Nobody defending the game seems to understand why the monetization is bad. Governments aren’t banning this game because they care about p2w or competition. Its being banned because its literally dangerous and predatory. from DiabloImmortal
Above is a reddit post complaining about the moral and ethical problems with gacha games. This is very valid and I share these concerns. However, in the USA anyways, we can’t even pass a law to make it harder to bring weapons capable of mass-killing into classrooms, so I think being hopeful that lawmakers would pass legislation that effectively bans these kinds of predatory F2P gambling games seems unreasonable.
Sadly, I think the best we’re going to be able to do is going to be in the cultural realm. And even there, I think this is one of those things that you hear a lot of complaining about, and yet, people still play the games at the end of the day. So I’m rather skeptical on the cultural angle, as well.
But at the very least, maybe I can convince those in my own community – those who might be reading these words right now – that this shit is highly distasteful.
I think it would be really useful to talk about the aesthetics and design patterns of not just gachas, but of “gacha-ish-ness”. There’s a thing I’ve been touching on over the last few years. I don’t really have a great term for it, but the term I’ll use for this article is “Aesthetic Gacha-ism“. Even if loot boxes and gambling and other predatory practices were effectively banned tomorrow, I think our games would still be marked by these design tropes for quite a while.
The core of my conception of aesthetic gacha-ism is the commodification of games: both in how they are produced, the rules, the experience, the way it’s talked about. At nearly every level, the experience of games gets put more and more onto an assembly line, alienated from human experience, connection and meaning. Here are some of the signifiers of aesthetic gacha-ism:
- Extrinsic-reward driven. A strong valuing of metagame over the basic gameplay; of extrinsic rewards over intrinsic rewards. Gacha-ish games will often have multiple currencies, unlocks, progress bars and the like to keep players engaged.
- Elements feel copy-pasted a lot, and/or “subdivided” to increase length. Designed to be played for thousands and thousands of hours, but in a way that feels extended rather than as a natural byproduct of its basic gameplay. Items or upgrades are made smaller and smaller to extend the length of the power curve. Monsters and encounters are re-used way beyond the point where they’re interesting anymore. Entire UIs or “star rating systems” are copy pasted from other games. The opposite of bespoke.
- Compulsion-driven design. Extremely simple and repetitive gameplay, designed to trigger compulsion in people rather than engagement. A slow, consistent drip of rewards.
Here are some more specific examples of gacha-ism mechanics that we see all over our games, gacha and otherwise:
- The (dreaded) crafting system. It seems that just about every 3rd person console game, adventure game or RPG these days has to have a crafting system. Notably a crafting system hits two of the above points simultaneously: it is both the “subdivision” of upgrades, in that there’s usually tons of smaller items that you can and must craft frequently to get the same effect as “finding a new weapon” in a game pre-crafting systems, but also in the ingredients scattered all around the map, we get a compulsive, repetitive, click-click-click dopamine drip. You’re constantly picking up some bullshit horseberry or apples or grass or something, and it’s meaningless to our smart conscious brains, while also being effective at the dopamine drip stuff.
- Commodified quests. It used to be, in old school CRPGs, that a “quest” was just a player’s description of something a few NPCs told them about some dungeon nearby. There are monsters in that dungeon, so I’ve heard, and the mayor’s son has gone missing. If I want to, I can go down there and investigate. Maybe I’ll find some treasure, maybe I’ll find the mayor’s son, who knows. If I do, maybe someone – maybe multiple people – will reward me in some way, and maybe not.
Cut to the modern commodified quest: a conveyor belt-like apparatus of such encounters. A programmer built a nice pipeline for quests, and disparate writers and teams built dozens and dozens of quests, almost all of which fit nicely into those parameters. Modern RPGs almost always have a journal with a long list of these commodified quests and you can knock them off one by one, often times even getting a green arrow telling you exactly where to go to solve the quest (which is sort of a different issue, but also sort of part of this commodification problem).
- More and more things “level up” in some way. I tend to think that “numbers go up” is to game design what salt is to food; it’s an important flavor enhancer, but a dish shouldn’t “taste like salt”. This is there to create that compulsion in people, those constant, dripping rewards, happening on multiple axes so that you less likely to ever see a good opportunity to stop. You’re always a moment or two away from something leveling up.
At this point, these and many other mechanics are so ubiquitous that I might actually sound like a crazy guy to many people reading this. They’re everywhere, and it’s getting worse. There are more and more high paying jobs within the game industry for people whose sole job is to develop this sort of stuff; tons of writing has been done on how to “increase retention”. The line between game design and marketing gets blurrier and blurrier and games increasingly become ads for themselves, a constant rolling advertisement that tells you to keep playing. Of course mobile F2P gacha games are the absolute peak level of this sort of stuff, but it bleeds out and infects everything else too, more and more, year after year. Zelda, for example, is not a series that people would typically associate with this kind of stuff. And yet, Breath of the Wild is indeed marked by it, with things to collect everywhere you go, a crafting system, and a nice neat list of quests to fulfill. It’s interesting to think what Breath of the Wild might have been like, in a world where gacha-ism wasn’t so ubiquitous.
To be clear: it is not so much that these specific mechanics are “bad” in and of themselves. It is more that these design patterns are coming from a specific place (business demon ideology), and create a grotesque, inhuman tapestry of mechanical patterns that forms a design aesthetic.
The alternative to aesthetic gacha-ism is to build games that are meaningful, that are human, and that are specific. Games, systems, characters, interactions and UI elements that are bespoke. Probably, games that are smaller. My friend and colleague Pete Siecienski (aka Nomorebirds) talks a lot about his concept of the “Adventure Game”, which for him means many things. But what resonates most with me is his idea of a game that isn’t afraid to be weird, a game that isn’t afraid that you don’t get it. A game that is maybe not afraid to be short!
On one level, you might just say that all I’m asking for here is some human creativity. Aesthetic gacha-ism is basically the gamedev equivalent of a town getting ravaged by capitalism. Some businesses move in, set up McDonalds, corrupt planners overdevelop everything, they destroy all the trees, build everything too close to everything else, extract the wealth from the area, and move onto the next area. That’s what aesthetic gacha-ist games feel like to me.
My hope is that we can, as a culture, recognize this stuff for what it is, and greet it with the hostility that it deserves. If for no other reason, to make space for the personal and the strange creations of people.
In a reddit comment I wrote this, which I feel like should have been somewhere in this article, too: It’s unfortunate to me that the word “hype” has a positive rather than a negative connotation in games culture. Because hype is excitement for a thing that you can’t yet do, but feel like you’re going to get to do – the fun is just around the corner! Marketing is so happy that we are so hype for hype, because they take advantage of it constantly, and it affects the way we design games.
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