Genshin Impact is not my first gacha game. Like many people I've tried out previous gacha titles on my smartphone and while none of them sunk their hooks deep into me I enjoyed a couple enough to throw a few bucks at for a coin doubler or battlepass or whatever. Most of those games were pretty similar to one another, and in fact a few of them even used the same assets despite being from purportedly different franchises, but I never thought of "gacha" as its own genre. Instead I thought of the games as light tactical RPGs, or maybe slightly more involved clicker games where gameplay was minimal and the goal was to make the numbers go up. I always thought of gacha as a type of monetization rather than a game genre. Premium games you pay for up front aren't a genre, and neither is "free to play" because while the choice between them may affect elements of the game, it doesn't go to the fundamental design. There are lots of games that have moved from premium to free to play over time, and nobody would say they changed genre. So I thought of "gacha" games as these light tactical games that used a loot-box pay to win monetization structure and had a lot of other similarities.
Genshin Impact is not a light tactical RPG. It's a full on 3D action RPG. There's been a lot of talk about how it draws from Zelda: BOTW for its design and gameplay, and there are certainly elements of that game in it, but I actually think it also pulls a lot from modern Japanese AARPGs, such as the Ys series. I played through Ys VIII earlier this year (absolutely loved it, BTW) and I see a lot of its DNA in Genshin Impact. Unlike Breath of the Wild, Genshin Impact is not a go anywhere do anything game, instead it's divided up into gated segments and you have to complete quests in order to advance the story and unlock more of the world, much like in Ys. Also like in Ys you roam around killing stuff to build up experience and collect materials to upgrade weapons and equipment, and you spend a lot of time in barely animated cut scenes talking to various people. Genshin Impact most reminds me of Ys in its character switching mechanic, where your party is made up of multiple characters with different skills and effective play involves controlling one member of a set 'party' which is a subset of the characters available to you, then switching active characters with the touch of a button to combo your new character's skill off the effects from the previous one's.
Regardless, the fact that Genshin Impact can be compared to full price and well regarded major games like Zelda or Ys shows how involved its gameplay is. It's a somewhat shallow but fully realized PC/console level game that offers lots of content to actively engage with for hours on end, not just thumb around with on your phone while you're on hold waiting for a conference call to start.
But it's also a gacha game. It's a game where you build power not just through things you do and find in the world but through purchasing randomized rolls through a real money loot table that unlocks everything from powerful weapons to new characters to play, as well as giving you currencies that you can use to buy necessary upgrade materials for upgrading your character. And the thing about being a gacha game, unlike being free to play or premium based, is that gacha is its own mechanic. It's gambling. And people enjoy that separate and apart from the action RPG stuff that blends Zelda and Ys.
I didn't really understand this until I dug into some of the discourse around Genshin Impact because I was having trouble understanding why the game was so well regarded when I think it's just kind of so so. What I found were not people extolling its action mechanics, or discussing its generic story or admittedly impressive aesthetics. Instead it was mostly about the gacha mechanics. And it wasn't just people talking about whether it's fair or not. For the record I think it is relatively fair. I have put in no money and I have both Diluc and Venti (two of the top tier 5 star characters) based just on earned and free currency, along with more 4 star characters than I even have time to mess around with. But this was only one element of the gacha discussion. Other people were talking about how they liked some of the required grind elements, or enjoyed the rate that the game gives away currency and rolls, and were comparing the game to others based not on its action or RPG mechanics but based on the gacha stuff.
And that makes total sense. Gacha is gambling, and lots of people like to gamble. People enjoy slot machines, which is pretty close to gacha, it's just not for me. There are also lots of people who enjoy grinding for grinding's sake. Logging in to do your daily quests and whatnot isn't fundamentally different from logging into Animal Crossing every day to do the various chores (which is something I did regularly for several months this summer.) Grinding, under the right circumstances, can be fun, especially if you enjoy the moment to moment gameplay too.
Figuring out that gacha was a genre helped me understand why Genshin Impact wasn't clicking for me. It's not just that the climbing isn't as good as Zelda's, or that the combat can be simple and the AI is braindead, or even that the story is rote and average with incredibly bland characters. All that's kind of to be expected in a free to play RPG, and a game doesn't have to be as good as Zelda or Ys VIII to be a really good game. But there was a whole element of the game that just didn't resonate for me. I did my rolls and got my characters, and I was glad to nab Diluc and Venti because they're powerful and fun to play, but my focus was on getting enough stuff to be able to enjoy the action parts of the game, not on the thrill of the rolls themselves. Likewise I find the grindy stuff as a kind of impediment to what I consider fun (character and story advancement and going through new areas as they open up) instead of fun unto themselves. But for Genshin Impact to fully hit you you need to enjoy the gacha elements, because they are deeply integrated into the heart of the game, not just built on top of it to make money off of. Rolling for new characters and collecting massive amounts of rare materials to upgrade stuff are major mechanics meant to be fun in and of themselves independent from the action RPG elements.
Genshin Impact isn't a terrible game. It's not even a bad action RPG, just an average one. But it is, in part, a gambling game, and if you don't enjoy the gambling aspect then you're not engaging with the full game. It's like how Uncharted isn't just a third person shooter, it's also a cinematic story driven experience. If you don't like story and cut scenes you might still think the shooting's okay, but you won't be fully on board with the game. Because of that it doesn't really matter that I've had lucky rolls and gotten good characters who are reasonably fun to play for free. Every game you pay for gives you all the good characters for free anyway. It's not like Ys VIII withheld Ricotta from me. So when competing against the best AARPGs out there that will always give you the best stuff the gacha will always be an impediment if you don't like gacha for gacha's sake.
Gacha is a genre and a mechanic unto itself, not just a way of monetizing other kinds of games.