Amongst mobile games, the “gacha” monetization models stand out to many as a form of glorified gambling.
“Gacha” is short for gachapon, those Japanese vending machine-like capsule toy dispensers. Much like their namesake, gacha games also randomly roll from a pool of a wide assortment of characters. Many of the most profitable mobile games, such as Puzzles and Dragons, Fire Emblem Heroes, and Fate/Grand Order rely on some form of gacha systems for monetization.
As with any games with microtransaction schemes, there are devoted players who spend a considerable amount of money. These players are known as “Whales”. Although the term originally referred to high-spending casino players, in more recent years it has become common gaming lexicon as well.
Many people who do not see the value in spending money on such games look at gacha whales with a mixture of awe and incredulity,
“Why do you spend so much money on a free game?”
To answer that, GamePress interviewed a well-respected community member for the mobile game Fate/Grand Order (FGO), the highest grossing mobile game in Japan at the time of writing, whom we'll refer to as "H-san".
GP: Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed! For starters, are there any other gacha games you play?
H: I used to play a lot of Granblue Fantasy, played Starlight Stage on and off, and Pop-up Story (haven’t played that in a while). Have spent money on the other games, but aside from FGO I’ve probably spent the most on Granblue. Stopped caring about and spending money on Granblue Fantasy, because it didn’t feel worth it.
GP: So what makes a game “worth it” or not worth it?
H: A lot of people like to compare it to gambling, and it’s not far off the bar. What makes a mobage (short for mobile game) different is what you get out of it. In a mobage like Fate/Grand Order what you are trying to get is not money, but waifu (favorite characters). The person/player needs to make a choice if it’s worth it.
For me, there was the power creep in Granblue. If the character you liked wasn’t strong, it wasn’t worth it. There are sometimes when I tried to spend a lot of money on a character, and they turn out to be good. But then they release a new one that is straight up better than the old character.
I might be biased, but when I pay money to get a servant in FGO (the term for characters in FGO), then I know the money wasn’t wasted because the servant will be useful all the time. The way that Grand Order is, none of the characters I tried to get will get will become useless.
Take Void Shiki, for example. It’s obvious she is not one of the best sabers in the game. It doesn’t matter that she is not as good because there is no competition. When we talk about FGO being “pay2waifu”, that’s what it is. How good/bad a character is irrelevant. You don’t feel bad because you got the character you wanted.
GP: What do I do if I’m really obsessed with my favorite character, who happens to be super rare?
H: I’m not going to sugarcoat it. The model that it has right now has problems. There is no safety net, which can be troublesome for people who are not as inclined to save money. For F2P players, the saint quartz (FGO's premium currency) that they give you is a bit on the lower side compared to other games. They give you a good amount, but it could be more. The problem is the currency itself.
GP: How do whales fare in FGO’s waters?
H: For whales, one of the problems FGO has is that it doesn’t really have a good compensation system. Blank saint graphs require 10 for a “free” SSR, and can only be obtained after you receive more than 5 duplicates of an SSR. That’s just ridiculous. I spent a decent amount of money and only have 3 blank saint graphs right now.
For a majority of whales, blank saint graphs don’t do anything. To have that option there is nice, but it is not enough. They just sit there, and you can’t use them for anything if you have less than 10. If you’re a mega-whale, it still doesn’t help, because you probably have all the characters at NP5 anyway. (In FGO, duplicate servants can be merged up to 5 times, referred to as NP5 for a fully merged servant.)
GP: Then what part of FGO spurs you to whale?
H: The only reason that I throw money into this godforsaken game F/GO is… You know about collector’s mania (like Pokémon, CCGs like Magic or Yu Gi Oh)? It’s that. Something comes out and catches your eye, like “Whoa man, I really want that!” I’m going to try and get it. Bit blessed in that I don’t want everything, or I’d probably be homeless or something? (Chuckles). But I’m not dumb; I’m not going to throw away all of my money to get something.
GP: There seems to be a “free-to-play” culture that kind of holds a stigma towards whales, or at least people who spend money on these games. Thoughts?
H: I don’t actually know if there’s a stigma. For me, I am what people would call a whale. I spend money, I spend a good amount. There are people who spend far more than I do, mega-whales. When I look at them, I think, damn, what kind of job do they have? Where are they getting all this money? I suppose that is what a person who is F2P or Dolphin (not quite a whale player), thinks when they look at me. This slight awe, incredulous, “Huh, you really want to spend this much money.” I wouldn’t call it a stigma.
For all the people who spent money, most of them spend it because they want to... That was their choice, their responsibility. In that sense, the people who don’t spend money, that’s their choice. There’s not really right or wrong.
The thing is, there are some people who revel in the fact they don’t spend money. They talk to people who spend money and go like, “damn, what kind of idiot are you?” I look at them and go, “Why?” It’s your choice whether you want to or not. It goes back to self-responsibility. It’s my choice. Sometimes people don’t have a lot of money, can’t spend, or don’t feel like spending. I feel most people get that. It’s not so much a stigma, but how people think about other people's’ choices. If they are understanding like I hope most people are, then whether or not you spend money, it shouldn’t matter. We all drown in salt anyway.