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Mass-Market Gam(bl)ing

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By Nelson Schneider - 02/12/17 at 05:51 PM CT

As time marches on and videogaming continues its move from niche hobby to mass-media industry, the one guarantee is that old revenue systems will be replaced by new ones, more profitable ones, more questionably-legal ones. Mobile gaming is, as we know, a darling of the folks at Forbes and The Wall Street Journal who don’t care about gaming as a hobby or as a cultural phenomenon, but are primarily interested in the games industry’s ability to generate profits. As faithful MeltedJoystick readers are aware, we don’t place mobile gaming and traditional videogames into the same bucket, partially because of things in mobile gaming that make it feel more like a quasi-criminal attempt at getting fools and their money to part. Hence why MeltedJoystick (and every other videogame site) doesn’t cover video slots, online poker, or any other forms of gambling.

Recently, I stumbled across a short, interesting article from 2012 about how Japanese mobile games make money. While it is true that Japanese gamers aren’t really playing much of anything traditional anymore, they are heavily invested in the new trend (wishfully, fad) of mobile gaming. They actually dove into this new market head first, with a thriving mobile industry producing games like “Final Fantasy 4: The After Years” on Feature Phones in 2008, before our modern, ubiquitous Smart Phones had come into their own. However, traditional, purchasable (even episodic) games on mobile don’t really have that strong of a foothold. Instead, micromacrotransactions rule the day, adding “optional” purchases to “free” games.

It turns out that macrotransactions have a long history in Japan, much as they do in the West, just in varying forms. In Japan, gachapon vending machines have been around for decades, selling randomly-selected figurines and collectables for a few dollars’ worth of yen per turn. These machines have also had a strong traditional presence in the U.S., as temptations for small children forced to go grocery shopping with their parents. On either side of the pond, though, there is no way to argue that machines that spit out random results in exchange for money aren’t gambling machines.

Tabletop games have been in love with the gachapon money-making gimmick since at least 1993, when Richard Garfield’s “Magic: The Gathering” was first published by Wizards of the Coast, introducing an entire generation of children to the idea of betting (via the old Ante rule, which has been subsequently removed from the official rules of “Magic”) randomly-acquired cards of varying values on the results of a game played with said cards. Dozens of Collectable/Trading Card Games have followed in “Magic’s” footsteps, and collectable miniatures games have attempted to copy the format, with an even more authentic nod to gachapon’s origins in randomly-distributed, cheap plastic figures. Thanks to “Magic” and its copycats, we have legitimized gachapon by attaching a game with rules and mechanics to an otherwise useless set of randomly distributed collectables. In other words, games that include gachapon force players to gamble in order to have a chance at success.

The MeltedJoystick Crew has been aware of such gacha nonsense in games for quite some time, yet we didn’t have a name for it until now. Back when we played Korean MMO, “Dragon Nest” (before our characters were unceremoniously deleted), we chafed at the idea of spending real money on ‘Dragon Eggs’ – items that are, essentially, digital gachapon capsules that could contain any number of useful (or useless… probably useless) in-game items. Dragon Eggs weren’t particularly cheap, and none of us ever bought any after experiencing the abysmal random item generation from the handful of free Dragon Eggs that were given away during our time with the game. But thanks to the in-game chat window revealing the results every time any player on a server opened a Dragon Egg, we knew that some whales were spending obscene amounts of money on them.

While Chris and Nick tend to spend their time playing mobile games that don’t employ a gacha system, but instead continually siphon money or time away via PvP nonsense, two of the three mobile games I have spent time on (and actually enjoyed) do employ gacha as a core mechanic. “Star Trek: Timelines,” a Western mobile RPG, employs both a Time Portal, which allows players to crank a gacha machine with in-game currency, and booster packs, which allow players to spend premium currency (which can only be bought with real money) on better, sometimes specific random item pools. “Final Fantasy: Record Keeper,” a Japanese mobile RPG, employs gacha as the sole way of acquiring high-quality weapons and armor for characters via Relic Draws. It is possible to do a Relic Draw by spending either Mythril, an in-game currency that is relatively scarce, or Gems, a premium currency which must be bought with real money. Both “Star Trek: Timelines” and “Final Fantasy: Record Keeper” allow players to gacha once or gacha several times in a row, with the more expensive multi-crank handing out a higher proportion of good items (“Final Fantasy: Record Keeper” even added a guarantee to the most expensive [50 Mythril/$50] 11-item Relic Draw that guarantees at least one item of the highest rarity… but then added a higher rarity, so the guarantee is now only for the second-highest rarity).

In both cases, a very good core game suffers in playability in order to cater to the gacha system. Instead of spending the heaps of useless Federation Credits or Gil that players accumulate via normal gameplay on better/required items, players are forced to gamble with limited currency or their own real cash for a chance at getting the item or items they need. I have expressed this sentiment to the rest of the MeltedJoystick Crew, but it deserves a public declaration: Both of these games would be better if they were released on Steam for $10 and had their gacha mechanics replaced with an old-school item shop where players can spend in-game currency on specific items instead of gambling. Of course, that will never happen, because 10,000 people paying $10 for a game only earns the company running it $100,000, whereas a few whales spending $50,000 on macrotransactions and gacha nonsense combined with the smaller amounts paid by regular players who feel forced into it brings in much more revenue, and sets up a potential for even more revenue than that.

The Federal Government loves to regulate gambling, and the more that videogaming comes to resemble gambling, the greater the chance that the industry will find itself at the mercy of government oversight. Is this really something that we, who value gaming for its cultural impact over its ability to generate revenue, really want to see happen to our hobby? All in the name of the Almight Dollar.

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View Chris's Profile


Wrote on02/13/17 at 11:29 PM CT

And I would like to point out, it's not just the gambling aspect but the fact these games can get addicting - if there is anything that will cause mobile gaming to be labeled as such, I think that will be the determining factor.

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