I've spent the last week thinking about this comment made by a follower on Twitter and the dark energy that surrounds it: "Everyone is just waiting for the gacha made just for them."
Gacha games are like packs of Magic: The Gathering or sports cards, or the "blind box" toys you might see lining the racks at Target. They span a variety of genres and mechanics, but all of them are riffing on "gacha" vending machines that sell tiny, random toys and trinkets.
The gacha game that grabbed a lot of new people was 2020's Breath of the Wild-esque Genshin Impact. The gacha game for me is, apparently, World Flipper, a pinball RPG that had its "global release" this week. (Mobile games are frequently launched in different parts of the world for a period of time, before they are rolled out wider. In this case, World Flipper actually launched in Japan all the way back in December 2019, nearly two years ago.)
By "a lot of people," I specifically mean friends, family, and colleagues, most of whom live in the U.S., a place where mobile games are huge, but the specific "gacha" subgenre less so. In the past, I've been pretty dismissive of gacha games because they seem like time and money sinks. I have no time, and I hate spending money! But I'm also a reporter whose job is to be curious about all games, and it's increasingly felt like a dangerous dance of ignorance to pretend I'm somehow above games like this. Millions of people love these games, despite the understandable hand-wringing over the economics driving their design.
"We also rarely think about the overlap between earlier moments in games and now," said Seattle University communications and media professor Dr. Christopher Paul, who authored last year's book Free-to-Play: Mobile Video Games, Bias, And Norms. "There are many ways in which arcade games have a whole lot in common with free-to-play (think pay a quarter for your health in Gauntlet). Additionally, I suspect part of it is about perceptions of people and platform superiority. The folks who play these games tend to be different. More women. More people in parts of Asia that aren’t Japan and Korea. More phones and less PC Master Race."
In World Flipper, players "pull," much like a slot machine, randomized characters that fall into star tiers—first being worst, five being best. Those characters are paired together in teams, and their abilities play off one another in exciting combinations, as you flip them across the gorgeous pixel-built boards. You earn points for free pulls by playing (more if you're winning), but you can, obviously, pay for more pulls. The game also has a "stamina" meter, spent by simply playing. Every game board costs stamina, and when you're out, you can A) use one of your small pool of potions to refill it immediately, B) pay money to keep playing, or C) put the phone down and wait to get a push notification hours later, noting your stamina is refilled.
The game orgasmicly celebrates four-star characters, with flashing lights and pulsing chiptune music. It's simultaneously better and worse with five-star characters, as the game swaps to a pachinko-like screen where the game insinuates it has pulled a four-star character, but if the bouncing pachinko ball hits a glowing star, it'll become a top-tier five-star character. I am, every time, on the edge of my seat, even though I absolutely know this moment is scripted bullshit, and this entire sequence is pre-determined by the game's algorithm ahead of time. But I don't care, because I'm here for the drama. I scream in agony or ecstasy based on the fall of that bouncing ball, and suddenly, it all clicks and I understand.
Every time a five-star appeared on my phone, I shared screenshots with my friends. But crucially, I never engaged in what's called "rerolling," where players purposely delete their data and take another swing at the game's algorithm, hoping for better luck, because the better starting team you have pushes off the game's grind and payment walls a little longer.
Earlier versions of World Flipper in other countries made this process easy, requiring only a few taps. But the version that arrived for a lot more people this week makes it a pain, requiring fully deleting the app and dealing with a multi-GB download upon re-installation.
I have no idea if my pulls were good, bad, excellent, or total crap. But I also knew that stuff like re-rolling, obsessing over a random pull giving you the ability to keep playing, is precisely why I've avoided these games in the first place. I don't mind randomness, but I also don't like my time being wasted, either. I stuck with those original pulls, and four hours later, everything has been fine. But I've also heard I'm about to hit a difficulty spike, so we'll see!
Gacha games would seem to compliment and chafe against the way I engage with games. As a parent who no longer stays up late and sneaks in the majority of their playing time with a Switch on the couch while one kid is playing down the street and the other is napping, the notion of a game in my pocket that's built around micro sessions throughout the day seems perfect. But again, the money thing.
"Monetization is a sensitive topic for most gamers as a majority have grown up with single transactions for a holistic experience," said YouTube creator Borkono Gaming, who specializes in videos about gacha. "I believe traditional games with single transactions and gacha games with multiple transactions are all dependent on how the person views experiences in general. Microtransactions are viewed as predatory since they cause folks to lose a sense of money. Spending $3 dollars seems simple at first but then purchases get more aggressive as if you unlocked the pandora’s box of spending on video games."
It's also the case that gacha games specifically push on our collective impulse to collect everything in a video game. In more "traditional games," a definition that makes less and less sense as time goes on, players are encouraged to 100% a game. There are trophies and in-game tools that actively push and assist players to see it all and do it all. But in gacha, rarity is the norm, not the exception, and you absolutely will not see it all and do it all.
"There’s a nice strain of gotta collect them all/meritocracy that runs through ‘traditional’ games," said Paul. "Gacha games don’t generally work that way. You’re not really supposed to get everything unless you want to back up the Brinks truck. And, your wallet will help you get more, not just your time and skill."
There is zero chance I'll become a whale in World Flipper. The question is how much the game's economic push and pull will press up against my immediate and growing love for how it plays and force me into a corner. World Flipper is genuinely a blast, with enough mechanically complex hooks—the infinite pairing of abilities, air dashing mid-flight to nail an enemy's weak point—that I'm coming back every morning (gotta get the daily quests) and every evening (perfect pairing to grind while the latest Ted Lasso is on) without hesitation.
I've found great joy in trying my luck against bosses clearly higher level than me, and finding a way to squeak a win by nailing the right combination of special powers and precise hitting. Perhaps, eventually, that will no longer be viable, and it'll become a game where I'm turning on the game's "auto battle" functionality, where it plays the game for you, simply to try my luck against the algorithm. At that point, World Flipper and I will part ways.
But I'm not there yet, and in the year of our pinball lord 2021, I can now say this with confidence: I am loving a gacha game, because the gacha made for me showed up.