makes the game vastly more complex than many of its contemporaries, and in turn puts the player into a precarious position where they must determine and weigh the usefulness of most new characters summoned. 

Are they worth using in combat due to their unique skills and stats?  Or could their skills be better utilized by another character? In that case, which one?  It could work with this other character I got, but is that the best choice? Maybe I’ll get another version of this character with better IVs.  Actually, I don’t really need upgrade materials, and do not want to simply waste a character buffing another, so maybe I’ll just save up these characters as I get them.  Even if I will never use them, because I have another 5 copies, their skills could be inherited by another character. Hold on, this is getting complicated, let me make a spreadsheet of this game, reference a fan wiki to determine which IV a character has, because the game doesn’t tell you, and update it obsessively, because I have hundreds of heroes, most of which are doing nothing and have no obvious value.  But at the right moment. At the right time. In the right place. They potentially could be useful… maybe.

This system complicates the game exponentially, and while some may praise it for how much control players have over creating their own fully customized unit, suited to their liking, acting as a glorified Frankenstein’s monster of multiple characters jammed into one, I view this as immensely overwhelming.  After I discovered just how many factors were on display here, every summoning session became a spreadsheet-based chore for me, and my collection of heroes eventually grew so large that simply selecting or finding… anything, became a chore in an of itself. 

Let’s also not forget about how this IV system can negatively impact one’s enjoyment of the character summoning process, as it is entirely possible, if not probable, for someone to spend a significant amount of real life money on the game in order to get a specific character, get them, and then realize their stats are not beneficial.  A move that actually makes the otherwise quality feature to remove character flaws by merging them somewhat devious, as it incentivises players to try summoning duplicates of the character they just summoned, in order to get a better version of them. Or in other words, by defying what I have come to understand to be conventions of this genre, the game overcomplicates itself with an obtuse system that, despite offering an oceanic trench of depth, makes the game less endearing at a higher level.  

This was a persistent gripe of mine while playing it, but what turned me away the first and second time has to do with the matter of content.  Now, Fire Emblem Heroes has a very sizable amount of evergreen content for new players between hundreds of story battles with 3 difficulty modes, over a hundred side story battles, rotating events, daily passive PVP battles to partake in, and even character specific challenges.  However, the developers gradually seemed to internalize that their player base may abandon them if they were not properly stimulated. So they decided to create a wide variety of events, many of which run concurrently, and… it was overwhelming and encouraged some more obsessive habits from me back during the first year, when I was actively playing it, and going back into it as a lapsed player was almost suffocating. 

There is simply too much for a person to reasonably do on a casual basis, and while I would genuinely appreciate most of this content (emphasis on most) if the pesky timers were removed, the fact is that they aren’t.  There are so many quests and timers that it is hard to stay focused and directed, especially when so many of them demand so much of the player. I honestly could not believe some of the Infernal challenges I saw back when I played the game actively, and if what I heard about power creep is true, then the game has probably only gotten worse with that as time went on.  

It all… it all makes me very uncomfortable and exhausting to think about, and made the prospect of returning to this game a very unappealing one.  Which is a shame because I actually do like this game. The mechanics between the unit types, skills, terrain, and stats are intuitive, simple, yet allow for a lot of depth.  Getting new characters is exciting, as they represent new meaningful gameplay variety, and raising them up to level 40 is enjoyable, if formulaic after developing the right party.  The summoning system gives the player some control over what character they draw, making it very possible for players to get the specific character they want. The simplified turn-based combat is a lot of fun.  While the game’s presentation is rather clean and appealing, featuring a lot of small detailed in the chibi character sprites, along with some detailed and varied artwork.

Compared to a number of other gacha games, these things should not be taken for granted, and caused me to better appreciate what FEH has to offer.  It all makes me pine for, as morbid as it sounds, the death of its game, as the title is so big that it is entirely plausible that dedicated fans would revive and rebuild this game into something far more approachable and manageable.  Now, that idea is pretty crazy, as aside from titles like Sonic Runners, I cannot think of many mobile games that were revived after being discontinued.  But I can dream… I can always dream… 

Part 3: Langrisser Mobile

After getting disgruntled over Fire Emblem Heroes, I went about things as I typically would, and eventually came across the now delisted Steam store page for a game simply named Langrisser.  At first I thought it was a rebranded version of Langrisser I & II, but as it turned out it was a PC client of the mobile game… which is actually just called Langrisser, and is often called Langrisser M or Langrisser Mobile because… it’s a mobile game.  Anyways, I recalled hearing positive buzz about this game, and decided to download a somewhat shady looking Chinese PC client.

Oh, and as a quick little history lesson, Langrisser is an SRPG series from the 90s that was eventually left behind by its developer, CareerSoft, who went on to make the Growlanser series before being folded into their parent company Atlus.  A reboot of the series was attempted on 3DS a few years back, it sucked, and then it was decided to turn the series into a mobile SRPG, presumably after Fire Emblem Heroes came out and brought in hundreds of millions.

Preamble out of the way, Langrisser Mobile offers a fairly stock feeling JRPG storyline about a group of intrepid youngsters who fall into the lap of destiny as their world is threatened by thinly veiled evil individuals who wish to bring destruction to this world, or accumulate some form of dark malicious power.  As the chosen forces of all that is light and right, the chosen children must hone their strength, keep the evil empire at bay, and rally their forces by summoning heroes from earlier points in history (the first five games) to serve as their aids in this quest. A quest that, as this summary indicates, never really grabbed me personally, and it all meshes together, partially because I never did get very far in this title, as I only played it for about five days before I threw my hand up and decided I had enough. 

Part of that is the simple fact that Langrisser Mobile is very much built around the trappings of this genre, featuring a large number of daily grindables, a gacha system that is considerably less generous than its competition, regular notifications of premium items to buy, and an overall structure that just struck me as more abrasive, overwhelming, and less welcoming than others.  A lot of which is driven by a combat system that tries to be as extensive and detailed as it possibly can within the constraints of a mobile device by having these large maps that span multiple screens, and a sizable number of enemies to manage. A move that results in a number of lengthy combat encounters filled with a lot of visual information for players to take in, and combat that, while novel at first, became something of a chore based on how regular, predictable, and drawn out encounters became.  

It’s actually no surprise that the game features the ability to automatically clear a set number of stages every day, saving the player a great deal of time, while giving them all of the rewards a previously cleared challenge would offer.  It is a very sensible move on one hand, but on the other, it indicates that the developers were aware of how repetitive this game is, and wants to give players the opportunity to skip past the boring bit and focus on building up their characters.  A process that mostly involves giving characters EXP crystals, (because levelling by playing the game is a long and arduous process after level 15) giving them some good equipment, and shoving them on the battlefield. All of which requires a lot of work and, well, I actually found no reason to really want or use new characters, because the so called freebies basically fill any role I could have asked for.

The combat encounters in Langrisser are elementally driven, like most of these games, and so long as the player recognizes this when building their party for each stage, the only other thing the player needs to succeed is power.  Or rather better equipment (which you can also get via summoning) and higher levels, which are limited by one’s player level, which is best raised by grinding on daily activities and generally doing a lot of waiting.  I ran into this problem once I reached chapter 13, when my freebie characters simply lacked numbers high enough to survive against the enemies thrown my way, despite giving them the best equipment I had, levelling it up, and levelling them up to their current max level.  But no, I was denied story progression and… I generally did not want to go back to grinding dailies, because it wasn’t very fun.

Frustrated, I decided to head to the summoning area to cash in 10 of my summon tokens at once, hoping that I would find some motivation to keep playing after being told that I needed to grind to progress, despite doing a fair bit of that already.  But instead the game gave me three of the same character, and two other duplicates, despite having a roster of… maybe 15 characters before then. I took this as a sign of this game’s quality, and immediately tried uninstalling Langrisser Mobile while it was still running.  Because I get having bad luck, but that… that’s just something else.

That being said, I did find some of the things Langrisser did to be rather interesting, especially for a mobile game.  The passive expositions that characters can be sent on in order to accumulate more materials.  Class changes that occur at set levels, allowing character to become more varied and completely different mechanically.  An active skill system that allows for another layer of strategy during combat. The ability to “sweep” through stages in order to get rewards without actually playing them… which probably indicates that the game isn’t very fun, but whatever.  The ability to upgrade the soldier units who fight alongside with each character, effectively upgrading character classes universally. And, my personal favorite, the inclusion of abridged retellings of the original Langrisser games, complete with maps that depict these encounters.

This is an obscure and barely localized SRPG series so seeing these characters, the same ones you can summon, in these truncated storylines does such a good job at endearing them to new players, and allowing them to care for those who they summon, as otherwise they are just a pretty face, a bunch of stats, a short summary, and some voice samples.  And while the seeds of intrigue were planted within me, I just wasn’t having fun after a relatively short amount of time, so I guess I’ll just wait for the remake of the first two games and hope that it’s good.

Part 4: Epic Seven

Shortly after dropping Langrisser, I opted to dive back into the gacha hole again with a title that popped up when I was looking into good gacha games.  A visually impressive Korean RPG by the name of Epic Seven.  I played it for about an hour or two, and… let’s start with the positives for this one.  Firstly, yes, the game does look very nice visually with well animated characters, quality anime style character designs, and a generally clean presentation that places emphasis on meticulously crafted 2D landscapes.  All of which is driven by turn based RPG gameplay built around an ability cooldown system, and takes place in stages that are broken up between smaller encounters leading up to a more powerful to cap things off. I naturally did not see much of the combat itself, but it does seem to have a considerable level of depth and variety to it given the limited ability pool held by each character, and the minutiae driving each of these abilities. 

It overall seemed like something that I could get into, but as I tried to understand the systems this game introduced, I ran into, let’s say, visibility issues.  In short, the UI for this game is not optimized around smaller screens, with much of the descriptive text being borderline illegible on my phone, an iPhone 6s, and even with fairly good vision I had to peer closer to see the, I don’t know, 6 point font the game expects me to read.  Combine this with a main menu that is broken up into an array of small white icons that hide away functions and are aligned on a busy setting that itself is full of menu elements, and I quickly became overwhelmed as I began to dive deeper into this game’s mechanics by looking through menu explanations and the ilk.  But even when I could see what was going on though, I was still confused.

The game opens coldly into a conflict of the gods, throwing a number of names and terms at the player before jumping 20 years ahead in the future, where it has the designated protagonist is accosted by a gaggle of moe blobs who in turn bombard him with affection and new mechanics to keep track of, all resulting in a very overwhelming introduction that probably made me more confused than I would be if I just started playing with zero tutorial or idea as to what the hell I was doing.  I was overly inundated with information from second 1, and it seemingly never let up.

But I tried to persevere, hoping to at least get an opportunity to roll for my own characters, but right as I was about to do so I decided to explore the menus and discovered something… befuddling in them.  Like many other gacha RPGs, Epic Seven features an equipment system that can be used to buff or improve characters beyond their innate stats, and embed them with unique abilities.  However, the process of equipping or equipping a character requires players to pay a fee. A fee measured in a paltry currency that can be generated automatically, but nevertheless holds some value.  This game took something innate and simple and stapled a fee, a mostly meaningless fee, onto it, for no reason as far as I could tell, or at least no reason I want to conform to or endorse. They looked at player behavior and said that this is a good or beneficial design decision and that… that just does not sit well with me in the slightest. 

I could go on about how the movement throughout areas, which is done by pressing right or left on the screen, feels unnatural.  How I really like the relationship charts provided for each character, and the idea of building a team of characters with a relationship to one another is neat.  Or how I do believe that there is a quality experience here beyond these beginner’s issues. But the game just made itself appear so hostile that I could not look at it any more.  Seriously, reading font that small hurts my eyes… 

Part 5: Pokemon Masters X Dragalia Lost

Originally I wanted to save my thoughts for Pokemon Masters and Dragalia Lost for this post, but one thing led to another, I put in a few more hours than I should have, and I wound up writing reviews for both of them.  As such I don’t have much to say about either title that I have not said already. However, I will say that these two games, in a sense, represent an extreme divide in how a game as a service treats its player base, their reward structures, and makes fairly similar concepts more endearing or approachable.  

Pokemon Masters is a game that I would describe as very demanding, necessitating a lot of grinding to get further in the story, and once everything is said and done, then all that exists is more grinding for materials, and because things are not limited by a stamina system, there is no real reason to not grind indefinitely, since that’s all there is to do.  Grind for drops that allows you to grind more so that you can then grind the endgame, wherein one’s success is largely dependent not on how big their numbers have gotten, as this game is strongly driven by whatever numbers the player has… and the numbers of other players. You see, Pokemon Masters curiously locks much of its endgame behind co-op in order to keep the community more lively.  It’s a concept that I can get behind, but it also means that one’s success is dependent on other people and… I don’t think a lot of players quite know what they are doing.  Because the requirements to partake in certain courses are so low, it is alarmingly easy for a player to start up a co-op battle, see one of their team members flounder, meaning that everybody loses and walks away with nothing.

It is a game that just frustrated me after so many failures and being told again and again that I should play more co-op with a number of events and exclusive rewards, all of which offer a paltry sum that honestly goes to make the game seem needlessly greedy.  Which… is really rather surprising. This is a gacha game that goes out of its way to promote a more ethical mindset, offering a lot of free characters to the player, allowing them to set spending limits, and offering warnings to minors about consulting their parents about making any purchases.  But it is positively stingy with its distribution of summoning currency, and actively encourages players to spend real life money regularly by premium offering daily deals, and giving them the ability to summon a character of their choosing after they spend loads and loads of money within a short period of time.

For as much as I did enjoy my initial time with the game, my enjoyment with it took a serious nosedive as I immersed myself in its paltry daily grind, and began to realize just how unfulfilling the accumulation of power, character growth, and pursuit of mastery truly were.  Pokemon Masters is grindy, barren, and once you exhaust its bounty of personality as seen in the Sync Pair Stories it’s not very compelling, fun, or endearing.  So naturally I uninstalled it a couple days ago, and don’t plan on going back unless some major improvements are implemented. 

Then there’s Dragalia Lost, which I still find myself chipping away at regularly, being in the endgame grind and steady accumulation of power, all driven by daily tasks and farming quests to amass large sums of materials needed to access upgrades, but I’m actually enjoying myself quite a bit as I play through the game periodically.  As I said in my review, the game is very chill and low maintenance compared to other Gacha games, while still providing players with a sizable amount of things to do between periodic events, a hard mode for the main campaign, and an insane amount of character and weapon progression.  All of which is meant to be dished out gradually over time, and is not the sole driving force of one’s success or failure, as this is ultimately an action game. Specifically an action game that boasts an endearing co-op component that is filled with people who know what to do, because there is nothing else to do other than to go down the path, fight enemies, and avoid obstacles.  

This gameplay loop, the generosity of the developers, the overtly pleasant aesthetic trappings— I went through all of these things in my review of the game, and even after having spent two months with this title, I’m thoroughly enjoying my time with it.  It’s something to steadily pick away at, slowly amassing over mandated time limits that cause the experience to be staggered over a long period of time, but in a way that makes me appreciate the game far more than I would have if I were rushing to see it through to the end. 

In a sense, that is very much the core appeal of these types of gacha games, mobile live service RPGs, or whatever the hell you want to call them.  They are about the slow and gradual accumulation of things. Power, characters, equipment, resources, currency, all in order to develop a sense that you amassed and crafted something unique to your playthrough, sensibilities, and dedication.  As somebody who likes to hop from one game to another, I never thought that I would find myself desiring or really enjoying these more dedicated and continuous experiences.  

But here I am, having gone through the ringer enough to have a decent understanding of the genre, its assorted minutes, and what makes for a good gacha game.  Which really comes down to aesthetic appeal, generous support for F2P players, establishing a fun gameplay system, and encouraging players to play the game over a long period of time, but not too much at once, lest the experience become trite and repetitive.

All of this can result in a very enjoyable experience… but it is very much an experience first and foremost.  As time goes on, technology changes, and tastes change, all of these games will inevitably die, with their only chance of continued life depending on the conviction and dedication of fans who may decide to illegally frankenstein it back together into something playable once the central server goes down.  It is an unfortunate reality that affects an immense quantity of games released nowadays, being persistent services whose future longevity is uncertain and unlikely, with countless titles having already been reduced to digital ghosts that only live on in the form of assorted memories and other forms of media.

Or in other words, gacha games are quite fun when they are well done and not very fixated on the whole making money thing, but they are all gonna die, so maybe it’s not even worth playing them in the first place.  I mean, I’m sure stuff like GranBlue Fantasy and Fate/Grand Order will be around for decades but… oh sonuva— How did I forget to check out two of the most popular gacha games of all time?

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