In a pandemic year when studios chose to keep their biggest movies out of theaters, video game publishers did not face the same struggle. There was PlayStation 4’s “The Last of Us Part II,” Activision Blizzard’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War,” and CD Projekt’s “Cyberpunk 2077,” not to mention the release of next-gen PlayStation and Xbox consoles. However, 2020’s biggest — and potentially most important — success belonged to a game that you play on your phone for free, from a Chinese developer with almost no profile in Western media. “Genshin Impact” doesn’t look like much of a blockbuster at all.
In fact, it’s unspeakably lucrative. Mobile analytics firm Sensor Tower reported that “Genshin Impact” generated approximately $393 million within two months of its September 28 launch and it now makes more than $6 million per day. (That doesn’t even include revenue from the game’s PC and console versions.)
Published by mobile game developer miHoYo, “Genshin Impact” is a free-to-play mobile RPG that also works and looks great on PC and PlayStation 4. It became an immediate global sensation: The company claims more than 10 million players signed up for accounts prior to launch, and it continues to be one of the most popular titles on streaming site Twitch. Laudatory press stretches as far as mainstream publications such as the Washington Post and NPR; both Apple and Google Play named it Game of the Year.
Praise for “Genshin Impact” doesn’t stem from its original vision. It’s not unlike Nintendo’s acclaimed “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” albeit with an anime aesthetic. Players embark on adventures in a fantasy world where they can fight monsters, scale towering mountains and buildings, glide across the countryside, and loot just about everything that isn’t bolted to the ground. In fact, the game is a fairly blatant “Breath of the Wild” imitation — but where that game’s players only control one character, “Genshin Impact” allows you to choose up to four party members from an ever-growing roster.
It’s also the one of the first and most sophisticated “gacha games” to tempt American players. In Japan, “gacha” translates to “capsule-toy vending machine;” in context of “Genshin Impact,” it refers to a controversial form of monetization that is similar to gambling. In-game activities allow players to accrue a currency, Primogems; earn enough and you can acquire random items with a roll of the dice. The reward could be a sought-after character, but it’s much more likely to be a low-grade weapon.
The game’s rarest characters and weapons have an absurdly low acquisition chance of 0.6 percent; that rises to 5.1 percent for other characters and middle-of-the-road weapons. A pity system guarantees players will unlock a rare item every 90 rolls; a more common item, every 10 rolls. Even with daily play, it could take players months to possibly acquire a specific rare character or weapon. With the game’s rarest characters (referred in-game as “5 stars”) available only for a limited period (usually three weeks), “Genshin Impact” is designed to perpetuate FOMO.
That’s where Genesis Crystals come in, which convert to Primogems but can only be purchased with a real-life credit card. Buy $200 worth of Genesis Crystals and you’ll get to own a 5-star character — but even after paying, there’s no guarantee. The first time a player tries to acquire a specific limited-time character, they have a 50 percent chance of of success. (They could wind up with a different character instead.) If at first you don’t succeed, buy more Crystals to try again. That means an unlucky player would have to spend around $400 for one character; by comparison, most video games cost $60. The new PlayStation 5 Digital Edition retails for $399.
Furthermore, every character has six passive talents, such as increased damage, that can only be obtained by unlocking it over and over; the same strategy buys weapons increased strength. Unlocking the full potential of one character or weapon can amount to thousands of dollars.
All of this may baffle the unconverted, but even as a derivative game “Genshin” offers a detailed and compelling story — almost unheard of in a free-to-play game of this kind. Players have responded by wanting to collect all the characters, no matter how much that costs or how long that might take.
The end is nowhere in sight. The full plot of “Genshin Impact” will take months, if not longer, to unfold; only two of the game world’s seven regions are currently implemented, and miHoYo plans to introduce new areas and characters to keep players coming back. The quests involving these characters — many of whom have glitzy promotional videos — that amount to some of the game’s most memorable content and double as marketing.
The game’s cheery and colorful art style makes the game appealing to kids who will pester their parents to buy Genesis Crystals while the convoluted monetization system preys on adults with gambling and addiction issues. John “Tectone” Roberts, a “Genshin Impact” streamer and YouTube content creator, noted in a video that he did not acquire all of the game’s characters after spending $5,000 and cautioned players from spending similarly large amounts.
“I got a problem with spending money on gacha. I’m fully aware of it,” Roberts said. “What I do is completely unhealthy and I hope if you do that, that hopefully you’ll seek help because it can destroy lives. I would know because I was almost homeless because of it a while back — not for the first time, but for the second.”
Michael “Mtashed” Tash, another popular content creator who spent $5,000 on the game’s gacha, referred to it as “predatory” and “gambling,” expressing concern that streamers and YouTubers who promote the system could bait other players into spending money.
“If any sane person was spending this kind of money on a video game weapon or video game passive (ability) I would honestly say, unless you have an immense amount of disposable income, to look at yourself in the mirror and potentially get help,” Tash said. “There are very addictive practices in this game.”
Tash continues to play the game in videos for his YouTube fans. Those videos make considerable money for their creators and amount to free advertising for miHoYo.
Gacha games have been popular on mobile devices for years, but “Genshin Impact” also achieved the rare feat of appealing to players outside the mobile gaming demographic. Its success will almost certainly inspire other video game companies to jump on the gacha trend, much as they embraced in-game purchases of unique outfits, loot box systems, and the “Battle Pass,” which functions not unlike a Costco membership: If you play the game a lot, it’s worth the money.
With their addictive and gambling-adjacent monetization models, gacha games usually suffer consumer backlash; so far, “Genshin Impact” has emerged relatively unscathed. There are a handful of possible reasons: The moment-to-moment gameplay is more engaging than most gacha games, it’s new IP from a company with little history in the U.S., and its release came during the pandemic when key titles and new consoles were still weeks away from release.
Conversely, American game publisher Electronic Arts suffered a public relations disaster when it implemented a loot box system in its 2017 “Star Wars Battlefront II,” the latest installment in a long-running franchise that previously allowed players to unlock most in-game items for free. That controversy grew so large that several countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands, introduced legislation to regulate or ban loot boxes. Here, the Federal Trade Commission pledged to examine loot boxes and several politicians introduced legislation, but no regulation resulted.
“Genshin Impact” also looks and feels unlike most gacha games. Mobile games have a reputation for being low-budget time wasters with minimal depth, but “Genshin Impact” plays like a tentpole title from one of the industry’s leading developers. It looks and sounds beautiful; the game is scored by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and features plenty of well-known video game voice actors. Players don’t have to spend money to access an unmatched amount of content, and miHoYo doles out free Primogems and events where players can permanently unlock specific characters.
Although it’s easily one of the most financially successful video games to launch this year, the real “Genshin Impact” lies in the industry’s future. The gacha system was previously relegated to mobile video games, but “Genshin Impact” breached the divide. Gacha gaming is poised to incentivize customer spending in a way that other streaming sectors like movies and music cannot, and gamers the world over will soon have to reckon with the true cost of “free” content. It may not be original, but it’s addictive — and like gambling, the odds are not in your favor and the house always wins.