So far, I haven’t talked about one of this year’s biggest surprise hits, Genshin Impact. To those few that don’t know what I am talking about, the game in question is a free-to-play mobile game strongly inspired by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. You enter an open world of Teyvat. There you meet Paimon, who will help you find your lost twin after you got separated in a fight. It is easy to recognize thanks to its anime aesthetic and memorable design. I did call it a mobile game, but it has been made available via PlayStation and Windows. There are even plans to add it to Nintendo Switch later in the year. Yet, the game’s success might set a scary precedent for the gaming industries’ future development in an era where an entire genre is already facing massive issues for its focus on microtransactions.
It is an understatement to call this game a massive success for the Chinese developer miHoYo. The game has garnered $100 million within its first two weeks. These sales numbers make this game the most successful Chinese release we’ve seen on a global scale. Of course, Genshin‘s marketing push was also nothing to scoff at. As of now, miHoYo has made back its development costs and can be considered profitable in record time. So, you might be wondering how this game made its money on a free-to-play basis? Well, the game’s core monetization lies in its Gacha-mechanic. It is a gambling concept where you can unlock characters and weapons by using real-world money.
The Washing Post’s own Gene Park wanted to get one character based on their design and ended up spending $90 to get one of them. Some have reported receiving the same items multiple times after investing a considerable amount. This type of game is something that has become almost standard within the mobile industry. There are even studies on these topics, such as the Fear-of-Missing-Out being a factor in its success. The company already had experience with this model thanks to its predecessor Honkai Impact 3. The game builds on familiar grounds and the companies’ past experiences. Even Wired’s review of the game highlighted that its quality overshadows its basis as a clone.
Genshin Impact‘s greatest strength lies in its use of the anime aesthetic that simplifies the designs. The environments are brimming with life through simple shading effects that can easily pop out on a mobile device or screen. They also put a lot of work into creating unique regions. It focused on a single-player experience with some multiplayer thrown in. Yet, at its core, it is still pay-to-win, as stronger characters are behind a paywall. Controversy does exist, but it isn’t as aggressive as with other titles.
AAA Gaming Standards
To give an example, the recent release of Marvel’s Avengers was under fire for its microtransactions or MTX for short. They were upfront of its base as a Game-as-a-Service with no pay-to-win functions. Up to the release, they also stuck to that promise with MTX commonly used for aesthetic purposes. So, it is entirely optional if you want to invest the money, and you can select what you are buying. Moreover, all-new missions, characters, or stories are for free. So, you only pay once with additional content as a bonus. It isn’t the only game to be hit by this controversy surrounding MTX. Even Blizzard’s massive release Overwatch alongside FIFA 18, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive were all heavily scrutinized for their inclusion. Some even playing close to the Gacha-formula with loot boxes. It went so far as the Belgium court ruling them as illegal.
First and foremost, there is a cultural influence at play. Genshin Impact has its largest player base in China, which is pretty open to pay-to-win games. Currently, around 16 million pre-registrations are local players, which makes up 75% of its player base. Plus, keep in mind that most of these games’ players are on experiencing it through their mobile phones. Just last year, the mobile gaming market was analyzed to be around $68.5 billion, which is 45% of the gaming market at this point and still growing. It is no wonder that these gacha elements have become quite popular within the mobile market.
There is also the topic of the AAA gaming industry and its current practices. We live in a time filled with Early Access, Beta, and other types of brandings to help players accept new standards. For example, Avengers’ release was at the boiling point of these issues. It just brought every aspect together that was criticized in the past. The game included countless brand deals, Influencer cooperations, and, to top it off, Sony wanted exclusive rights to Spider-Man on the PlayStation. These already frowned upon practices in the industry just added to the MTX discussion. Anthem, Destiny, and Fallout 76 all initially released barebones with bugs. There was, of course, a range of how affected they were by this, but they establish an instant comparison point. Anthem especially is the go-to when it comes to Avengers’ current launch issues and delays. In a way, the massive appeal of the Marvel brand just put a much stronger focus on existing practices that have been becoming more and more apparent with each subsequent release.
Early Access to Funds
Genshin Impact wears its mobile nature on its sleeve, which makes it easier to accept its approach. It is free-to-play, so why not give it a shot and maybe throw in some money to get that one character you like. Yet, that is part of the issue. GameRant shared an article stating this approach to MTX should become an industry-standard, which I believe is a rather dangerous statement. Yes, some might get away with a free game, but the gambling aspects are rather dangerous. There is a reason that Belgium tried to outlaw these game principles, as some people are easily susceptible to this kind of design. Avengers‘ skins are heavily overpriced, but you know what you are purchasing upfront. If you are after a specific character in Genshin Impact, you might have to invest quite a bit before you get him. Gambling addiction is a real problem nowadays. Mobile games have the added issue of also being played by young and impressionable children.
The industry is facing a massive change that is also affecting the way games are produced. Even the term “Early Access” is creating an easy way out to sell unfinished games under a specific umbrella. Hades was recently officially out of Early Access to critical acclaim, but it had time to learn since it was technically available since December 2018. Yes, the game is fantastic, but it gives others a sign that it can get away with this approach. Hell, Fortnite didn’t officially lose the Early Access status until three years after it launched, which wasn’t until this year in June. If people are willing to pay MTX even as it is in Early Access, why then risk leaving it if it can safely handwave any issues under that umbrella? Epic Games made $3 billion in profit two years ago without being officially released.
We somehow give F2P games a pass because anyone can try it out, but you are incentivized to pay to make the grind easier. In a way, GaaS games to the opposite approach. They try to sell you on the potential of future content and its ongoing development, so you pay upfront with the option to invest more. It opens up the question if we would forgive it if it took an approach similar to Genshin Impact. We saw a recent test with Destiny 2, which now has specific content available for free. If you want more, you have to pay for the complete experience. Moreover, if controversial games can make a comeback like Star Wars Battlefront II, so the risk of facing early controversies may have lost its impact outside of a temporary setback.
A Slow Expansion
I can go on with examples, as even other genres are utilizing MTX, as Mortal Kombat 11 introduced customizable loot that you can purchase. Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled added microtransactions after it had already launched. Still, the point of the matter is, Genshin Impact‘s success highlights the industry’s new standard of implementing MTX, and Gacha-concepts is justified. If we accept games for a price in their early stages, we let that become a standard, no matter if Early Access, Beta, or GaaS. That umbrella term can redefine how companies approach their releases, as it worked in the past.
I am not exempt from this. Avengers is the first time I decided to bite the bullet after being let down by the initial release of Destiny. I also enjoy Genshin Impact quite a bit, so I do enjoy spending my time playing these games. It just seems that the success of this game and its mobile background may be overshadowing the fact of how it feeds into the current gaming industry. These standards have become more apparent over time, slowly increasing with each year. Now, we are at a boiling point on the topic yet make an exception. Genshin might be a rather unique addition this year that brings with it a lot of good, but also potentially a lot of dangers. Just some food for thought, as it started to dawn on me over time as I have played most of the games mentioned in this article. Sometimes, we don’t even realize it until we are deep into it.
Source: PC Gamer (Genshin Impact), South China Morning Post, The Washington Post, Research Gate, PCGamesn, Looper, MiHoYo, CNBC, DualShockers, ScreenRant, Wired, TechCrunch, Kotaku, GameRant, Trusted Reviews, Super Giant Games (Early Access), Super Giant Games, Polygon, Destructoid, GamesRadar+, Variety, ScreenRant (SW: BF2), TechCrunch, TechRadar, GameIndustry.biz, Metro, TweakTown, TechRadar, PlayStation, Forbes