Streamers, YouTubers, and TikTokers have glommed onto Chinese role-playing game Genshin Impact like it’s a magic top hat unspooling an endless rope of content. On the surface, it’s an excellent game, a free-to-play, anime Breath of the Wild, with crowd-pleasing world-building and charismatic characters. In less than two weeks after its late September release, it grossed over $100 million and took the title of the most popular Chinese release ever in the West. It was the number one mobile game by consumer spend globally in October, according to app analytics company App Annie.
One recent TikTok video might explain that success. A group of seven men screaming like lit-up football spectators huddle around a Genshin Impact player at his PC. His mouse hovers over the game’s “Wish” button, which converts in-game currency into chances to receive rare items and playable waifus or husbandos. With a click, he redeems 10 wishes. As his roommates cheer him on with cries of “con-tent, con-tent, con-tent,” 10 glowing streamers appear in the sky, each signifying a randomized reward. One is orange—a rare item. That’s when the screaming starts. He got Venti. There was a less than 1 percent chance.
In an interview with WIRED, Genshin Impact developer MiHoYo attributed its good fortune to its free-to-play model and presence on PC, PlayStation 4, Android, and iOS. Players and critics think that’s naive. As one of the most popular “gacha” games ever in the United States, Genshin Impact is forcing players to grapple with a game mechanic long described as “predatory.”
Gacha is a term traditionally reserved for “pulling” or “spinning for” characters or items in (often free-to-play) mobile games from China, Japan, and South Korea. A version of the mechanic has existed in Western games for over a decade in the form of random rewards or weapon skins in first-person shooters. In Overwatch, for example, you can buy in-game currency, redeemable for loot boxes, which may contain character skins or player icons. And top-grossing apps like Marvel Contest of Champions similarly invite players to spend real money on long-shot chances at better characters.
Genshin Impact costs nothing to play, and even without spending cash on wishes players can enjoy the bucolic scenery and fantasy plot lines. But it’s hard not to get FOMO when the correlation between money and fun is so obvious, especially when popular Twitch streamers and YouTubers have made such sport out of it. And while players can earn free wishes by reaching certain benchmarks, to get and max out all 23 characters or experience the full game, they have to open their wallets.
There’s no exact conversion, but wishes other than those you earn by playing generally cost players a few dollars each. You’re guaranteed a five-star item or character every 90 wishes, but otherwise they appear a vanishingly slim 0.6 percent of the time. One Redditor said he spent $2,400 maxing out Venti. Last week, the YouTuber Mtashed quit the game after dropping $5,440.
“I refuse to promote the gacha system in this game anymore,” Mtashed says in a recent video. “There are very addictive practices in this game. I am sorry if I ever baited you into wishing yourself.” He is on the verge of tears.
Mtashed has made thousands of dollars off his videos and can write off Genshin Impact wishes on his taxes. For his fans, the only upside is unlocking more of the game. They could end up having some major financial regrets. Twitch streamer Lacari recently shared the same sentiment when a viewer asked how he could have spent so much in such a short amount of time. “If you’ve spent over a thousand dollars in this game and you’re not streaming it, I suggest you don’t spend any more,” he said. “And it’s not content at all. You’re actually just getting scammed.”