Did you notice? There’s another new anime-themed mobile game on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Surely there are thousands of those things now? I haven’t seen much hype online for this one. Magia Record is a Gacha-flavoured spin-off of the renowned anime TV and movie series Madoka Magica. Initially launched in Japan 2 years ago, the “global” version was unleashed upon North America (and apparently nowhere else) as of Tuesday June 25th 2019. As a fan of the original anime, I was looking forwards to this but I wonder what I have done to myself by allowing it into my life.
First - some context. The underlying “Gacha” mechanic seems to have originated in Japan with those little capsule toys you get from machine dispensers in shopping malls and supermarkets, you know, the ones that your kids will whine about just as you are trying to pay your shopping bill? The point of a Gacha mechanic is that you pay money for something, but you don’t know for sure what you’re going to get until you open the capsule. Basically, it’s gambling but with no direct financial reward, therefore “acceptable” for children.
Over the last decade or more, enterprising Japanese game designers realised that they could apply the Gacha mechanic to video games - especially mobile games that reward short, frequent playtimes and repeated use over months to years. By removing the consumer’s initial cost of purchase by making games “free to play”, they vastly increase the number of potential players/indentured servants/slaves and incentivise small, regular (or even large) purchases of digital currency with which to buy glorified JPEGs of favourite characters. Eventually this mechanic spread to the West and to home console games - hence the current plague of “loot boxes” in games of varied genres from FPS to racing simulator.
I can’t be too critical of the mechanic though- it has been phenomenally successful and an entire mobile game industry has been built off the back of it, arguably it helps to keep more mainstream developers afloat too. Fate/Grand Order, part of the enormous Fate multimedia behemoth, is a Gacha game run by Aniplex, a subsidiary of Sony Entertainment. Last financial year this game earned over a billion US dollars - a free to play game that doesn’t even need purchases for a player to find in-game success. FGO was Sony Entertainment’s single biggest high earning anything last year. When done well, Gacha games make serious profit and provide consistent, long-lasting entertainment. When done badly, a game can be exploitative, alienates its player base and gets cancelled, invalidating all previous purchases.
My first experience of mobile Gacha games was Kingdom Hearts Unchained on the iPhone. Again, this supposedly global release came out only in the US, at least at first. I set up a fake US iTunes account with the sole purpose of playing this game, as I loved the original PS2 KH games. To begin with, I enjoyed playing it in short bursts. The “AP” mechanic that slowly counted up action points as time passed incentivised frequent logins. Daily logins provided rewards. Every day there were different quests available with different rewards, all of which were essential for levelling the character-embossed medals that were used for fighting. Like all Gacha games, there were various in-game currencies and interlocking mechanics that took a long time for a new player to understand. Once that comprehension came, and the player was invested in their progress, was when the stinger kicked in.
Power creep. Those very words still strike a chill into my heart. With ruthless relentlessness, the levels increased in difficulty. A new coliseum introduced ranking and an element of PVP mechanics. Suddenly it wasn’t just about being good enough to complete story levels, it was about being better than everyone else, in order to get the rewards. Raid battles upped the intensity - to get those rare upgrade materials the player had to expend many hours grinding with others against ridiculously powerful enemies. And the only way to save any of this time was to spend the premium currency (accrued achingly slowly by playing the game, or with - gasp - real money) on summoning more powerful units with which to kill the bad guys.
Most of the time when summoning with premium currency, the player would receive only low-ranked 1, 2 or 3-star units. Kingdom Hearts instituted a “pity” system that would reward unlucky players with a guaranteed 5-star unit after something like 100 summons. Saving up enough currency for that took perhaps 3 months worth of playtime for a free-to-play (FTP) player like I started as, so saving for the right unit was essential. If you missed getting one of the “meta” units like Kairi (who powered up every other equipped medal’s attacks), then you might as well write off being able to compete in the weekly or monthly rankings for vital materials, and you’d fall further behind. And that’s where the game became insidious, with the manipulation of the player’s fear of falling behind into a desire to spend money.
The final straw for me was with the introduction of exclusive medals for paying players only. By purchasing the “weekly gem pack” or whatever it was called, it unlocked easy grinding spots for exp which were otherwise time-gated, plus rewarded players with very powerful medals that were more or less required to progress in the later game. These medals were released almost every week, so anxious/vulnerable players would feel compelled to basically start a new weekly subscription in order to enjoy playing the game. For a while I did this until I realised I did not enjoy the anxiety. I did not enjoy the constant grinding treadmill of feeling I might be left behind if I didn’t spend hours on a raid every day.
So one day I quit. Cold turkey. No warning to any of the “friends” in my little 30-person group/guild. I knew if I logged back in again, saw the little notification that I’d been “rewarded” with a login bonus, then my resolve would fade. If you were in the group I led - “Vulpes - KingdomCrusaders” - then I’m sorry for abandoning you. I’ve never quite managed to bring myself to completely delete the app from my phone, but I’ve not logged in for almost 2 years now. “I’m free,” I sighed with relief.
I don’t think it is healthy that a game should make you feel like that. The whole experience has soured me completely on Kingdom Hearts as a franchise and the thought of actually playing Kingdom Hearts 3 makes me feel sick. With their exploitative business practices, Square Enix has probably lost me as a customer for life. (This is of course despite the fact that my daughter’s friend bought her Kingdom Hearts 3 for her birthday, so the disc is in my house, next to the PS4. Taunting me.)
That is not the end of my experience with Gacha, though. That’s where Fate/Grand Order comes in. I knew it was coming out. I resisted looking at it. I refused to download it. But the online buzz about it was so positive. “It’s not abusive”, I heard, “You don’t need to spend money.” So about 18 months ago, around 6 months after its release, I relented. It was the holiday season. I wanted something mindless to tap on my iPad while enduring extended family parties.(I’m not naturally very social and prefer to hide in a quiet corner. Also my wife is the youngest of 8 siblings, and they’ve all got kids and some of their kids have got kids. Christmas and New Year are just pure carnage.)
FGO is almost the antithesis of KH. It is so much more chill. Yes, the continually replenishing AP is still there and there’s a lot of grinding, but in general you can take your time and savour the game. The story is fun and interesting, with characters I actually care about, as opposed to the garbage KH mobile story which never seemed to progress. During more intensive events that require extended time input, then I can exercise on my cross-trainer and play the game at the same time. I tend to get so absorbed that I burn more calories that I would have done watching something passively. Can’t do that with console games!
It really is true that every single unit (servant) is useful, and powerful enough to beat the game if properly invested in (with time and effort - not cash). The free “welfare” servants gained from playing events are almost all amazing. I’ve got around 100 servants now, and it took me over a year to fully ascend and level them all. Only a few have maxed skills though.
My luck has been pretty good, and I got something like 17 5-star servants without spending a single penny on the game. The only money I spent was on the “guaranteed paid Gacha” at this past New Year where I had a 50% chance of my favoured 5-star assassin, and got them. I might also pay for this summer’s upcoming guaranteed Gacha, though there’s no-one I’m particularly interested in. I figure I’ve had hundreds of hours of fun with this game, on this occasion I do not mind giving the developers some cash in return for something guaranteed. I will never spend money on this game otherwise. I don’t need to.
So over 1,500 words in and we come to the actual point of the article. Magia Record is the second anime Gacha game released by Aniplex in the US. This one I pre-ordered on the app store and launched the minute it was available. While FGO is still fun, the current story hasn’t grabbed me and I’m pretty much only logging in and quickly grinding currency to use up my AP. I figured I’ve got enough room in my life for another Gacha.
But do I?
Let me state that so far, I have really really enjoyed Magia Record. It is slick, colourful and the game mechanics are fun. The game systems are overwhelmingly complex and working out quite what I should be focusing on next is stressful enough that I’ve been lurking on reddit for tips from veteran players of the Japanese release. Although the game has only been out for 3 days (as of writing this), I’ve already sunk far too many hours into it. This has led me to ponder: Is this a healthy passtime for me?
Sometimes I think these games are specifically targeted to people with my personality type - and probably many other anime fans would share many of these traits. I’m obsessional - a quick glance at the obscene numbers of comic books and manga volumes in my (humourously titled) “study” at home is enough to attest to that. I’m a completer-finisher that doesn’t like to leave things undone - loose ends are bad, gaps in book collections are BAD and torture me literally for years if something goes out of print. The fear of missing out on something limited is another motivator for me. And then, like many other medics, I am hopelessly competitive. Maybe it has something to do with my upbringing, but when I put my mind to doing something, I don’t only want to complete it to my own satisfaction, I WANT TO GRIND ALL OF MY OPPONENTS INTO THE DUST.
Magia Record has PVP. FGO has no inter-player battle mechanics at all and in that regard, the beast remained dormant. I tried the “Mirrors Labyrinth” that pits your little collection of magical girls against randomly allocated players’ teams. I lost. And lost again. And lost again. How are these people so much stronger than me and so quickly? I thought. So off to Reddit and Gamepress and the internet in general to research how to GRIND UNTIL I BLEED until I no longer lose. So after 3 nights of stupidly staying up until almost 2am playing a fucking mobile game I am now a magical girl terminator with hopelessly over-levelled units that steamroll over everything that I come across. And I was still unable to clear the bloody event shop before its surprise reset this morning.
So this game has already consumed 3 days of my life, you know, in between a full-time job, eating, socialising, looking after children and sleeping. One of those things had to go and it was sleep. Even when I slept I was dreaming about magical girls anyway, and not in a fun way. No, it was in a stressful turn-based pixellated tablet mobile RPG way.
My mind is broken and I should not be allowed to play these games. The only reason I’ve had time to write this is because there was a two-hour maintenance that closed down the game and as I was unexpectedly quiet at work I thought I’d record my torment.
One thing about Magia Record that may be more manipulative than FGO is the implementation of a KH-like “pity” system. The game gives a new player enough for about 50 “pulls” of the Gacha roulette, if they play enough to earn the currency. Some people “re-roll” by continually re-playing the tutorial over and over and over, to get the highly ranked starting unit they want. Screw that, I have limited time to waste on games. I have a well-paying professional job and some disposable income, however, and Aniplex definitely wants that more than my time. My first few free pulls yielded nothing better than low-rank units. Ah - but because I’ve already pulled 50, if I pull 50 more, I’ll get a guaranteed high ranking unit by pull 100. Otherwise the individual rate is 1% per pull. (Which due to the bizarre rules of probability means only a 50% chance of getting one in 100 pulls without this pity system.)
The game helpfully advertises that premium currency is available to buy. And at special reduced rates for beginners too. It’s almost like Madoka herself is offering “the good crack” to get her little weaboo worshippers hooked. Thing is, I’d quite like a Madoka of my own. She seems like a good healer. Today’s new event even prioritises levelling her up, for those lucky enough to have her. That event only lasts 3-4 days, so if I want to take advantage of that, I need to have Madoka... now.
All that stands between my family and financial destitution now is the fact that I don’t have a US credit card and instead have to jump through the hoops of buying online gift cards. That thankfully removes the accessibility of it. I never thought of myself as a gambler. I don’t buy lottery tickets, have never darkened the door of a casino, I don’t bet on races. But this game... this damned pink and peach, cotton-candy coloured game got me to spend cash where FGO couldn’t. There’s definitely something of a rush as those spinning cards appear and reveal your next winning. I relented and bought the cheap special offers. And I still don’t yet have a Madoka. I’m now grinding to get the freely available summon tickets, all the while stressing about which level I should be prioritising along with a chronic lack of AP.
I don’t like stress. Why am I playing this? The game is designed to draw the vulnerable in (i.e. me), overwhelm the unsuspecting victim with so much to do, offer so many small rewards for that oh-so-important spike of dopamine spiced with adrenaline, serotonin and why-the-hell-why-not -a-shot-of-adrenaline-too that the conscious brain is overwhelmed by the heavy swirl of neurotransmitters that the victim doesn’t seem to care that they have wasted three days of their life playing with digital magical teenage girls.
Hi, my name is Doctorkev and I have a problem.