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How gacha can benefit Western game developers

AppLovin MD Johannes Heinze on the potential of a "powerful monetisation tool" that's big in Japan, and less so in the West

This article was written by AppLovin European MD Johannes Heinze, with contributions from MobileFreeToPlay co-founder Adam Telfer.

Western mobile developers are faced with a number of different monetisation models. Choosing which to use is based entirely on what type of game is being developed.

One model that is gaining greater traction and favour amongst Western developers is gacha, the dominant free-to-play monetisation model in Japan. The most successful Japanese mobile games in recent history, such as Monster Strike and Puzzles & Dragons, have gacha tightly woven into their game mechanics. In this article, we'll explore just what gacha is and provide key recommendations for integrating gacha into Western mobile games.

So what is gacha?

The word gacha is derived from "gachapon", Japanese vending machines that dispense plastic capsules containing toys, which are still hugely popular in Japan today. Gachapon is the satisfying sound the machine makes when a player spins a gacha and receives a toy.

"The most successful Japanese mobile games in recent history have gacha tightly woven into their game mechanics"

The toys dispensed are usually a part of a collection or series based on manga, movies, TV, or comic book IPs, and the objective is to complete a series. Gacha can be incredibly addictive. A lot of this can be put down to the human need to collect and complete tasks. As gacha players don't know which toy they will receive, they have to keep playing to complete a collection.

Virtual gachas are designed to replicate the excitement and reward that physical gacha create. In gaming, the player spins virtual gacha to acquire assets like new lives, weapons or energy, because playing gacha is often the only way to really be able to progress in a F2P game. If you'd like to see some examples of the most popular Japanese gacha mechanics, do check out this in-depth blog post from Dr. Serkan Toto.

If we delve into the psychological reasoning behind collecting things, Carl Jung postulated that collecting items comes from our ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyles. As most human beings don't need to hunt for survival anymore, they now turn to other sources to satiate this inherent desire to collect and gather items. Collectors take the hunter-gatherer instinct to a higher level by acquiring select items, rather than acquiring large quantities of everyday items.

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Gacha mechanics are derived from Gachapon machines, which dispense physical toys at random

What is the best way to implement gacha?

Gacha mechanics should be designed from the beginning (concept, prototyping, etc.), not added during production or after the game is live. During these late stages, a pivot towards gacha is usually too cumbersome to be effective. At its core, Gacha requires a number of ingredients to get right, including:

  • A large, varied set of content
  • A strong desire from the player to collect as many items as possible
  • A game where gacha content is necessary for players to progress
  • An effective mechanic for duplicate content (to prevent player churn from pulling too many duplicates)

"Gacha works well when purely focusing on collecting; Crossy Road, for example, with its gumball-style machine that unlocks new avatars and mascots"

Many of these requirements are not trivial to design for, especially if you're pivoting from a project with entrenched systems that are harder to change. However, there are a few games that have added gacha mechanics post-launch.

For example, in the Dragon Breeding series, both Dragon City and Dragon Mania Legends released card packs post-launch, giving players a random set of rare dragons. As these new gacha features are still live since launching over a year ago, we can assume this has worked out well for them. However, what the new card pack mechanic offered was yet another way to collect dragons, which was already built on a more subtle gacha mechanic: the breeding. So in this case, adding a "new way to gacha" was effective post-launch.

If you're working on a hyper-casual game in the same vein as Crossy Road, adding gacha post-launch to access new skins or new customisations is a great way to add long-term progression and monetisation to your game. However, in a perfect world, gacha should be implemented pre-launch in order to maximise the revenue from in-app purchases and video ads, therefore maximising the retention of your players from day one.

Gacha in Western games

Pokémon Go provides an example for successful Westernisation of Japanese gacha mechanics. Not strictly gacha (unlike titles like the aforementioned Monster Strike or Puzzles & Dragons, where players grind for currency so they can use the game's gachapon machine), its gacha-like mechanics can be added to games to create long-lasting systems.

"If you're working in a genre where gacha hasn't become dominant, we recommend researching how it could be effectively added"

Gacha works best when there are rare items that are specifically more powerful and highly desirable. Gacha also works well when purely focusing on collecting; Crossy Road, for example, with its gumball-style machine that unlocks new avatars and mascots.

But gacha can be even more potent if the virtual items provide a competitive edge. For example, in Pokémon, there are some Pokémon characters that are specifically more powerful and rare, and the whole narrative is geared toward discovering all the Pokémon, training them up, and becoming the most powerful Pokémon trainer. The scarcity element is even played out on a hyper-local level, since some of the Pokémon characters are only available in specific countries, cities, and towns.

CSR Racing 2 provides another great example of Western gacha. Most of the desirable and rare cars in the game are available through gacha. The developers keep the game fresh by releasing new gacha content regularly, which also helps to milk whales and give them something to boast about in a social context, like P2P multiplayer.

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In FIFA Ultimate Team, there is a gacha mechanic that encourages gamers to collect their favourite football players and get the highest-rated positions on the pitch. These are given through card packs with varying rarities on the best results. Another example, Hearthstone, allows players to open up card packs and collect cards. This is essentially gacha, but it's wrapped in a theme that makes sense and is accepted by its audience of collectible card game fans.

Among Western developers, a key point of discussion is deciding what benefits gacha can provide, and ensuring players don't feel like these gacha are dampening the spirit of competition. If there are more mechanical and progression-based benefits attached to a gacha (such as where a 5-star character is critical for top-level playing), you will monetise higher on a per-player basis. However, if you do this, you may risk alienating some of your audience.

Conclusion

Gacha is a good F2P monetisation strategy proven in many territories for getting the most out of your highest-paying users. If you're working in a genre where gacha hasn't become dominant, we recommend researching how it could be effectively added, and experimenting with cohort tests. Culturally, Japan will always have a nostalgic soft spot for gacha, but in the West it can be considered another powerful monetisation tool for games.

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