Everything you need to know about gacha mobile games
Since its launch in September 2020, Genshin Impact has pulled in around US$874 million as of April this year. With an estimated further $175 million a month from mobile players, it was the largest global launch of any Chinese game in history. These statistics are even more impressive when you consider that it’s entirely free-to-play on mobile.
Genshin Impact is an example of a gacha game - a genre originating in Japan that has recently skyrocketed in popularity around the world amongst mobile gamers. Titles such as Another Eden, Fire Emblem Heroes and the aforementioned Genshin Impact have brought the genre to mainstream audiences across Asia and more recently Europe and the U.S. In this blog we’ll take a look at gacha mobile games and what game developers can take away from their monetization mechanics.
What are gacha games?
The word gacha stems from the snap noise of the Japanese gashapon (toy dispensers) whereas the game mechanic itself is based on the randomness of the prize. Gacha games are (almost always) free-to-play and rely on ‘pulling’ or ‘rolling’ for prizes to acquire new characters, items or upgrades. The player gets the chance to play for these rewards by spending in-game currency. They can also convert real money to circumvent the time needed to obtain in-game currency.
Gacha game mechanics contrast the pay-to-win model—games where players can simply buy their desired upgrades and items—by completely randomizing the rewards. Players can play through the game relying solely on in-game currency they acquire throughout, however the time required to earn in-game currency often leads players to spending real world money if they want to get newer and better prizes more quickly.
Gacha mobile games are often likened to loot boxes (in-game boxes that can be redeemed to provide players with randomized rewards such as items, skins or loot). Although there are similarities there are some core differences between the two. The business model is different as gacha is found mostly in free-to-play mobile games and is typically the main monetization mechanic, whereas loot boxes are found mostly in full priced console or PC games as a supplementary monetization element. Both offer items with different rarity levels, new characters and cosmetic/social rewards. While both require payment of either in-game currency or real money converted to virtual currency for randomized prizes, gacha has a broader variety of types and game mechanics.
Types of gacha
Each gacha type adheres to mostly the same principals, however some offer better odds after each roll while others enable the player to reroll or roll for rewards in bulk. Below is a list of five gacha types with a brief description on each:
This type of gacha game design requires the player to complete a set of prizes in a reward pool with the intention of receiving a more valuable reward. This gave the player a much lower chance of getting rare prizes. With some highly publicized cases of children spending thousands over the course of days and months, it was clamped down and banned as it was deemed too close to gambling. After this, developers found more creative ways to implement gacha mechanics into their games.
Step-up gacha gives players a greater opportunity to get rare prizes from each consecutive pull. This type of gacha is particularly effective for high-spending players as the best rewards rely on the player spending during a single session or period of time. The rarity of your rewards then resets in subsequent sessions. An example of this type of gacha is DragonBall Legends, which offers players a guaranteed rare character after the fourth and seventh pull.
Package gacha means that the game’s rewards are finite — the probability of winning a rare prize statistically has to increase after each pull. The player understands that each reward is checked off and can predict the cost of each pull and the likelihood of getting a higher reward. This provides the player with a cost-effective incentive to pull more as they cannot get the same items twice.
Also known as consecutive gacha, players have a greater chance of receiving better, rarer rewards if they spend their in-game currency in bulk. The player acquires ‘scratch points’ whenever they pull several times in a row. This allows players to pull multiple times after paying a higher sum rather than a single round at a time. This method always provides discounts for various amounts of pulls the player makes. Once the player has enough scratch points, they can scratch boxes out to see which prizes they received.
Named after the Japanese board game Sugoroku, this gacha mechanic involves moving a character across a board of squares. Each square rewards the player with a prize with higher rewards appearing on the later squares. The player gets to advance throughout the game after each pull, how far the player advances is determined by a luck-based minigame.
Benefits of gacha games
Gacha game design provides developers with a strong monetization model separate from the gameplay itself. A large part of its appeal is ‘opening’ the box/pack and seeing what’s inside. With each pull offering a set amount of rewards based on rarity, the player knows that despite the randomness there is an element of certainty in regards to the quality of their rewards. Gacha mobile games generally offer the player a varied assortment of characters and items to collect. An example of this is Pokémon Masters EX where the player pulls for iconic character/Pokémon pairs from the anime and previous games. This way the user stays engaged and is incentivized to spend real world money as the chance of unlocking that special character or item (or at least something similar) is always possible.
The success of gacha mobile games is partly due to their low barrier of entry. With free entry, gacha type games can rely solely on the player’s time investment rather than money. This is in contrast to games that sell at retail price yet include gacha-like loot boxes. The randomness of these rewards and unboxing presentation has been shown to trigger a strong brain reaction in the form of dopamine release, which encourages player repetition. This is why gacha game design is such a financially effective model — games such as Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes have generated $1.2 billion from 78.5 million installs as of January 2021. Most recently in June 2021, newcomer Ni No Kuni: Cross Worlds broke past the $100 million mark during its first 11 days on the App Store.
Three examples of gacha games and their monetization models
There are many different ways to implement gacha mechanics into your mobile game.. Here are three examples of the most popular gacha games right now.
One of Genshin Impact’s main draws is its size and scope. Its quality and in-depth AAA game design is a breath of fresh air from mobile games riddled with microtransactions, dated gameplay and ad pop-ups. Genshin Impact’s gacha design involves an in-game currency known as Primogems which can be used to obtain either Fate items or speed up your XP progression. With enough Fate items, players can pull a ‘wish’, giving them the chance to win a new character or a weapon.
Although players can acquire Primogems while playing the game, it requires more game time to gather enough to make your ‘wish’. However, Genshin Impact has a number of ways that it safeguards its players’ spending. Firstly, the player can get pity pulls if they’ve tried and failed to get their desired item. In addition to this, the game will also give you the rare item if it has not been won after a set amount of pulls. There are a number of Genshin Impact summon simulators which provide players with an idea of the likelihood of obtaining 5 star characters and valuable loot.
This benefits both the players and developers because players can get what they want and are motivated to spend just enough within the gacha system. Combine this with various event banners that offer limited time rewards, and you have a compelling gacha design that will hook users.
Fate/Grand Order showed remarkable growth in user-spend in recent years - from $110.7 million in 2015 to last year when it surpassed a staggering $4 billion in lifetime player spending. The game revolves around pulling for ‘servants’ which perform the combat in-game. Fate/Grand Order incentivizes its players to pull in two ways. Firstly, all servants are useful to the player regardless of their rarity level. Similar to Pokémon Masters EX, the game is based on the Fate series of manga, anime, films and previous game installments. The added familiarity from other sources encourages the player to pull more for a chance to obtain their favourite characters from across the series.
The game’s main gacha features servants that the player meets. These servants are “unlocked”, costing in-game currency with a 10x summon guaranteeing at least one four star card or higher. Fate/Grand Order also has limited gachas that have increased drop rates for specific servants, giving the player a better chance to get a four-star or higher character. Fate/Grand Order is continuously updated with new characters, campaigns and new in-game areas which keep users hooked, providing them with an incentive to keep playing and building their party. The game celebrated 23 million downloads in February 2021 with the average player spending $291 dollars on pulls in Fate/Grand Order.
Fire Emblem: Heroes
Nintendo’s Fire Emblem: Heroes is a turn-based role-playing game. Based on the Fire Emblem series, Fire Emblem: Heroes has players summon heroes from all across the series and spend in-game currency (orbs) on summoning. These orbs can be earned in game or purchased with real currency. Fire Emblem: Heroes incentivizes players to pull by discounting the orb cost from five to three if five fighters are added to your party at once. Each hero comes with a rating which details their rarity.
How to implement gacha game design: 3 best practices
Incorporating gacha elements into your game can be an interesting monetization tool for developers. Although gacha has received criticism for incorporating gambling elements and psychology into video games, there are a number of ways to use gacha mechanics without exploiting your players.
1. Boost longevity
The key to getting users to buy in-game currency is by providing a service that provides value to the player. By regularly updating your game with new challenges and content, your game will enjoy a much longer lifespan. This means players are more likely to stick around and spend real money. Another way to keep players engaged is by implementing giveaways for all players during events.
2. Be transparent
By disclosing the chances of pulling specific prizes you are providing much needed transparency to your gacha. A study on gacha in Japan concluded that by increasing the amount of normal gacha and decreasing the highest cost of limited-time event gacha, players can avoid continuously escalating their in-game purchases. Additionally, a good gacha should stack the odds very cleverly. By mixing in additional rare prizes with a super rare reward, players will feel like their pull was well worth the price.
3. Provide alternative ways to win
For less predatory gacha, allow free-to-play players to eventually earn the same powers as paying players without making it a full-time job. This is a thin tightrope that the best gacha games manage to walk. Another option is allowing the player to exchange their duplicate prizes for rarer rewards or offer another mechanic that prevents users from regretting their pull. This ensures that each pull isn’t totally fruitless and that even less valuable items can be of some use.
There’s no doubt that part of gacha’s appeal is pulling the character or item that you want, and the element of chance and the disappointment that arises from not successfully pulling are part of the overall experience. You need to find a way to work this game mechanic in tandem with safeguarding players, especially younger ones. By making a compelling, exciting game that users want to play, the wider your player-base will become. It’s the small percentage of dedicated players that believe in the value of your game that will offer the highest lifetime value.