Gashapon is a ubiquitous mechanism in FTP (Free To Play) online games, especially in card or RPG games. In a word, such feature consumes designated currency, both hard or soft, and randomly release critical rewards (such as powerful cards or scarce items) as well as ordinary rewards (such as normal cards, items, or some currency).
To some extents, Gashapon is considered to be the most effective monetization mechanism in freemium online games. Although we can’t fetch the actual payment composition of any single product, nor could I reveal the statistics of my past projects, we can still come to such conclusion by observing players’ video or posts on game forums. For most of the practitioners in the gaming industry, I believe it’s not surprising for us to hear that some whale players are willing and had already spent $10,000 or more on Gashapon.
In this article, I would like to discuss some designs of Gashapon and how it may, to some extent, be involved in integrity issue.
Generally speaking, Gashapon mechanism has an appearance that fits into its game background. It could be a gacha machine, a mysterious box or magic circle that summons heroes. No matter what it looks like, it reminds players of a normal lucky draw game in daily life: there could be some valuable prizes while most of them are ordinary prizes. Under such an implication, every single draw has an equal chance to get the good prize. However, in reality, the possibility setting of Gashapon could be far more complex and tricky than player imagine.
Take the probabilities table below as an example. We may call such possibility design as Simple Possibilities—it’s straightforward and imaginable. Each draw is independent and equal. In this case, the expected cost of getting a S-card is $5/0.05=$100.
However, it also means that the possibility of paying $200 (two times more than the expected value) while still get no S-card is 13%. In other words, 13% of your highly valuable users would suffer from almost devastating payment experience during this process, desperately looking at those lucky guys who maybe get BINGO in their first draw — of which the possibility is 5%. And the first draw could even be FREE.
Statistically speaking, such scenario obeys Binomial Distribution: in which 13 % of the user would get 0 S-card, and 60% of the players would get 2 or more (as the image presents below).
You might firstly think: well…at least Simple Possibility is fair; it’s just a game and so it’s fine — until your customer service system, Facebook Page as well as application page are all bombarded by negative comments from disappointing players. They pay for your game out of love; when they get terrible experience, their love can turn into fierce hatred.
Such scenario could be especially intolerable for game companies in Taiwan or China, where an extremely great portion of revenue comes from whale players, who thus often be regarded as VIP and thus have direct contact with the department of customer service of game companies. For these VIP players, there are too many games to choose and companies often would not take the risk of losing their whales. Therefore, undercover compensation is more than common and even necessary. However, how to set the compensation standard, the process of bargaining, and the reward distribution along with its management are all laborious tasks.
And sometimes, a broken heart can’t be fixed.
What Goes Wrong in the Simple Possibility?
In games, designers allocate rewards, or power, to encourage player’s positive behaviors. It’s one of the most critical tasks for online game designers to properly allocate powers that players can get from different behaviors, such as:
- Powers from Retention: players get from sticking to the game.
- Powers from Payment: players get from paying.
- Powers from Social: players get from interacting with other players.
- Powers from Skills: players get from their own gaming skills.
For example, League of a Legend (or other MOBA games) highly focuses on the Power of Skills and almost contains no Power of Payment, since it’s meant to be an E-sport project. On the other hand, Hayday (or other farming games) equally focus on Powers from Retention, Payment, Social but a great less on Power from Skills—for their players are relatively casual.
In most of the FTP card or RPG games, the control of the Powers from Payment is often the most critical dimension of the overall designing. However, the Simple Possibilities model and the expected value calculation can’t afford such delicate task. It might straightforward for a designer to think like this: the S-card is supposed to be drawn in the price range from $80 to $120. Nonetheless, it’s by no means possible for you to achieve it just by Simple Possibility.
There must be ways
Despite all these flaws of Simple Possibility, Gashapon is still the necessary mechanism in monetization and game loop. Ironically, if you directly sell an S-card with $100, players would definitely say you are crazy — it’s nothing more than a single-line log in database and it’s worth not. They would rather focus more on the real world, on their sober life instead of this stupid stuff. However, it could suddenly become reasonable if you put the card into a gacha machine and allow it to be got with the approximate cost between $100 and $120. We may say: to observe, to ponder and to take risk is part of the natural joys of games.
There must be better ways.
In reality, You Can Put any Algorithm Behind
In practical case, any algorithm that generates seemingly random prize results is widely implemented in gacha machine of games. Here I would like to introduce some simple models in gacha design — different model could be interactively adopted.
Example 1: Take without Replacement
Take without Replacement is a useful model to make sure that players can get the biggest prize in a specific cost range while still preserve the joy of unexpected fortune.
Take the image below, for example, the pool contains 20 cards of different ranks, once the prize is taken away, it won't be put back. Such design makes sure that a player would get at least one S-card in every twenty draws.
Some gashapon designs would even disclose it’s full content or gives some indirect hint to players, showing that the current possibility of BINGO (which would increase when other ordinary prizes are taken away). It is irresistible for players when they see the current possibility is denoted as HIGH, especially when they are aware that the possibility is stacked up by their previous efforts.
Example 2: Conditional Mapping
Just like I had mentioned before, the visual appearance of gashapon often reminds players of a simple lucky draw game in daily life, but inside the black box can be any algorithm that accords with the purpose of design. If designers can provide specific specs, it’s often not so hard for programmers to implement these in games. For example, the skill of Conditional Mapping.
According to the image below, we may count players’ participation times of a gacha machine and map each drawing to different Simple Possibility tables according to its remainder(%). Under such circumstances, players will get card, weapon, and currency in order.
However, in this case, some hard-core players would easily find that there exist some specific patterns in the drawing. To solve this problem, we can further combine the skill of Take without Replacement with Conditional Mapping.
In such case, you might imagine that there exists a virtual pool, which contains balls of different colors. Once a ball is taken out, it would not be put back; each color is mapped to a designated Simple Possibility table. For example, a red ball means S-card, but there exist three different S-cards on the table. Which card would players get is random. Once the random is well controlled, it could be fun.
If the pool is empty, refill it. In ideal circumstances, a well-designed gacha machine can support the game loop for a long time.
Example 3: Conditional Mapping—For More Purpose
Except for possibility control, there are more purposes for designers to use the skill of Conditional Mapping. For instance, we all know that soft currency of games often inflates as game proceeds. As a consequence, if the prize contains soft currency (such as gold), the amount of it must be dynamic according to users’ level. You won’t wish to see newbie players get a box of gold that allows them to crush all the monsters in the early stage, or an end-game player gets an absurd amount of gold when playing gashapon.
Diversity is another concern which we may fulfill by Conditional Mapping. For example, we probably won't wish to see a player get cards that are all tanks, melees or rangers. So again, by Conditional Mapping, we can make sure that players would, to some extent, equally get all categories of heroes.
What’s more, we may expect that players can have different routes of card collecting, so that they are more motivated to cooperate with each other. Under such circumstances, we can even categorize them by user ID, mapping them to different prize settings in the first 100 draws -- in the early game, it will be difficult for them to pass some challenges without requesting for help from others or paying.
The Integrity Issue
Here you might find the problem: the design of gashapon may be involved in the integrity issue. Under the oversimplified appearance, the black box of algorithm is hidden behind. Most important of all, it takes money; a great amount of money from hard-core and even addicted players; some of them are still child or adolescents.
Let’s imagine a scenario: when you see an official event post such as: “the possibility of getting Legendary hero, Batman, is DOUBLED for a limited time!", the actual possibility setting COULD be not modified at all. Since the design of gashapon is getting more and more complex, it’s almost impossible for players to disassemble the black box of possibility — let alone the setting can be changed dynamically!
It is indeed controversial. And it has been reflected on the refund rate of Google Play and App Store. On game forums, we can also see players discuss how to successfully persuade Google and Apple to approve their refund requests. Although Google and Apple may wish to take some actions, however, since similar mechanism can exist in various elusive appearance, it seems not feasible to officially set a universal regulation.
All in all, on this planet, there are cars sold with fancy stereo but not basic safety equipment; there are fast food franchises that sell tasty but detrimental food. If casinos are not required to disclose its probability design, why (and why not) should a game company disclose it’s gashapon content? What is the ethic standard game developers should follow? It’s never easy to answer. And here I would like to leave it to the public debate.