christian

Aesthetic Gachaism

Here’s a pretty cool post from indie game developer Keith Burgun. It’s about a concept he labels as “aesthetic gacha-ism”, which he describes as follows:

The core of my conception of aesthetic gacha-ism is the commodification of games: both in how they are produced, the rules, the experience, the way it’s talked about. At nearly every level, the experience of games gets put more and more onto an assembly line, alienated from human experience, connection and meaning.

He then goes on to list some of the core tenets of Aesthetic Gacha-ism:

  • Extrinsic-reward driven (AKA “the metagame is more important than the base game design”)
  • Elements feel copy-pasted a lot, and/or “subdivided” to increase length
  • Compulsion-driven design
  • The (dreaded) crafting system
  • Commodified quests
  • More and more things “level up” in some way

(The author elaborates on all of these bullet points within the actual piece, so I encourage you to read through it.)

I too have had a feeling in the back of my mind that there was something intrinsically different about the way modern games are designed, but as usual I’ve always found it hard to put my thoughts into words. It’s not surprising that a professional game designer would have an easier time than me, and in these cases I’m always happy to learn from others and discover the concepts (and in some cases, the literal words) I need to express myself.

On that note, this piece not only helped me better understand the words and concepts I was looking for, but also challenged me to take a closer look at the games I play. I’m thinking of this bit in particular, from near the end of the post:

Humble origins.

Of course mobile F2P gacha games are the absolute peak level of this sort of stuff, but it bleeds out and infects everything else too, more and more, year after year. Zelda, for example, is not a series that people would typically associate with this kind of stuff. And yet, Breath of the Wild is indeed marked by it, with things to collect everywhere you go, a crafting system, and a nice neat list of quests to fulfill. It’s interesting to think what Breath of the Wild might have been like, in a world where gacha-ism wasn’t so ubiquitous.

I didn’t particularly care for Breath of the Wild. If you asked me why, I could come up with a few different reasons, but they always felt rather …small. Problems, to be sure, but problems that shouldn’t necessarily ruin a game.

But here comes Burgun, arguing that one of the game’s problems is that it too was influenced by Aesthetic Gacha-ism. I never saw it that way, but the more I think about it, the more it fits.

BoTW certainly has crafting and commodified quests. It has compulsion-driven design, and while it doesn’t have strict stats and levels, it is still obsessed with watching numbers go up. That’s the only explanation I can think of for why Every. Single. Person I talked to about it in real life back in 2017 would immediately ask me –

How many shrines have you cleared?

And 

How many Korok Seeds do you have?

And why they would look at me like I was an alien when I told them “I don’t know. I don’t keep count.”

Most gacha games look like this.

BoTW, like so many modern games, is less a game – or even a sandbox – and more of a checklist of things to do and systems to exploit. And you don’t necessarily do these things because they’re fun, but because that’s simply what you’re expected to do. And if you choose to reject these things – that is, if you choose not to seek Korok Seeds, or to only explore the Shrines you come across, or to avoid battle so as not to deal with breaking weapons – the game is still technically playable, but trust me when I say that it quickly begins to lose its luster.

And as you can see from some of my in-person interactions, playing the game in “your own way” can become socially alienating. 

Social Alienation

I don’t think gamers on the Internet really understand how much social isolation we inflict upon one another. If you want to talk to somebody about a given game, it’s not enough to simply play it. If your opinions or experiences don’t line up closely enough, most folks still won’t talk to you (or you may find that there’s nothing you can possibly say that will spur an interesting discussion).

I’ve also seen folks discount this as a problem. Their argument is that as long as you can play the game, and as long as you enjoy it, nothing else should matter. But I’d point to the popularity of multiplayer games as evidence that there always has been – and always will be – a strong social component to the hobby. Take that away, and it becomes a very different beast. One that can make one feel worse off emotionally than if they never engaged in the hobby at all.

From my perspective, it isn’t just that the gaming landscape is changing. It’s that it is changing into something that is genuinely uninterested in the fundamentals of the medium. Gaming feels less and less about the acts of play, exploration, experimentation, etc. As I’ve said before, it feels more and more like work, or like a constant competition.

Or, if I look at it through the lens of a professional software developer, more and more games look like algorithms that an army of people all rush to try to optimize as quickly as possible.

Even Nintendo got in on the scam.

(Side note – this may explain why I feel extra averse to modern game design. I spend all my workday dealing with algorithms and matching patterns. I don’t want to do that in my so-called entertainment.)

(Side-side note – the irony is not lost on me that I’m referring to algorithmic design when so much of society and pop culture is generated and curated via algorithms.)

That brings me to something else that I’ve insinuated in previous posts – part of me still wonders if people are genuinely having fun doing these things, or if they’ve simply been conditioned into thinking that it’s a good use of their time. I’d like to be wrong – that is, I’d like to be 100% certain that people are just finding new ways to enjoy gaming, and that I’m just an old man who doesn’t get it. But it’s hard not to shake the feeling that something is off about all of this.

Please do our advertising for us:
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

8 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
chris
Admin
5 months ago

Not having actually played Breath of the Wild, the first thing that came to mind when I read that list was actually Bethesda RPGs – Fallout 4 in particular pushed the addictive feeling into overdrive, for me. I felt compelled to play, even as I vaguely despised myself for getting suckered into such a boring, empty game. Even now, I hear my lizard brain saying “You should try it again. I’m sure it wasn’t that bad”.

I’d be curious whether some of these mechanics were some kind of evolutionary convergence vs cross-genre pollination. Probably more of the latter. The term kind of implies an eastern origin, but western games have had a lot of these elements for years (Diablo is one of the earliest to come to mind, naturally).

I play gacha games from time to time with self-imposed boundaries on play. There is absolutely a ton of algorithmic play – even with layers and layers of systems, they’re never that complicated – and the communities of those I’ve played are endlessly obsessed with meta/minmaxing making the experience more robotic and less playful. Even so, people seem to enjoy socializing about the game more than playing the game itself.

Personally despite programming in my day job, I don’t actually mind playing algorithmic games that much. Some modern programming-analogues like SpaceChem are too much for me though. I find them fascinating but can’t stand actually playing them.

christian
christian
5 months ago

I agree about Fallout 4. It’s one of those games I have to keep uninstalled for fear of getting sucked into it (before ultimately realizing that I was just spending time doing unsatisfying things).

I wouldn’t get too hung up on name of “aesthetic gachaism”. I don’t think it’s meant to imply that gacha games were the direct (or only) source of this kind of game design. As the author says, even if loot boxes or gambling were banned from all games tomorrow, the concepts he discusses would almost certainly remain.

I do agree that Diablo was a major factor in all this. That was the first time that I looked at a game, and really, genuinely struggled to understand the appeal. Those games are extremely commodified; the act of clicking around on the screen is, in and of itself, not fun, but what is (presumably) fun is the loot and the level ups you get from clicking around.

In regards to what I like to play at home, when I refer to “algorithmic” games, I’m not so much referring to the games themselves, but the style of play. I don’t want to play a game where everyone and their mother is racing to figure out the “meta”, or find the most efficient ways to do one thing or another. I just want to play, and maybe compete with even a basic set of skills.

chris
Admin
5 months ago
Reply to  christian

Yeah, I’m not that concerned about the term itself – it is certainly most embodied by gacha games – just pointing out that elements have existed elsewhere.

I enjoyed Diablo 2 because of the excitement of the skill system (combined with, admittedly, the high of getting new and exciting items) and it was a great game to play with friends. I found Diablo 3 extremely off-putting, though – there were no actual decisions to be made, when Diablo 2 was full of trade-offs and skill/stat decisions. Maybe it’s better now, but there’s no way I’m going to try picking it up again.

christian
christian
5 months ago
Reply to  chris

Interesting observations regarding Diablo. I’m willing to believe there was a greater amount of depth to D2 than I witnessed, as I only played it once, and it was a solo run.

Also interesting, though, that your thoughts on D3 suggest that Blizzard did eventually double down on the loot grind as being the main point. That’s unfortunate, because a game in which you have to make tradeoffs is a game that may play differently based on each choice you make. That makes for replayability, among other things.

Last edited 5 months ago by christian
TrueTallus
TrueTallus
5 months ago
Reply to  christian

It’s certain that the cycle time of addictive feedback has become finely honed and exploited in game dev circles, but I wonder if some of the things Burgun is putting a finger on as ‘gacha-ism mechanics’ are not inherently gacha-esque. It makes me wonder when and why they pass into being a problem rather than a help.

Crafting, for example, has every opportunity to enhance a player’s experience, allowing the world to feel more alive, and the player to have more agency in it. Organized quest references are something that any person who played Morrowind DEARLY WISHED someone at Bethesda had taken the time to create. I remember a frustrated PC Gamer review of the Build engine FPS quasi-rpg Strife having good things to say but being frustrated that ‘there weren’t enough statistics’. These mechanisms are, or at least WERE, good game design in some form, and at one point in time were solutions to problems or new ideas that made games better.

I have a sneaking suspicion that gatcha-isms are not (wholey) darkly accurate shadowy exploitations sprung from the minds of extorting corporate marketeers that have now become so ingrained that gamers can’t see the forrest for the evil cackling trees. Rather, some part of the the birthing and success of these ideas seems to come from gamers themselves – many want games to be more intricate, ‘engaging’, boastable, and vast.

I have a half formed theory that the same joy many of us on this site had/have enjoying a game and connecting with others about a part of a virtual world is echoed today but shifted in its expression. We may have been engaged discussing things we’d found in Symphony of the Night, scouring Gamefaqs to try to unlock Tofu in RE2, or trying to beat Ninja Gaiden, but it’s not a far walk from there to reliving a Apex Legends match in chat, scheming on discord about drop rates for bird feet in Elden Ring, or paying a horrible sum of money to get past an unwindable situation in a P2W game.

People have always wanted to be challenged, connected and devoted. I just wonder that as folks appear to be getting simultaneously more alienated, less patient, and more informed, these motivations have produced a ripe time for game producers to give people what they want – instant feedback loops, a world wide pool of virtual interactions and all the anxieties and posturing that goes with it, and an exhausting and jading mountain of potential games to play. Several

In a completely unrelated aside, how many on the Videolamer staff are programmers at this point? I think I’m counting 3 that I’ve noticed so far – if all else fails we can all just make another (soon to be derilect) video game company ;)

christian
christian
5 months ago
Reply to  TrueTallus

This is all good food for thought.

It’s possible that, yes, younger gamers are looking for the same things, but expressing themselves differently. I’m still not convinced though. To use some of your examples, There are at least three different ways to play Symphony of the Night:

  1. Just playing the game through
  2. Playing the game through to unlock the entire map
  3. Playing the game through, unlocking the entire map, and figuring out the best min/max builds, finding the best rare drops, etc.

In my personal experience, I’ve encountered folks who have played the game in all three of those ways. And all three kinds of players could have a conversation about their experiences. Player #3 would give Player #1 tips, or tell them about cool things to try out on their next play through. But all three would mainly talk about their favorite bosses, easter eggs, etc

But when I talk to 20-something gamers about, well, any game, the conversation boils down to something like:

“This game is cool”

“Did you do X?”

“Well, no, I wasn’t interested/didn’t know/didn’t care”

“How could you not do X? Why are you even playing the game?”

The state of “X” can be anything, but it’s usually something to do with optimization of your build/character/strategy/etc via exploitation of the game’s systems. That, more than anything else, is the sole focus of a lot of folks I’ve met, and I find it weird. If that makes me an old man who doesn’t “get it”, so be it.

I also want to touch back on your point about how crafting (and other ideas) could, in fact, be a good thing. It is ironic, but I have almost no experience with tabletop RPGs, and yet there’s so much about the way they operate that I find admirable. As much as, say DnD is driven by numbers, the presence of a DM means that there is also whole lot of wiggle room. They have some amount of leeway to dictate the actual result of a good or bad roll. If you want to make the experience more player-friendly, you absolutely can.

I bring this up because I think the problem with a lot of systems in video games is that they don’t really encourage experimentation, or trial and error, or personal expression.

For example, say there’s a crafting system. You go ahead and craft … something. But because you didn’t understand the intricacies of the system, or used crappy materials (or whatever), the product of your crafting is either weak, or useless, or whatever. Or maybe it’s just not clearly better than what you already have.

For me, when something like that happens, I’m discouraged from trying again. It’s not that I need every crafted item to a be a Doom Bringer – I just need to know that it is useful, in some way that none of my current stuff is. Or, it can be no more or less useful than something I have, but I’ve learned a bit about the crafting process in return.

In other words – If I engage with a system, I need something in return, whether it be knowledge, an ability, new gear, etc.

But (in my experience) most games are far more interested in making you solve the “puzzle” of their metagame, which usually means in-depth analysis of stats, drop rates, frame counts, etc. And I just don’t have it in me to that.

And to bring it all back to the original post, this is something Burgun touches upon – A strong valuing of metagame over the basic gameplay; of extrinsic rewards over intrinsic rewards” – 

Last edited 5 months ago by christian
TrueTallus
TrueTallus
4 months ago
Reply to  christian

Thanks for the further thoughts, Christian! I’m definitely in agreement with the thought that the more a game attempts to cater to people fiddling with it and talking about it rather than playing it, the easier it becomes for the game to be an instrument of highway robbery.

My own experience when trying to connect with younger gamers hasn’t been quite as head-scratching, but I can certainly see a pattern of attachment to minutia as the POINT of the experience that I can’t identify with. I’ve attributed it to the observation that many games in the current roster are (often for monetary reasons that seem very gacha-esque) intended to be played and experienced with the same dedication as WoW or physical sports. Even if we strip away shadier practices like ‘random’ drops and purposely addictive gameplay loops, games are being built to attempt to keep people’s attention over many long sessions. There’s been an expectation from many players for a while now that a game’s ‘campaign’ is just the warm up for whatever they will experience over the next weeks and months. I’m guessing that some of that focus on breaking a game down comes from an audience that plays it so much that the actual game itself feels simple and unsatisfying. There’s probably some bleed-over from the experience of watching a lot of games, too – being a spectator makes it easy to focus and value things that are easy to quantify and show off.

In that sense, then, I guess genuine gacha games are really just admitting that a lot of people don’t want to take the time to play a game if they can get to the point where they can just exploit it (and be exploited) right out of the gate.

christian
christian
4 months ago
Reply to  TrueTallus

I’ve had encounters with two kinds of younger gamers. The first group is young as in “they’re in their early twenties”. These folks by and large are into games with lots of grinding and a strong metagame. I don’t find it impossible to talk with them, but sometimes it’s hard to find a common game to discuss.

The second group is young as in “under 15”. My nephew is a great example. He love Fortnite, but I don’t find that too difficult to discuss. He also loves Minecraft and Pokemon. It’s ironic, but despite being so young, his tastes skew towards games I’m a lot more familiar with.

Also, your comments remind me of my earlier post about how modern games feel more and more like work. It’s …. certainly something.