Nintendo's Mobile 'Fire Emblem' Is a 'Gacha' Game, Here's What That Means

If there was ever a franchise to take advantage of this popular way of making money on smartphones, it's 'Fire Emblem.'

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Jan 19 2017, 3:00pm

As promised, there's a Fire Emblem game coming to mobile, and while it definitely involves slowly moving soldiers from one square to the next, it's structured different from the rest of the series. Fire Emblem: Heroes is what's called a "gacha" game, a popular monetization (and design) approach pioneered in Japan, but one that's quickly making more appearances everywhere else. With Fire Emblem: Heroes, it might be the first time a lot of folks are introduced to a gacha game.

Ever seen or used one of those machines that spits out capsule toys, where you're never sure what you're actually going to get? That's where gacha, short for gashapon, originally comes from. If it sounds a hell of a lot like legalized gambling for people of any age, that's because it is! The same idea has been applied to things like blind-boxes, where you open a container featuring a toy and hope you're getting the one you want. (It's never the one you really want.)

Mobile developer Anil Das-Gupta wrote a good breakdowns of gacha in 2013, back when Puzzle & Dragons, which eventually came to 3DS, was the big gacha craze:

Gacha is essentially a gambling mechanic and that's the reason why it's such a strong monetisation technique. In P&D, if a player knew what monster they would get, they would not play the Gacha until one they wanted cropped up. But because there is only a chance of getting the one they want, they have to gamble to get it.

Additionally, a good gacha implementation stacks the numbers very cleverly. Rarity is usually the way to this, with it possible to get a rare, very rare or Super-rare items from the Gacha. Usually you give the player a very rare item, but by mixing in rare items too, when they occasionally get a super-rare, they will feel really happy as it feels like winning an amazing prize for a bargain price.

Gacha works best when you're dealing with a large assortment of things for people to collect. The Fire Emblem series is sprawling, with player-favorite characters spanning the decades. In other words, it's a perfect fit for gacha.

Here's how it works in Fire Emblem: Heroes. In order to summon a random fighter, adding them into your army roster permanently, players use the in-game currency of orbs, which can be both earned and—you guessed it—bought. In Nintendo's presentation, three orbs costs $2, while a set of 140 orbs would set you back $75. Completing a quest to take out flying enemies rewarded players with a single orb. Since summoning a new hero requires five orbs, so you can start working out the math in your head.

The game does reward you for summoning multiple fighters at once; the cost per fighter goes down to three orbs if you add five fighters to your army at once.

Part of what hooks people into gacha games is the element of chance, a mixture of anticipation, anger, and joy. In the presentation, when the narrator summons their first fighter, they remark, "I'm crossing my fingers for Lon'qu." Instead, Olivia shows up. Maybe she's useful for your strategy, maybe not? But the opportunity to maybe this time get Lon'qu is why Nintendo includes a very particular screen after summoning a fighter: a reminder to summon another one for cheap.

Even if you manage to get your favorite character—like, say, Lon'qu—it might be a "weak" version. Fire Emblem: Heroes, like other gacha games, has rare versions of everything, which means you're never truly done collecting. There's always another reason to pull the lever. That said, Nintendo says you'll be able to use "battling and special materials" to upgrade characters, and there's an option to check "appearance rates" of characters. It's unclear how much detail Nintendo will be providing players, but my sweet boy Donnel better not be super rare, okay?

Nintendo is, at least, imposing some limits on how much young people can buy, apparently; minors will be limited to spending $104 per month. That's something.

Like anything in mobile, there are good and bad ways to make money—mostly bad. Though gacha technically riffs on gambling, it's true that luck and chance can be super fun, if done correctly, and if you aren't interested in this take, Nintendo's announced a billion other Fire Emblem games for this year and beyond. But after Super Mario Run, a Mario game that deftly translated to mobile, there's reason to be confident that Nintendo can do right by players and Fire Emblem.

You watch Nintendo's entire Fire Emblem presentation here: