Whether you like it or hate it, mobile gaming has reached the point where it’s not a total joke. Yes, mobile games are often known for being ad-riddled, free-to-play, anti-consumer pieces of trash, but they’ve undeniably grown in popularity, to the point where major juggernauts like Nintendo and Square Enix are dipping their toes into the market.

It’s not too surprising, then, when a famous franchise gets a mobile game. The real shocker is when that game actually turns out to be good — or at least, good enough to not be considered a complete mockery. Fire Emblem Heroes and Final Fantasy: Brave Exvius are examples from recent years, and if they’ve piqued your curiosity enough for you to investigate them, you probably keep seeing the same word over and over: gacha.

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kingdom hearts union x gacha
More and more big games (such as Kingdom Hearts, pictured here) are getting their own mobile titles, and if it’s a Japanese IP, it’s highly likely that it’s a gacha game.

What Is This Word “Gacha” I Keep Hearing?

While it’s tempting to drag out this article in order to keep your sweet, sweet readership, I’m going to cut to the chase and answer the question that brought you here: what is gacha? Well, here’s the most succinct way I can think of to describe it:

Gacha is basically the Japanese version of loot box mechanics.

The above statement is a major oversimplification, but the gist of it is true. Indeed, when you read stuff about “gacha games,” hear people talking about “gacha rates,” or see them showing off their sweet “summons,” it’s all just jargon that’s all describing the same thing: a randomized prize distribution system that dispenses virtual goodies at the cost of currency.

final fantasy brave exvius
Gacha games usually dispense valuable gameplay goodies, such as heroes and weapons, through a randomized distribution system. It’s not quite the same as loot boxes, but there are enough similarities to draw comparisons.

If you think that sounds exactly like a loot box, well, you’re not entirely wrong. Gacha mechanics are basically just the Japanese version of what we’re doing over here in the west with loot boxes, only they have their own special colloquial nickname due to the unique meaning of the word in Japanese. But there are some differences between gacha mechanics and loot boxes, and it’s important to understand the difference between “gacha games” and “games with loot boxes,” because they’re not 100% the same thing.

Gacha Games In a Nutshell

fe heroes rarity
Gacha games dispense their goodies in rarities. In Fire Emblem Heroes, each unit is ranked from 3-5 stars. The 5-star units are much more rare and valuable.

It’s a lot easier to understand gacha games when you understand the nature of the word “gacha.” It’s derived from “gachapon,” which is the Japanese word for toy capsule vending machines. Imagine a fancier version of those quarter machines that you see in grocery stores, and you’ve got yourself a gachapon.

It’s derived from “gachapon,” which is the Japanese word for toy capsule vending machines.

In any gacha game, this prize system is always a major component. The in-game “gachapon machine” will be familiar to anyone who’s done the loot box rodeo — you spend some currency, and you get some randomized reward, like a new character, powerful gear, or functionally useless filler. Of course, they’re not actually called gachapon machines in the game; there’s always some in-game jargon. Instead of putting quarters into a machine for prizes, you’re “summoning” new spirits at the “summoning shrine.”

fate grand order summon
Each gacha game has its own unique summoning system, but there are commonalities between all them. (Fate/Grand Order)

While there is a lot of variety, most gacha games follow a similar fundamental format:

  • Play levels (usually mobile-friendly missions that can quickly be completed)
  • Gain currency
  • Spend currency for gacha rewards
  • Use rewards to become more powerful
  • Play harder levels
  • Rinse and repeat

In other words, there is an actual game within most of these titles, and the gacha mechanic is primarily what provides new abilities, characters, and progression. You’ll spend a lot of time building unique teams to tackle specific challenges, and that’s what keeps people coming back. Missions are short, usually beatable in just a few minutes, and some of them are downright impossible unless you’ve crafted a powerful setup with synergistic abilities and upgrades.

Team-Building Gacha Games

dragalia lost gacha
Gacha mechanics are pretty predatory, but there ARE often good games underneath. Dragalia Lost has elemental-based challenges that require good team-building.

Because the gacha system has potential to supply endless rewards, the games are designed for longevity. They’re less about starting from Point A and arriving at Point Z — instead, it’s all about creating certain builds to meet specific challenges. If you’ve spent ages building the most powerful team in the universe, the game may throw you a curveball by releasing a new set of missions that directly counters them, forcing you to try new combinations and build up new characters.

Where does that lead you? Back to the gacha, of course. In most gacha games, playable characters make up the lion’s share of rewards, and they each have their own unique advantages. Take Nintendo’s Dragalia Lost, for example. Each character has their own elemental class, so even if you pull one of the best fire units in the game, they will be about as useful as a poopy-flavored lollipop in water missions.

Continuing with the Dragalia Lost example, the game allows you to build multiple teams, each one having four slots. If you want to take on the game’s most extreme fire challenges, you’re going to need a team made up of insanely powerful water characters. There are five different elements in the game, meaning you would ostensibly need 20 powerful characters to create a full team for each one. With how rare 5-star adventurers are (more on that in a moment), you can bet that you’ll be going back to the gacha machi- er, “summoning shrine” over and over.

The Differences Between Gacha and Loot Boxes

elder scrolls blades chest
Elder Scrolls: Blades features treasure chests that have similarities to gacha systems, and yet, most people wouldn’t consider it to be a gacha game.

So what, then, are the differences between gacha games and loot boxes? Are they even different at all? Ultimately, the answer could be both yes and no, depending on your point of view. The average loot box game typically has notable differences from the average gacha game, but there has also been so much overlap that they could be considered the same thing if you’re looking at the bigger picture. But if you had to boil it down to general differences, the list would look something like this:

  • Rewards: Loot box rewards are usually cosmetic, while gacha rewards tend to be directly tied to gameplay and progression.
  • Distribution: Loot boxes usually give you several items, while gachas allow you to pull one at a time, or many at once (for a reduced price)
  • Availability and Currency: Many loot box games don’t provide an in-game currency to buy boxes. Instead, boxes are usually rewarded to the player for finishing certain tasks, OR available for real-world cash. Gacha games regularly provide an in-game currency, and they also allow you to spend cash.
  • Probabilities: Loot boxes usually have fixed probabilities; gachas usually increase the odds in your favor if you haven’t pulled something good in a long time.
  • Significance: Loot boxes are usually a mechanic on the side to reward players; gachas are usually integral to the gameplay experience and they incentivize you to keep coming back.

Ultimately, the differences between gacha and loot boxes largely depend upon the connotation of the words based on your cultural reference point.

fe heroes pulls
The definition of gacha, to many people, will come down to pedantry. But if your game has screens like this, it’s probably safe to assume it’s a gacha game.

The Future of Gacha Games

Many loot box games have gacha elements, and vice-versa, so this is one of those terms that’s likely to take the colloquial shape of whatever gaming culture decides it to be. Many people already think of “gacha games” as a unique genre, defining them by their team-building and summoning mechanics, while others strictly use the term to describe the actual game mechanic.

This is a rising genre that’s becoming more prominent in the western world. Even if the definition of “gacha games” is a bit muddy at the moment, it will likely evolve until it has a universally accepted definition. Genres such as roguelikes, looter-shooters, and battle royales have developed their own meaning in gaming vernacular in the last several years, and if this the first time you’ve heard of gacha games, well, it probably won’t be the last.

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