Recently, I reviewed the mobile game Azur Lane. While I did enjoy my time with it, I did have a lot of issues with it. My biggest gripe I had with it was its gacha (or loot box) system. Azur Lane is far from the only game to have these, though. The word “gacha” comes from those capsules with a random toy inside called Gachapon (I often see these in movie theatres and random restaurants.) I touched on the topic of gachas in my Monetization in Games article. Today, however, I wanted to give my thoughts on loot boxes, or gachas themselves and how they can be detrimental to the game’s overall design.
The first real exposure to loot boxes.
Back in 2016, I decided to pick up a competitive team-based shooting game called Overwatch. While I am not big on first-person shooters, I enjoyed Overwatch a lot at the time. The gameplay was excellent, and the characters were memorable and charming. The way Overwatch rewarded the player for playing the game was to give them a loot box every time the player gained a level. At first, I liked this idea, since I wasn’t familiar with the characters at the time, getting random rewards was right up my ally. However, when I started gravitating to certain characters, I noticed just how fruitless every prize got. I started making jokes like: “Oh boy! A loot box! Hope I get garbage!” More often than not, my ironic wish would come true. I got so fed up with not getting what I wanted that I considered buying loot boxes (which requires real money.) Today, I can look at my experience on an objective level and enumerating my gripes with them.
My opinion on gachas and loot boxes.
Writing the last paragraph made me realize just how slippery the gacha slope is. I got dangerously close to spending real money on digital clothes (thankfully, I talked myself out of it.) Now, I don’t have a problem with gachas by itself; they have their place in free-to-play games. Where I start having issues with gachas is when they are present in games that demand a price upfront. The game is already eighty dollars Canadian (sixty for those in the U.S.); why am I being charged more money for content I paid for? Where my concern lies with gacha, is when, on top of charging the player money in advance to purchase the game, the game then revolves its whole progression system on gacha mechanics. That is where I start making noise. Loot boxes were so prevalent that some game’s progression philosophy was ruined by them (like the infamous Need for Speed Payback.) Free-to-Play games don’t automatically get a free pass either. Many mobile games will have excruciatingly long and unskippable tutorials that force the player to play its first few missions and force them into opening a loot box; that needs to stop. I’m aware that you have a gacha system, and I will inevitably use it when I am further into the game. While I understand that a game needs to make money somehow, some games are incessant with getting the player to use its gacha system. So much so that it comes off as begging.
The danger of gacha and loot boxes.
The primary concern most people have with gachas and loot boxes are with the addictive tendencies some people might have towards them. When the issue was still hot, people were reportedly spending thousands of dollars trying to obtain what is essentially an image with shiny stars on it. It sparked the idea that loot boxes and gachas are gambling. I believe that it does fit the definition of gambling, despite it providing no financial reward for getting the rarest characters. The lack of any monetary compensation makes it worse, in my opinion. At least with traditional gambling, the player receives a reward they can use to purchase other things not related to the game they are playing. With gachas, they have this shiny picture for that one game… and that’s it. It is, unfortunately, effortless to fall into the gacha rabbit hole. Loot box defenders will compare this mechanic to opening trading cards. I’m afraid I have to disagree with that point entirely, as not only are trading cards tangible, their value appreciates over time. Digital rewards from gachas, on the other hand, are only valuable in the game they appear in, making them worthless everywhere else.
Can gacha/loot box centric games work?
Despite my criticisms with gacha games, I do feel like they can work. My first condition would be to only have them in free-to-play games. I’ve noticed a lot of developers are distancing themselves from putting loot boxes in full-priced games. I believe that this is a wise move. The second condition would be to not include it with any other form of microtransaction (like a Battle Pass, for example.) Having to deal with both a loot box system and a Battle Pass is too much. Thirdly, the gacha system can’t be the game’s progression system. If the game’s sole idea of rewarding the player has them opening loot boxes, there is no progression system. Fourth, the gacha cannot give players an advantage. Giving the player an edge for drawing the ultra-rare thing invalidates the need for skill, making the game entirely luck-based. Fifth, make it clear to the player what they are purchasing and what the rewards are when getting loot boxes. Far too often, I see games deliberately obfuscate what they are spending their real money on, which annoys me to no end. Finally, the game cannot beg the player to use its gacha system. Some games glorify its gacha system so much that it makes it evident that its gacha is the game.
Gacha mechanics need to be handled delicately, both by the developers and the player. If the developer goes overboard with its gacha, they will end up like Star Wars Battlefront 2: jeered and mocked relentlessly until the game’s entire progression system gets reworked. For the player, they should be careful when dealing with loot boxes and be aware of its impact on them. It’s staggering how simple it is for people to get drawn into loot boxes and gachas; they should enjoy them responsibly. Playing mobile games has made me painfully aware of how standard gachas and loot boxes are even today. Free-to-play games need to make their money somehow. I wish most of them would prioritize being a game first, and a money maker second.