The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Gacha games

for those uninitiated, let me explain what Gacha games are: To put it simply, Gacha games are “Lootboxes: The Game”. The gameplay around these games vary (and in some cases “game” is a very loose term to describe them with) but a large portion is pulling new monsters, or cards, or what have you from a randomized machine that costs an in-game currency that takes effort to acquire and can be purchased with microtransactions. They largely originate from Japan, which is where the name is derived (as similar to “gachapon” machines, you know those things that you put money into, spin the little dial, and get a random prize?).

I’ve played a few of these in my time, and there are some that do this system well…and many that don’t. The games are a strange beast in that they’ve had their controversies in the past (falling under Japanese gambling laws in a general sense) but have largely remained unmentioned in the current landscape of lootboxes being the hot topic at the moment. Which they should be, as they serve as a good barometer of where lines should be drawn over “good” (or more accurately “less offensive”) lootboxes and bad ones.

The biggest thing is that most Gacha games are free to play. That automatically makes microtransactions in general more palatable. But digging deeper than that, there are certain things good Gacha games do that makes you not grit your teeth at their antics and may even make you consider giving them money just because they’re providing a good game experience you want to support, and not because the game is twisting your arm to make you spend money or suffer after a certain point.


My go-to Good example of a Gacha game is Puzzle and Dragons. I like this game a lot. It’s close to the only mobile game I play right now, and as of this writing it has held my interest for close to 550 consecutive days since I first installed it. The first thing it does, more than anything else, is…be a good game. Its puzzling is varied and has a multitude of mechanics both in dungeon in the monsters to beat and in the leaders and teams you can run that validate different playstyles. Rather than being just another Bejeweled clone where you match three orbs and try to clear as much as possible, the different monsters encourage you to experiment be it with simple changes like needing to match 4 of a color (which gives a damage boost to some monsters and makes them attack two targets instead of one) or a full row of 6 (where matching 5+ makes your attacks hit the whole screen, and some monsters and leaders get a damage boost from matching rows) to more complex mechanics like requiring orbs to be matched in a certain pattern (crosses have been popular for a while, with many powerful leaders requiring exactly 5 orbs in a cross pattern to gain boosts to damage or damage reduction) or needing to get all the colors of the rainbow matched at once to unlock your leader skill.

Though the game DOES have a issue with monsters becoming outdated, like…every monster in this image. Even my buddy Shiva on the far right that got me through so much.

The game is fun, but it would be frustrating if the Gacha elements were so painful as to make getting powerful monsters exceedingly difficult…and it’s not. There is a bit of mid-game slump I experienced where I had out-powered certain content but couldn’t quite take on anything stronger, and that was frustrating, but other than that the game does a good job of giving you a steady supply of Magic Stones (the in-game premium currency) in the early game through simple progression, and in the later game by an almost uninterrupted series of special events and greater rewards for more challenging content. Not to mention one other unique thing: Low rarity and farmable monsters that can be achieved by just playing a dungeon that are actually viable monsters for a team. Myr was one of the most powerful leaders in the entire game not long ago and she is acquirable just by completing her dungeon. Basically, Rarity =/= Power, at least not completely. Many rare monsters are very powerful, but one can get by and even excel without ever spending a dime on this game.

Now, for a bad example: Digimon Links. This game does everything wrong that PAD does right. The gameplay is lackluster, slow, and uninvolved. Acquiring anything requires loads of slow, boring grinding you will probably be doing by leaving the game running on literal auto-pilot until your stamina is depleted. It’s filled to the brim with “free to wait” mechanics that force you to wait 12-24 hours for something to complete that can be circumvented by liberal use of in-game currency, and most evolution material is locked behind daily dungeons you get to grind once a week and then they’re gone for 6 days. In short, Digimon Links twists your arm and tries to tell you “Buy my stuff, it’ll make the game better, skip all this boring stuff and you’ll have fun”. It’s more focused on creating a time and revenue sink than an actual game, and that’s where it fails as an experience.

This game also gives me a good idea for an article about the Sunk Cost Fallacy. I’ll elaborate another day.

So how does this relate to the wider lootbox debate? Well, it all comes back to why people are willing to defend, say, Overwatch over Battlefront II. Both objectively are trying to get your money and encourage you to spend as much as possible. I hold no illusions that Puzzle and Dragons does the same, the drop rates on the machines are such that I’m often tempted to buy enough stones for just one more pull over the 2-4 free ones I amass between Godfests and event machines. All of these games can be considered predatory to some individuals that feel (rightly) their tendency toward gambling is being exploited. But is it forgivable if the in-game purchases are A.) Truly optional and B.) Tacked onto a good game?

I think the answer lies somewhere between yes and no. Let’s face it, we’d all be happier if Gacha games and lootboxes didn’t exist and we were back in the good old days of good games that have unlockables acquired entirely in game on your own skill. But let’s also face it…those days are probably gone forever. So maybe it’s time to start looking at the games that do it in a palatable way and try to steer the industry with our wallets toward the PAD style rather than the Links style. So many people are buying into games that have more predatory and manipulative systems like Battlefront II or Shadow of Mordor, perhaps not realizing they ARE being manipulated. Maybe looking more critically at the underlying systems and how they interact with the IAPs or microtransactions can help people understand what they’re getting into and how to avoid the pitfalls. Can you or can you not easily acquire the lootboxes or equivalent in-game? How much do they impact the game (cosmetic or mechanical)? In either case, do you acquire full items or merely part of a set (if the latter, it’s extra manipulative no matter what)? How much does the game attempt to waste your time or grind you down into making a purchase? All of these hallmarks of a bad Gacha system and more are easily apparent in actual bad Gacha games, and it’s hard to unsee them once you HAVE seen them. If you do spot them, avoid at all costs. And if a previously “good” Gacha system starts to go wrong, make your opinion known an stop playing if necessary.

What do you guys think? Let us know in the comments below

#The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Gacha games