Tales of Link and the Free-to-Play Experience

If you've read my earlier blog posts (and you probably haven't, because I'm talking almost four years earlier, also it's very bad) you'll see that I'm a pretty big fan of the Tales franchise of games. If you're not aware, Tales is a long-running series of Japanese role-playing games made by Bandai Namco that enjoys massive popularity in Japan. While I'm not sure how true this is anymore, there was a time when only Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest meant more to the Japanese RPG-playing audience than Tales did.

In winter of 2014, Bandai Namco released a free-to-play mobile game based off the series in Japan. The game was called Tales of Link, which is exactly as confusing of a title as you think it is. Tales of Link takes the popular characters of the Tales series and drops them into a puzzle-ish mobile game. As far as games you've actually heard about go, this is similar in structure to something like Final Fantasy: Record Keeper, though with much less reverence for the games it's pulling from.

I can't speak to the Japanese version of the game, as I've never played it, but Tales of Link was released globally in April of 2016, and it's a bit of a mess. The actual gameplay itself is kind of terrible, so unless they changed the core mechanics when bringing it worldwide, the original release isn't exactly a treat, either. Put simply, it's a very watered-down "match like-tiles together" game that only uses a 3x3 board. Matching tiles causes the units on them to attack, which is probably the literal first thing you would come up with when designing a free-to-play game in this vein. Enemies show up in waves, attacking you every few turns, whittling down your HP bar in hopes of bringing you to a game over screen. You can outfit your units with equipment and customize them to meet your needs, bringing a unique team of heroes into every battle.

Screenshot belongs to neurogadget.net
Screenshot belongs to neurogadget.net

You may think that sounds kind of awful, and you'd probably be right. It doesn't stop with generic and bare-bones mechanics, though; Tales of Link is one of many mobile games from Japan to utilize something called the gacha system as a means of extracting money from its playerbase. The term is derived from Japanese gachapon machines, (or gashapon machines, I believe it can be pronounced either way) which are pretty much just vending machines that give out a random capsule toy when you put money into them. If you've watched the recent Shenmue Endurance Run on the site, you've seen these before.

The gacha system in Tales of Link is exactly what you think it is: put in some money, and a random character pops out. This isn't unique to this game, not by any means. I'm not sure where it originated, but Puzzle and Dragons took the concept and made what might as well be an infinite amount of money on it. It actually made such an overwhelming impact on the mobile market in Japan that the government up and made parts of the system illegal. A loophole in the law allows games to continue to implement it (I don't really know how it works, but games totally still use it, Puzzle and Dragons included) and it continues to be the primary mechanism for dumping money into these games.

This all sounds like an unenjoyable experience, I imagine. Unfortunately, that's an accurate interpretation, and I've put countless hours into this stupid thing anyway. It's shameful, but I like the Tales games... a lot. And the gacha system draws me in in spite of myself. Like, I know it's terrible and exploitative. Yet somehow I still allow it to be terrible and exploit me. No amount of reasoning or facts or just-plain being broke can push me away from it. Every time they show me a new gacha with new versions of characters I love, I can't help but throw some of my hard-won "Hero Stones" at it. Unless of course, I don't have any left, in which case I always have the option to buy more.

This wouldn't be the worst thing if not for a somewhat recent (like, 3-4 years ago) "addition" to many gacha systems. I know; it's crazy that everything I've outlined up to now isn't the end of this nightmare, but it really isn't. This terrifying twist on the gacha mechanic has been in a lot of these games for a while now, but Tales of Link is the first time I've experienced it for myself: the "10x" roll.

Yeah, I know. It's rough. You can spend ten times as much premium currency to roll the machine ten times at once. This wouldn't be a big deal if that were the end of it, but games that implement this "feature" offer higher percent chances of getting rare units, or sometimes additional rolls. What this actually amounts to is a severe reduction in rewards from individual rolls, and most communities preach to new players to never waste currency on single rolls.

Most of these games sell currency at a rate of .99$ per stone (it's always a fucking stone) and let you pull the gacha once for five stones. Meaning that they charge 50 stones for a "10x" roll. This doesn't translate directly to 50$ per roll, as purchasing more stones at once gives you more for your money, and most games offer a fair number of stones through gameplay, too. I'd say that on average, a "10x" roll costs about 30$ if you buy all of the stones with real money.

That's still a lot.

That's 30$, and it doesn't guarantee you shit! Sure, sometimes you'll have enough stones from in-game events or whatever to do a roll for free every now and then, but that still amounts to thirty fucking dollars of their currency. You're not buying a new game with that, you're buying a chance to digitally own a cool or cute-looking drawing of a character you like with some numbers attached to it.

It's just... I like those characters.

Except you, Colette.
Except you, Colette.

I've been playing Tales of Link enough that I've spent a fair amount of time lurking on community message boards devoted to the game. And the rates for getting cool characters... They're abyssmal. I've seen people dump amounts of money that I've never even held in my hands towards getting a new costume for their favorite character, only to come away empty-handed. In most free-to-play games, the number one in-app purchase is the .99$ option, but if you look at the store page for Tales of Link, you'll see that the most-purchased option is the 70$ one. That is, in fact, the most expensive option, if you were wondering. People invest a lot of time and money into this thing, and it's not even a great game.

I understand why "waifu/husbando-culture" is not super healthy (and also those terms are awful) but, like... These people just love these characters. They've spent hundreds of hours travelling with them, on epic adventures, trying to keep the world from falling apart (or putting it back together, Symphonia fans). Maybe it's lame that they got so attached to fictional characters; maybe it's a problem. I don't know, it's not really my place to judge them. I've done worse things to myself for probably stupider reasons. That's not the important thing here.

I don't know any of these people. I rarely, if ever, post anything on these forums. Still, when I see someone bummed out by not getting that cute cat girl version of a Tales of Xillia character, I get it. It sucks. It sucks to be so passionate about something, and try so hard to get it, only to be rejected. Hell, that might be why some of these people are so attached to fictional characters in the first place; rejection sucks! They all know what they're getting into, and know they might not get what they're looking for, but it still stings when it doesn't happen.

I've done my fair share of rolls, too, but I only have about five or six versions of characters I actually care about that are decent enough stats-wise to actually use. The other characters I use are either from games I haven't played, entries I actively dislike, or happen to be the only character from the game they appear in who I hate. Fortunately I don't get my hopes up too much, and have cut back on the real money I spend significantly. I try to only spend currency earned in-game, for the most part, occasionally dropping 1-5 dollars here and there in weak moments. But still. I get why people spend the money they do on this thing. And I also get why it makes them sad.

I'm not totally sure what I'm getting at, here. It's obvious that free-to-play games are generally pretty exploitative, so I'm not covering new ground there. I guess I just wanted to point out how much of a bummer it is to have a system like the gacha system in a game featuring so many beloved characters. It's bad when a random system like this one keeps powerful items out of your grasp, but being kept away from characters you care about stings so much worse.