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The term "gacha" may ring some bells as a category for many mobile games, including some of the best gachas on Android. But what does it mean? Does gacha refer to a genre of games, a company's payment model, or an introduced gameplay element? We've created a frequently asked questions (FAQ) guide providing answers to your questions while shedding light on the common misconceptions behind this term and how it ties into the gaming industry.
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Gacha dates back to Japan, where a "gachapon" is a popular Japanese vending machine capable of spitting out plastic capsulized toys in return for a few Yen. If you've ever encountered one of these machines, you'll vividly recall the whole experience thanks to the colorful flashing lights and catchy sound cues. So in part, it's not about the prize you're earning but the entire experience behind it. Participating in gachapon encapsulates a psychologically addictive experience produced by hits of dopamine (a chemical released in the brain that gives a sense of reward). We have games trying to reproduce that experience virtually in gachas; today, gacha releases have become some of the most accessible mobile games, not demanding performance-wise, which enable gamers to run these apps on formidable budget Android phones.
What is monetization?
Monetization refers to converting any form of owned assets into cash and is often adopted as a business model for companies looking to generate revenue.
Games with monetization often see developers adding methods to entice you into spending your resources on virtual assets like cosmetics, gear, weapons, and characters. Once in-game resources are entirely spent, people might purchase premium items or even subscription services/deals via real money from a shop, which all add up to a gaming company's revenue stream.
Gacha games are often monetized, but the terms are not mutually exclusive despite what one may think. An example is Xenoblade Chronicles 2 uses a gacha system for earning Blades, but it's not monetized; the gacha currency is acquired through in-game means only.
What makes a game considered gacha?
Systems that promote winning in-game assets through a draw or a lottery are considered gacha. For example, games with loot boxes also have gacha since the contents are lottery-based. You can label any game as gacha as long as there are gacha mechanics, but be aware that it may not always be the focal point for those titles.
Another characteristic of gacha games is using a points system that limits your progression. It essentially boils down to limiting how many actions you can take per day. But, of course, you can bypass the limit by paying into point refreshes (or top-ups) with precious resources, which may spur your interest in paying for more resources.
Is gacha a gaming genre?
Despite how the term becomes used, gacha is not referring to a genre but a mechanic. However, games primarily focused on gacha mechanics that drive the overall experience are often labeled "gacha games." Usually, these games become lock progression behind false walls that require better weapons, units, cards, and gear to advance, pressuring the players into spending for helpful power-ups. Companies deploy these tactics to exploit players' patience in getting past those walls. As a result, these same companies become incentivized to put the best weapons, units, cards, and gear behind the gacha system. By definition, these games become pay-to-win and may be considered the most predatory form of gacha.
Is gacha considered gambling?
The answer is not black and white whether gacha is considered gambling or not. It boils down to the process and the experience; the experience is very similar to gambling, where the emphasis on the visuals and sounds make the whole experience psychologically addicting, just like playing slots at a Casino. However, when it comes to the process, the argument is that you can't lose a gacha roll since you'll always gain a prize at the end; it just might not be the prize you want.
Years ago, gacha games were a lot worse when "Kompu gacha" was legalized in Japan. Essentially it was a gacha mechanic where you had to collect randomized rewards to pursue a grand prize, basically the process of using gacha to grind out a bigger gacha. It was enough to be on the level of gambling since you were never guaranteed to collect what you needed to earn the prize. Still, due to significant concern and lack of protection from the gacha systems, Japan's Consumer Affairs Agency had to take action and ban that practice.
Companies now publish probability rates and have a pity system (a certain number of spins/pulls/draws) in place for the top prize to ensure there's a limit to how much randomization controls the whole gacha experience, ensuring the practice is a bit more consumer-friendly than typical gambling.
What does it mean to be a whale or a dolphin?
In gacha culture, you might follow the news and join community discussions around your favorite games. You'll see players throw out a few terms like "whaling" or describing players as "dolphins" or "whales." Those terms are based on how much money you spend in the game.
Whales aim to be at the top of the chart the fastest way possible, which is done by laying down a massive sum of money on day one. Whales spend far more than the average player and make a small portion of the player base. Essentially whales keep many gacha games (and other monetized games) afloat. Imagine spending a few thousand dollars on getting every single upgrade when new content releases; that practice is considered whaling.
Dolphins will spend some cash to keep their account competitive. They might not spend on every piece of content but splurge a little when it comes to attaining powerups on individual characters/gear. Dolphins may spend a few hundred dollars here and there, but nothing as consistent compared to whales.
What does it mean if a gacha title is ending service or announcing the end of service?
No one likes addressing the elephant in the room regarding live service games. These games don't last forever, even if your favorite gacha generates a considerable cash flow to stay alive against competitors. When a gacha game, or any monetized game, announces the end of service date, it means that game is shutting down/being terminated on that date. Thankfully most companies will announce the date ahead of time before cutting players off, but still sad news, nonetheless.
What is an idle/AFK gacha, and how does this affect the user experience?
Not all gacha games play out the same; some have an open world, some are entirely menu-based, and others have dungeon/area roaming. Idle/AFK gachas take away the player's agency to control the game; these games are much more automated, where auto-battle and auto-play take precedence. Sometimes the lack of control and offline progression is a convenient feature and helpful for mobile play. Still, other times, it can lead up to heavy monetization practices and lack of engaging gameplay. Not all gacha games are idle/AFK games, despite how many idle/AFK gachas often pop up in the West.
Are all gacha and free-to-play games pay-to-win, and what are the warning signs?
The vicious cycle of being strapped to a game where you've spent a lot of money can add a lot of despair to your hobby. Unfortunately, sometimes there doesn't seem to be an end to the cycle, thanks to the company's incentive to create content where users feel pressured to spend money to win/be competitive; the only way to win is by putting down a lot of money (unless of course, you're just that lucky). This makes the game pay-to-win.
Not all gacha and free-to-play games are pay-to-win, but sadly, they are few and far between that aren't. However, it still comes down to the game's main content (the hook), and in both cases, putting down money on those games will still provide the player comfort and convenience.
Pay-to-win tends to trend when content scales well with the end game, like challenging dungeons, raids, and PvP; anything that developers can get away with by putting out content that keeps up to power creep (gradual unbalance to the game thanks to old content/characters/gear/cards feeling underpowered and obsolete compared to the new ones) and then pushing you constantly to make upgrades to your account. On the other hand, single-player gacha games and F2P games may stray away from blocking users from experiencing the story, so the difficulty curve is much lower since it aims to reel in a casual audience. These games then become more F2P-oriented. But once money is needed to bring in a sizeable advantage (accessing premium gear, acquiring S rank characters and copies, obtaining exclusive abilities) to break through the barrier to play the content competitively and comfortably, those games become pay-to-win.
How do you tell the differences between a monetized free-to-play game and a gacha game?
It's no secret that pretty much every free-to-play game is monetized; otherwise, how else will the company gain a profit from its game? The most simple and reliable method to add monetization is through the gacha mechanic, and that's why most people label F2P (free-to-play) games as gacha games (referenced as games that focus primarily on gacha mechanics for game progression). However, not all free-to-play games will use gacha for monetization.
A widely known example is Pokémon GO. It is a F2P with monetization containing no gacha mechanics. Essentially you need PokéCoins to access items in the shop (that you have no means to get otherwise or in rare circumstances), like Incubators, Pokémon Storage, and Bag Upgrades. You can grind out PokéCoins by sending your Pokémon to local Gyms, but you can easily buy PokéCoins for real money. You'll feel pressured to pay up for increased Pokémon and item space since Pokémon GO is a collection game at its core, so Niantic will prey on that to earn an income.
The last difference between regular F2P games and gacha is if your daily in-game progression is time-gated. Gacha games often employ an energy/stamina system to cap out how many times you can play through a mode that earns you experience points, gear, items, and upgrade materials per day. Regular F2P games won't have this mechanic present and let you grind any content to your heart's content.
To play a gacha, or not to play a gacha
It's a recipe for disaster when your game ends up being fully pay-to-win, and sometimes you will only realize this once it's too late (looking at you, Diablo Immortal). So ask yourself, when you find out a game is free-to-play, what's the monetization strategy behind the game, and how does that affect your personal experience? Is it a gacha, and are you comfortable with the win rates and methods for acquiring your favorite units, gear, and other assets? Your time is important, so it's best to cut your losses early when a game's primary mechanics are not for you.