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This Week in Anime
Gacha Money Now

by Christopher Farris & Steve Jones,

These movies are available to purchase on Blu-ray and are streaming on digital platforms, including Crunchyroll, HBO Max, and Amazon Prime

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @BeeDubsProwl @NickyEnchilada @vestenet

Steve, it's a busy time for anime the next couple of weeks with the new season starting and all. So what do you say we take the time to just chill out in the column this week? We could kick back and tap through a few songs on Love Live! School Idol Festival. Here, I'll just fire up the game and-

Oh. Dang. Aw well, no problem. What about Princess Connect Re: Dive? I'm sure we could have plenty of fun going a few rounds on that-

Huh. For being called "Live Service" games there sure do seem to be quite a few of 'em that end up dead.
Do you know what the problem with society is, Chris? People are so preoccupied with gotcha journalism when they really need to care about gacha journalism. Now I may not be a journalist, but I do know a thing or two about spending real money on fake rainbow crystals, so let's put on some gloves and do this autopsy.
Love Live and Princess Connect are just the most recent victims of the cutthroat world of anime mobile games, but they're hardly the first. The landscape is absolutely littered with the corpses of would-be Fate/Grand Orders. And the fates of both these games themselves actually shook out quite differently. That is, while Love Live simply saw the whole service shuttered to be succeeded by its own sequel, Princess Connect's situation is specifically having its EN version taken out behind the shed and Old-Yeller'd.
The past decade has given rise to quite a vast and diverse ecosystem of collectible anime girl jpegs. And you really can't talk about free-to-play/gacha/mobage/whatever synonym you want to use for these games without looking at their relationship with anime. Whether they're the genesis of a marketable IP, promotional accompaniments, side project fan-pleasing extravaganzas, or terrible mistakes, plenty of anime walk hand in hand with these mobile casinos.
It's interesting to me how the anime/mobile game creation pipeline runs both ways. Like Princess Connect was a clear-cut case of an anime series being produced as an (extremely attractive, extremely entertaining) commercial for an established game that had already been running for a few years. Love Live! School Idol Festival, on the other hand, was a tie-in to the already-popular anime, whose Original Generation characters therein wound up being spun off into their own show.

Love Live: The Anime: The Game: The Anime
Yeah, Love Live is an illustrative example both because of that and because of its age. Like, School Idol Festival lasted just shy of a decade, and speaking personally, it was the first game I ever played that had a gacha mechanic. Because if I'm loyal to anyone, I'm loyal to Nico Yazawa.

I distinctly remember grinding one of the events extra hard so I could rank high enough to get a special Nico card. And shortly after that, I stopped playing. Fill in the blanks.
I too also splashed around in the shallow end of the School Idol Festival in its early days, but I don't even remember if I managed to pull any fancy cards of my own muse, Maki Nishikino. I love Love Live as an anime, but even the promise of bonus stories and cute outfits for my faves wasn't enough for me to commit to the grindy playstyle featuring music that wasn't really my bag.
It was definitely a weird introduction to the ecosystem since I don't even really think of rhythm games when I think of gacha games anymore. And we should note too, residing in America, we're only exposed to the stuff that gets big enough to be exported and localized. So our exposure to these games is going to be necessarily different and narrower than someone living in, say, Tokyo. This introduces its own unique set of quirks because as you can imagine, the market in Japan and the market in the US can look and act very differently.
Sometimes it can seem like which games get EN versions that persist are rolling a gacha of their own. Don't get me wrong, I'm extremely happy that my own personal mobile quicksand pits BanG Dream and D4DJ are still up and running here. But seeing those feels pretty bizarre when you remember that Magia Record, a mobile-game spin-off of Madoka Magica, one of the biggest anime ever, shuttered its English version after only a little over a year. While its anime adaptation was between seasons, even!
An even more stark example I came across is Monster Strike, which was, at one point, the top-grossing mobile game worldwide. It got a wildly popular anime with two seasons, alongside a bunch of films/ONAs, yet it completely floundered in the English sphere. I barely even heard of it. Why? The game relied on local co-op. Good for the population density of Japan, but not so much across the Pacific. When they tried exporting it, they abandoned plans to allow remote online co-op, and it died on the vine over here.
Huh, maybe that's why my beloved BanG Dream and D4DJ have hung on so long: The multiplayer in those ones are all online, baby! Bringing up Monster Strike and its anime adaptations does come to the question of where that leaves such shows. Unlike a live-service game that goes offline and can't ever be played again if they shut down a given region's servers, the anime advertainments generally stay up in their streamable subtitled form. So you end up with a whole host of anime of varying quality, often selling things that no longer exist.

It's probably a sunk cost to the producers, but I'm not gonna start feeling sympathy for them anytime soon. Even in cases where the anime is a derivative work of the game, a lot of those shows tend to work perfectly fine on their own. Princess Connect, for instance, is a fun anime, plain and simple. Who cares about interactivity when you get to watch Carl make silly faces?

And the parts where the anime does pull explicitly from the game as a game tend to be jokes anyway. Like it probably has my favorite riff on the silent player-insert character trope, by making Yuuki a useless baby-brained chosen one who has to get shepherded around by the other characters.
Princess Connect manages to brilliantly iterate on both mobile-game adaptations and isekai conventions, through the incredible power of staff who give a shit. And that's a good point. For every D_CIDE TRAUMEREI or Pride of Orange lining the back of the streaming shelves, you get something like Revue Starlight. That's one where my enjoyment of the anime was enough to get me to try out the mobile game it was ostensibly hawking, only to end up dropping it not soon after I realized it was never going to replicate Tomohiro Furukawa's vision.
Honestly, the platonic ideal of a gacha game, to me, is as a means of funding a blank check for visionary anime creators to go hog wild. If they're fundamentally evil and predatory, then the least they can do is give us some incredible art in return. So I salute all of the Revue Starlight players for putting your hard-earned dollars into my favorite anime film of 2022.

On a similar side, you have Uma Musume Pretty Derby, a series that's so enjoyable I have to regularly remind myself it's a mobile-game tie-in, despite the fact that the concept and designs should make that persistently inescapable. You talk about evil and predatory, that one's selling a gacha game based on horse racing, which we can't even play here, and I'm still psyched for that forthcoming third season.
The only way they could make Uma Musume more of a gambling singularity is if they turned it into a pachinko game. And yeah, of the shows we've covered so far, it definitely hews closest to the garishly baroque character design philosophy that has come to define the popular image of gacha games (and vtubers, for different but related reasons). But season two is also one of the best and most devastating sports anime I've ever watched.

Plus it has Rice Shower and her dumb little hat that I love more than words can express.

And, I mean, that's also the thing. A lot of these games throw character design spaghetti at the wall because they know at least some of it will stick for somebody. And some of those somebodies will have fat wallets.
It's one of the reasons you see it espoused that hooking just a few especially dedicated whales is a more proven path to mobile success than simply shooting for a broader contingent of players who might not be paying up. Maybe the failure to resonate that way is the reason the Crunchyroll Games page has more cancellations than this year's E3.

But that also gets at the darker heart of this whole matter: For as enjoyable as some of these shows and games can be, their primary purpose is to make money off of you, often at the expense of your own habitual health.
Yeah, they are literally Gambling But Objectively Worse, because at least a casino gives you a shot at getting some of your money back. For ordinary people, they're money holes, and it's just a matter of how big a hole you can dig for yourself before you stop. And because they prey on the same compulsions that gambling does, they can be just as destructive. There are plenty of real-world examples, but I'd like to bring up my favorite fictional one:

Like, in the middle of everything else Odd Taxi nails impeccably, it also delivers the most incisive portrait of modern mobile gaming I've seen in recent fiction.
For some people it's a dodo they're eternally sinking their savings chasing after, and for others, it's a 4* card of Moca Aoba.

I consider myself lucky, that I don't have the gambling-addiction predilections to fall prey to spending much money on the rolls in these games. Still, it's hard not to come away cynical, when you open the game and are greeted with compulsory daily log-in campaigns and aggressively-pushed gacha pull deals.

It's so glamorously insidious! One of the best parts about that Odd Taxi episode is how it draws a line from basic compulsions like collecting and shows how it ripples out into things like social status, luck as providence, the twisted morality of rationalizing these decisions to yourself, and the brain chemistry these games prey on. None of this is new—my childhood was full of collectible card games, which are the most direct antecedent of gacha as we know it now. But it's the rapid globalization and multimedia aspect of gacha that I find most fascinating.

And as all those anime mobile games and mobile game anime demonstrate, it's a downright inescapable part of the landscape now. There's a raw irony to the creators of OddTaxi delivering such a devastating critique of that sort of ethereal economy, only for the money behind the production to turn around later and start selling NFTs based on the series.

The allure of the grift seems more omnipresent than ever, especially where the investor class is concerned. I suspect that's also why we saw such a surfeit of mobile game tie-ins in the 2010s. Investors probably looked at successes like Fate/Grand Order and said "we want that!" So you got games for properties like Princess Principal—a series that in no way begged for a game adaptation, let alone one with a gacha system—that lasted maybe a year or so at best before the plug was pulled from lack of interest. All in the pursuit of a quick buck.
Those mobile games based on established, often very popular series, represent that other intriguing side of the equation to me. Like any huge fan of Symphogear, I couldn't not be fiercely intrigued by the concept of Symphogear XD Unlimited, a mobile game that purported to continue the show's story and even expand it into a whole multiverse. Unfortunately, when we finally received an English version in February of 2020, what I actually got opened with an inexplicably dissonant Attack on Titan collab and a swift realization that the game...wasn't all that good.

Small wonder it got shut down after only 77 days!
Turns out it's pretty difficult to make a video game, and even more difficult to make a video game that both incentivizes people to play daily but also keeps itself welcoming to new players from as wide a demographic swathe as possible. Add on top of that the inherent fickleness of the market. Speaking from firsthand experience, there's no way Fate/Grand Order, for instance, would have lasted if it didn't begin with a built-in fanbase. The early chapters are a dragging narrative, and the gameplay needed a ton of QOL improvements to approach a level resembling "tolerable." Those would have sunk a smaller franchise.

It can be interesting to see how other franchises manage to survive in that landscape. Speaking as a BanG Dream fan, that one's initial promotional anime was infamous for nearly killing the project before the rest of its multimedia empire could be mobilized. It was only after the game launched as a surprisingly strong rhythm venture that the franchise found its footing, resulting in one hell of a how it started/how it's going turnaround.

But those ones that don't make it can leave behind some level of regret, predatory spending suggestions be damned. Sure there's probably not much to be missed in something like the shuttered BOFURI mobile game, but it seems rather wasteful for nearly ten years of Love Live! School Idol Festival material to get flushed into the ether just because it had a sequel coming out.
There's a lot about this landscape that doesn't make sense. Like, let's look at the opposite of Bang Dream's example, and the funniest one of those is definitely Kemono Friends. The anime was produced by a small no-name studio and debuted after the mobile game already shut down. It was an afterthought and a victim of unfortunate timing. But lo and behold, the anime becomes a dark horse viral success and singlehandedly revives the franchise.

Happy ending, right? Nope, because that was followed by an epic bag fumble by Kadokawa, who kicked the original team off the anime's second season and ruined almost all of the fanbase's goodwill in turn. Now, I don't know if or how that affected the profitability of the franchise—maybe it was the right move on that front—but it definitely felt like a tone-deaf response to hitting the proverbial jackpot. But then again, the gacha economy is built on irrational responses to improbable odds.
It definitely says something that after that initial anime was the breakout hit of 2017, I hardly saw anyone talking about the franchise by the time the studio-swapped sequel was out. It was as if Kadokawa was trying to speedrun the ambivalent response that the second season of The Devil is a Part-Timer would be met with. Dang, I hope Kadokawa never thinks to try expanding ANN's media footprint via mobage. No one deserves to be encouraged to whale for an Ultra-Rare Chris card.
Realistically speaking, the Steve card is Rare at best, and you immediately break it down into experience or materials as soon as you pull it. No one plays Steve. Steve isn't part of the meta. And on the subject of honesty, one of my favorite gacha anime is Last Period, a comedy that frequently and directly pokes fun at its gambling mechanic. Like it has an entire episode about the hero becoming destitute because he can't pull the high-rarity character he wants.

Lord knows that's better than something like Girls Frontline just rotely spouting game stats and mechanics at you

Obviously, I'm biased because I think gacha is inherently evil, but the best and only way to integrate game mechanics into an anime is to take the piss out of them. Even something like Last Period, however, can only go so far. That same episode ends with a disclaimer to "pull responsibly," because at the end of the day, the players are their geese laying the golden eggs. No matter how tongue-in-cheek you get, you're still beholden to capital.
Those pursuits are the same reason you get collaborations like Symphogear XD Unlimited's aforementioned Attack on Titan tie-in: If you can't sell people on something on its own merits, maybe you can sell them using something else they already like. Hell, the friend I have who's the reason I even knew what Girls Frontline was only got into that one because they ran a cross-over with VA-11 Hall-a.
Honestly, some of those promotional prop-ups can come off even more cynical than the actual slot machines they work into the systems.

Thank you for giving me the perfect opportunity to bring up Last Period again, because one of its episodes is an entirely inexplicable Higurashi collab.

It's extra absurd because something like How Not To Summon A Demon Lord riffs on game-collab gimmicks entirely as a joke. Yet here it is in Last Period, completely genuinely.

Like, Fate/Grand Order, you can forgive for featuring other Type-Moon franchises. That makes sense. But then you have my other main vice, Arknights, which so far has done events with Rainbow Six Siege and Monster Hunter.
Like BanG Dream and Tokyo Revengers, two great tastes that taste confusing together.
And on the subject of Rainbow Six Siege, it's worth mentioning that the economy of many mainstream multiplayer non-mobile games is similarly gambling-dependent. They just tend to call it loot boxes instead of gacha. It's all the same. Only one is more likely to give you anime wives/husbands.
And man, I don't know. Even if I willingly (and mostly sparingly) participate in it, I still feel weird about this predatory practice becoming such a common and largely unregulated part of the industry. It's cool when the money appears to fund indulgences like the Revue Starlight movie, or blockbusters like the Fate/Grand Order – Absolute Demonic Front: Babylonia anime. But you also have to wonder just how much of the gacha investments get put back into the people who actually make the games and their related works, and how much gets funneled to a select group at the top of the food chain. I mean, I'm sure the answer is unsurprising.
It's a feeling that's compounded when you realize that, even if we do have fun with these things, the games themselves can evaporate as soon as the companies behind them feel they've squeezed all the blood they possibly can from the stone, and pull the plug. That's how you end up with what happened with Love Live and Princess Connect here, and it's annoying that the powers-that-be get to take the money and run from the ventures, while the people who actually participated get left with naught but memories and drained bank accounts.
My hope is that, as more of the games shut down, people might become more aware of the whole genre's inherent ephemerality, which will in turn temper excitement and spending. But I know that's optimistic. At the very least, it's healthy to acknowledge that none of these games, even the biggest ones, will be around forever. That's bad for game preservation, but probably best for society.
Nothing lasts forever, and in some cases, maybe that's for the best.

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