Top 10 brilliant gacha game brain-genius mechanic innovations of the year
As the younger generations laugh at the older generations for being unable to "Twitter", "TikTok", or "Group Chat", the older generations whittling away days at casinos with slot machines and gambling - the younger generations, too, have our own boomerisms and vices. Fortnite, Netflix, bleary-eyed browsing in the TikTok funny-faucet, the newest games, or in my personal case, indulging in the Gacha Game, one of the most brilliant and innovative genres of the 2010s, known for creating endless franchises and exciting sequels to existing high-revenue IPS. A genre that, with its brilliant game designer geniuses' innovations, can catapult our human race to some new train track towards an exciting, unknown future...
I dedicate this list to the Gacha Game, and to all the amazing people who created the genre and made it what it is. I give you, the "Top 10 Brilliant Gacha Game Mechanics"
1. THE POTENTIALLY IMPORTANT MEDIUM-SIZED RED GEMSTONE OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN
Anyone who's played a gacha game for a few days is familiar with the various login and daily bonuses you receive for almost doing nothing! Who doesn't love free cake?
Early on in a gacha game, it's a common experience to open one's inventory and stare in wonder at where 100+ types of random EXP materials came from. Which ones are hard to get? Which ones are easy? Which should I keep? The obfuscations is intentional.
Long gone are the old, inferior days of games where items contain meaning beyond being animal-feed to boost a character's skill attack by 3.12% (As of patch revision 4.12). Welcome to the world of 100 distinct but somehow-nearly-the-same items, with the excitement of receiving a 50% off newcomers coupon to a gym you already subscribed to at full price. Don't spend the wrong one, unless you want to grind for it!
Gacha game items have the tendency to drop very quickly during one-off things: clearing stages for the first time, event rewards, etc. This makes it seem like they're easy to get - until you spend them, and they are no longer easy to get. Many games feature ways for you to buy these items (e.g., pity currency from rolls can sometimes buy you items). Otherwise, usually once you're out, it's off to the Wikis, YouTubes and Discords for you trying to figure out the best way to block off time on your Thursdays to get enough Medium-Sized Red Gemstones.
2. I DIDN'T WANT THREE STARS ANYWAYS
Many gacha games give you 'ratings' for the stages you clear, often from zero to three stars. Early on, you may be under the illusion that with enough skill, you can get three stars on every level, like a good student. Soon enough, though (often, around world three or four), your effortless stars start to drop to two... then one... then zero! Until you realize that getting three stars requires having to grind for an hour every Monday until your Fire Slime has enough attack power to kill the Ice Goblin in one hit.
Most gacha games have the exact same power curves, where you slowly grow to realize that to 'play' the game requires investing too much time into maxing out your numbers, or quietly accepting what the game puts in your face as "0-star mediocrity". Often, Gacha Games let you spend money to be more efficient in getting more star stickers, which is an interesting metaphor for something.
3. YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG: OPTIMIZATION CULTURE
Nowadays, Gacha Games go hand-in-hand with endless floods of "how-to" videos. This is usually because progress in Gacha Games is built around obscure optimization paths to maximize character strength, something nearly impossible to manage on one's own (due to time of investigation.)
Thus, we get great things like videos about "How to spend your skill rocks", or "the best route to grind for tumbleweeds on Tuesdays!" Or streaming culture, like backseat gamers yelling at a streamer about how they aren't maximizing their DPS in an game that mostly requires mashing one button to win.
Gacha games often operate under hiding information on upcoming challenges from a player, and giving limited resources. For example, it may be impossible to test out a equipment setup without grinding for that setup, etc.
By doing this, you're likely to spend resources on leveling an non-optimal character. This is a generally unpleasant feeling, which is why so many "how-to" videos pop up in these games whose complexity usually lay in shuffling numbers around or clicking through menus.
I doubt anyone who has played a gacha game for over a week hasn't referred to a guide. Perhaps, this is what 'postmodern' games is all about! The physical game manual, transformed from a small token of wonder, into a nightmare mass of 10,000 videos explaining how shuffle around my anime "husbandos" in order to eke out 10% more damage so as to "clear the dungeon under 180 seconds!"
4. I THOUGHT THIS WAS A GAME, SO WHY AM I READING ESSAYS ON THE ATTACK STAT: OR: Guideism
Why does a game's UI or UX need to be well-designed when fans will create in-depth guides for free? Exactly!
Progressing a few hours into any gacha game - especially one that's been around for a year - is a mess of confusing systems and menus. Characters have 10,000 skills, tons of menus are locked and hidden, the game has quests of various vague names and rewards... Figuring out what items you need to level a character requires note-taking and cross checking. And in the end, it more or less always boils down to the equation of "waste tons of time trying to just make some numbers go slightly up"
Of course, it's absurd to try to manage this on your own, which is why a quintessential part of any gacha game is looking for wikis, guides, or browsing Reddit threads trying to figure out how exactly some obscure skill works. I hope you like resource dependency graphs!
5. MISSING THE BOAT
Every Gacha Game has EVENTS! EVENTS were created because Gacha Game Designers know their games suck ass outside of the addictive designs and occasional interesting story content, so they make christmas-themed EVENTS where you have to do something new but often ultimately boring 100 times in order to get Potentially Important Medium-Sized Red Gemstones.
EVENTS also have TIME LIMITS, and often you need to grind for X amount of some EVENT EXCLUSIVE ITEM, which sometimes has a DAILY QUOTA. Therefore, if you don't see the EVENT soon enough, you might not be able to complete the EVENT. This creates a feeling of having 'missed the boat', and trains you to be more inner-time-managing about making sure you stay UP TO DATE and ENGAGED with the gacha game's regular and FUN EVENTS.
I love Gacha Games, because they make me feel anxious and pressed for time! What an innovation! Games are amazing!
5.5 BATTLE PASSES
Does your game fucking suck? Then maybe add a battle pass! By introducing time-scarcity and FOMO anxiety in your players, you can get people to do pointless shit like collect 100 carrots in order to get 50 Battle Pass EXP, in the hope of getting 50 Freemium Currency Gems! You can even add an option to let them buy all the Battle Pass rewards, in case you want to make it even clearer that Gacha Games are essentially unpaid jobs to subsidize the marketing of game whose goal is to find rich people bored enough to whale.
See #6, Magnetic Treadmills, for more on how Battle Passes detract from something that might otherwise be fun.
6. MAGNETIC TREADMILLS: OR: EVENTUALLY I'LL HAVE FUN, AFTER I KILL THIS AREA BOSS 10 TIMES!
"I want to learn more about Sword Girl's backstory, but first, I need to beat the Fire Dungeon (Advanced)! Oh wait, I need to level up her Ice Sword ability to 10! But for that, I need 100 Mystical Branches. Oh wait, to grind mystical branches, I ought to pull for an ELF GIRL... oh wait, I need to grind an event to get the ELF GIRL. Hm, what did I want to do again? Am I having fun?"
There are often things you want to do in a Gacha Game, but the games are designed so there are 3-4 vague other things you "should" do in order to make the thing you 'want to do' more feasible. I would find myself stuck on these 'treadmills' - especially events - where my playtime (or game-specific stamina resource) would be eaten up by some less-interesting, yet 'more valuable' or 'time-exclusive' gameplay. The internal monologue I have is something like "Eventually I'll have fun - eventually I'll do such-and-such boring thing, and be able to do the fun thing!" Shout out to MMORPGs (the genre that thought it wasn't fun enough to just let people hang out, so they added daily quests) for helping to standardize this important Game Emotion.
7. LAG-CENTRIC DESIGN
Gacha games answer the question "what should games do with fancy and expensive rare earth minerals hardware?" with the answer: "Create a server check on every single input so that everything in the game is laggy and slow!" Gacha games are mostly about navigating menus so you can increase numbers, but because it's evil to cheat (because cheating in a Gacha game would result in - what again - oh... being able to get a fancy item without gambling for it? Ah...) every time you do anything there's a tiny ping to a server, which means... lag!
7.5 LONG PRESS FOR A 50% CHANCE OF READING THE ITEM DESCRIPTION
It's hilarious just how common the "long press to see item description" paradigm has been around. It doesn't work: your finger slips on the screen, so you have to hold and press 2 or 3 times to read an item description. I don't have anything to say about this, but it shows an immense lack of imagination amongst the people who do the UX design for gacha games. I don't think a single Japanese gacha game will ever not have this input style. And somehow all the games get away with it, and even win awards.
8. SHOULD I MAKE A SPREADSHEET OR JUST TRY AGAIN
A common experience in gacha games is to fail a challenge by just a little bit. Because most gacha games are based around RNG and having enough team power to pass the challenge, it's common to fail a level and wonder what the best course of action is. Sometimes, it's just to try the level again: maybe you just needed to get slightly different enemy AI, maybe you just need to play slightly more optimally, or maybe your Match-3 board didn't start in an ideal position. This "gap" - where you can sense that "what I do maybe was just a waste of time", is truly, an exciting and new innovation in game design!
9. IT'S NEVER CHRISTMAS: UNFULFILLED DESIRE
Gacha Games operate on creating unfulfilled desire: you see a new character and want it, but the game tells you "Spend $300 to get it for sure, or turn this game into a part-time job in order to grind enough freemium currency to maybe get it."
Enter any gacha game community, and you'll see everyone wondering if they should spend their freemium currency or not. (Note: Freemium currency isn't free! You have to work for it! It costs time to get it!) Therefore, for free-to-play players, you are debating whether you want to gamble your time on some new character banner.
Gacha games create a unique anxiety where you're not sure if you want to get the thing you kind of want now, or wait and maybe-get-a-thing-you-want-later. It is never Christmas within the world of gacha games.
10. A NEW PARADIGM OF READING
Gacha games invented a new, amazing way of storytelling - one where you get to read three sentences of exposition, in between 2-3 hours of repetitive gameplay (that might require 5 hours of grinding). You might say "But Melos, that's a JRPG!", to which I say: You need to play better JRPGs.
11. MICROSOFT EXCEL BRAIN TORTURE
Gacha Games are designed around giving F2P players way too many build choices, so they have to invest lots of time into finding a good setup. Premium players can just spend money rolling for the 5-star weapons.
If you're F2P (or if you're premium and set on maxing out the game's hardest levels), you usually need to rely on using spreadsheets to optimally figure out the best setup. In normal JRPGs, this can be fun! An exercise in exploring a small set of designed equipment or skills in order to conquer a challenge. In Gacha Games, sometimes the thing you need is locked behind gambling. So you end up trying to optimize with equipment you have, which might lead to grinding, cross-referencing weapon damage spreadsheets, etc...
I've yet to play a single Gacha Game that DOESN'T devolve into this kind of unique brain torture. The better Gacha Games have the mercy of quarantining this gameplay off to a single subgame (e.g. challenge levels, Genshin's Spiral Abyss), but often the "optimization systems" leak their way into all aspects of the gameplay, so it's hard to not be exposed to some degree.
11.5 PROTO NFTs
What I find funny about the NFT discourse is that NFTs slightly resemble Gacha Game characters, just dressed up differently. Basically, what people are working for or spending for in a Gacha Game are.... JPEGs? 3D Models? In Gacha Games you don't really own the JPEGs, either... hmm... the more people talk about a gacha game, the more money the parent company makes... a gacha game's company profit could be seen as akin to the market cap of an NFT... people losing money on premium pulls is like losing money to the NFT pyramid schemes... uh...
I'm not sure where I'm going with this thought. I don't like NFTs.
12. THE DESTRUCTION OF A GAME DESIGN CULTURE
Because so much brain power is being spent on designing the economies of Gacha Games, the retention strategies, I seriously worry that there are generations of game designers who arent'... game... designing. When your game is designed to have mediocre systems that are supported by addictive structures of retention, there's no need to actually do something interesting - you can just pay your artist to make the new seasonal himbo character or boobs high schooler anime knight, because that'll keep people playing.
Anyways, Merry Christmas. My next post will be more positive, I just had to get this out of my system...