Remember when you were a kid, you would often get dragged along by your mom to buy groceries, and while you agreed to come because you didn’t want her to get lost, the real reason you joined the supermarket mission was because you knew that standing alongside the entrance, the money-gobbling, dream-dispensing Gachapon was patiently waiting for your return.
The small vending machine, filled with little plastic canisters and holding another collectable for whatever fad was rotating through the masses of kids and their savings at the time, is essentially a money-printing machine for brands.
A brief history of gacha gaming
You probably didn’t know it as the Gacha machine though, and in all honesty I can’t remember what we called it, but my mom called it “No, you can’t have one of those.” The Gachapon originated in Japan in 1960 and today goes far beyond the quaint Gacha machines lined up outside the supermarket. In Japan, there is a gaming oasis known as Akihabara, or Electric Town, and within are halls and halls filled with Gacha games, each one dispensing a range of collectables from around 1 to 5 USD.
So, what the heck does this have to do with Mobile Gaming, you might ask? Well, think back to the last game you played that didn’t have an in-game currency that you could spend on seemingly random upgrades to your character in the form of a lootbox.
According to a lot of sources on the internet, Gacha broke the digital barrier in 2010 with the release of the Dragon Collection mobile game on the GREE social network, a sort of mobile-only facebook in Japan. However, some sleuthing (step aside, Sherlock) led to the discovery of the Gachapon mechanic in MapleStory, a 2D platformer from Nexon, that was introduced possibly as early as August 2006. Nexon started properly documenting patch notes in 2005, but Gachapon was part of the “unlisted updates” that were introduced to the game, meaning tracking down a concrete date is not easy.
So now that we have an origin story for mobile games and video gaming in general for Gachapon/lootbox mechanics, where does that leave us in 2021? A quick look at Google Trends show us that, worldwide, the search term “gacha games” is at its peak, with real volume starting to build around the end of 2016. It’s safe to say that Gacha games have become entirely their own genre.
Gacha gaming in 2021
One of the best examples is the free-to-play RPG, Genshin Impact, released in September 2020 by Shanghai developer and publisher, miHoYo. While the game is free, miHoYo is making their millions (around $800m to be precise) with the gacha mechanic as players spend in-game currencies for ”Wishes”, that then give the player the chance to roll for new characters or items to be unlocked.
While the game is well known for being completely playable without any need to spend, players are obviously happy to not listen to their mothers and spend big for another chance at unlocking a five-star character, the hardest to unlock, with a 0.6% chance to find.
On the other end of the spectrum is Marvel Strike Heroes. Rife with pay-to-win, the game got so bad that the top post of all time on r/marvelstrikeforce is a plea to the game’s developer, FoxNext, to do something about the myriad of issues in the game. Most notable was the gated progression that relies on RNG to allow players to continue, resulting in thousands of wasted dollars as players couldn’t find the upgrades they required with each roll. Things go so out of hand, that around 15,000 players organized a no-spend boycott to get FoxNext and their new publisher Scopely to change their progression plans.
Did it work? Not really. Spending was estimated to be at its highest level ever at the time of the boycott, and since then, the game has continued sucking in new players eager to level their favorite Marvel heroes to max power. What about FoxNext and Scopely? Well, Scopely went on to almost double their valuation in 2020 to around $3.3bn, so safe to say they weren’t super worried about the boycott.
Are gacha games hurting the industry?
In 2018, the Netherlands and Belgium decided a line had been crossed by the video game industry, with gacha games and lootboxes been thrown into the “illegal gambling” bucket. The reason for this was a lack of transparency for the odds of what could be won, coupled with the targeting the games to children.
Naturally, when the law was passed, all publishers decided to remove lootboxes and gacha mechanics from their games, resulting in completely transparent and RNG-free games for the rest of time, that all their players loved. Ok, not quite.
The new laws haven’t stopped development of a range of gacha games that are headed to the english-speaking market. But in contrast, there are now laws in places like China that work to create fairer conditions for the players of gacha games. Things like:
Daily limits to pulls
Clearly displayed amount of pulls the player has done
Increasing chances in favor of the player as they buy more pulls
And when it comes to games that featured lootboxes in regions with new regulations, often they have removed lootboxes altogether or tweaked their offerings to fit local regulations, by instead just offering players the ability to just buy their desired item outright.
So where does that leave the mobile gaming industry? Ultimately, they are innovating, and reducing the toxic side of gacha, replacing it with systems that Genshin Impact employs that at least give you usability of your duplicate rolls, and a pity system to reduce wasted rolls.
The mobile gaming industry still has a long way to go, but it’s improving every day, and as governments regulate, and players decide where to put their money, it can go far in reducing the predatory nature of gacha games, replacing it with a compromise that all sides can agree to, and have fun with.