Nowadays, practically all free-to-play games, whether on PC, mobile, or console, have some type of gacha or loot box element. Surely, there are indeed free-to-play games that don’t have a gacha mechanism, but it seems like there are very few of them and they’re hard to find.
This time, I’d like to talk about why the gacha system will always exist. There are three reasons I’ll cover in this article.
Let’s dive right in.
An Addictive Feature
For starters, the gacha mechanism is the simplest approach to keep players engaged and fascinated with the game for an extended period of time.
The fact is, it’s not easy to keep players from getting bored with a game over time. When we look at AAA games on PC and console, the methods used usually involve gameplay and storytelling.
Creating exciting gameplay for repetitive play is tremendously challenging. There are numerous factors to consider, such as battle aspects, physics, level progression, and a variety of other factors.
Developing a compelling story that keeps players or viewers intrigued is also no easy feat. Story presentation, character development, conflict building, and a plethora of other storytelling theories are, in fact, not easy to master.
Meanwhile, the gacha and loot box mechanism is at least much easier compared to learning how to create gameplay and stories that can captivate players.
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And, in actuality, the gacha mechanism, like gambling, can be addicting. I know many people get offended when gacha is compared to gambling. Indeed, there are distinctions. In terms of excitement and fixation triggers, however, the psychological impulses produced by gacha are strikingly comparable, if not identical, to those provided by gambling.
In March 2023, psychology professor Luke Clark, head of UBC’s Centre of Gambling Research, presented data from a new study on the effects of so-called “loot boxes” at the B.C. Lottery Corporation’s New Horizons in Responsible Gambling conference.
“Researchers have seen this link in past research, a correlation between higher levels of spending on loot boxes and higher symptoms of problem gambling, but until now we haven’t really understood the cause and effect behind that relationships.” Said Clark to Global News.
So, in other words, rather than going through the difficulty of creating engaging gameplay or stories, many game developers choose to incorporate gacha and loot boxes as one of the factors that make players obsessed with their game. Because it’s much easier to create.
That was the first reason. Now let’s go to the second reason.
The second reason is about progress balancing. Game progression is one of the most challenging aspects to find a middle ground.
If the game’s progress is too slow, gamers will grow tired of playing it for an extended period of time. Meanwhile, when the pace is too fast, gamers might run out of goals within the game. When there’s no purpose left, they’ll eventually stop playing. Fortunately, the loot box mechanism can serve as an easy method for balancing progress now.
For example, let’s say in a game, there are 5 super rare characters that can be unlocked or bought. If these 5 rare characters are sold directly without using a loot box, players can immediately buy and get the character they want straight away. Especially for players who have enough money, buying and getting all those rare characters could even be done in a day.
However, when these 5 rare characters are put into a gacha, the progression system will change completely. For instance, just to simplify this example, the gacha box contains only these 5 characters and the chances of getting them are equal, say 20% each. For those who don’t have all the characters yet, the player has a 100% chance of getting a new character, 1 out of the 5 rare characters.
Let’s say, after opening the first gacha, they get a character named Rose. But when they open the second gacha, their chance of getting a new character drops to 80%. Because there’s a 20% chance they will get the character Rose again from the second pull. If the player already has 2 out of the 5 characters, the chance of getting a new character drops even further to 60%.
If my calculations are wrong, please correct me in the comments. But one thing’s for sure, the chances will keep decreasing, making it increasingly difficult to collect all the rare characters.
That was just a simple example. The probabilities could be much lower, and the calculations would be far more complex when the gacha box doesn’t just contain rare characters.
In reality, gacha boxes don’t only contain super rare characters; there could also be useless items or characters. As far as I know, in most gacha systems, the highest probability of getting the main prize is only 1%. It’s not uncommon for probabilities to be even lower than that.
As a result, gacha adds a lot of variety to the progression system. Progress may appear to be rapid at first, but as time passes, it will slow down substantially, as I previously indicated.
Now, let’s move on to the third reason, which is about money or revenue for game developers and publishers.
To keep it short, let’s get to the calculations right away.
Let’s go back to the previous example. Assume there are 5 rare characters, each sold for 1000 diamonds.
For a player with limited funds who perhaps only wants 1 character, let’s say Rose, for instance, they can simply buy the character they want. That means they only need to spend 1000 diamonds. A wealthy player, able to purchase 5000 diamonds, could buy all five characters, capping their maximum spending at 5000 diamonds for these rare characters.
On the other hand, when these 5 characters are put into a gacha box, let’s say players have to pay 100 diamonds to open the box once. For a player with limited funds who actually only wants 1 character, the expected cost becomes 500 diamonds. Because this is 100 diamonds divided by the chance of getting 1 character they want, which is 0.2, resulting in 500 diamonds.
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Don’t forget, expected cost is not real cost. Just because there’s a 20% chance doesn’t mean you’ll get what you want every 5 tries. This chance is calculated each time you pull the gacha. So, even after 1000 attempts, there’s still a possibility you won’t get the character you’re aiming for.
That’s assuming a probability of 20%. As I mentioned earlier, in most games, the probability to get the main prize is only 1% or even less. If we calculate using the same formula but with a probability of 1%, the expected cost would become 10,000 diamonds. Because 100 is divided by 0.01.
One crucial thing to note is that the more we spend as players in a free-to-play game, the larger the income received by the game’s publisher.
It might sound like I have a negative sentiment about gacha here. But if you know me personally, you should know that I believe positive and negative perceptions are highly subjective. It depends on the individual and the perspective from which we view it.
However, one thing’s for sure: gacha is the easiest solution to make games more addictive. Gacha can also be an easy solution for progress balancing, and it’s the easiest way for game developers and publishers to make money.
So, if there’s an easy solution available, why search for a harder one? I know most people would choose the easier way rather than the harder way. That’s why the gacha mechanism is likely to always exist in free-to-play games.