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Considering the impact of virtual gacha

27 Mar

Gacha machines have been spreading like wildfire through Second Life in the past couple years and they’re bringing a number of changes to the world. In fact, they’re so ubiquitous now that maybe we’re getting close to “Peak Gacha”. I think through my fingers sometimes, so let’s consider the impact they’ve had.

Trailer Park at Gachatopia

What are gacha?

Gacha originated as a type of toy vending machine in Japan that spread into virtual worlds. You can learn more about that history here. The word “gacha” is used in SL to describe both the machines and the items they vend, but for clarity I’ll only use it for the machines. Also, you might see the plural as either “gacha” or “gachas”.

In SL, gacha are chance-based vending machines. A typical machine will have several items — perhaps a themed collection or different colors of the same thing — as well as one or two rare items (a desirable color, extra detail, combination set, etc).  The machine is scripted to give common items more frequently than rare. With the price per play quite low, about 10-40 cents, playing several times to get the item you want doesn’t seem like much of an expense. The item you receive would sell individually for a significantly higher price.

Though a lot of them sell silly knicknacks and accessories, a gacha machine can vend anything. Below are a few examples from the March appearance of The Arcade, a quarterly gacha event. Decor, apparel, collectibles, even everything you would need to build a Tuscan hideaway (click image to see a zoomable version on Flickr):

Gacha selections from 3/15 The Arcade

The items can be given away or resold.

This is more radical than it sounds and key to understanding the appeal of gacha. Products sold in SL can have different rights conveyed to the buyer. Here are four possible permission settings:

  • Full permissions: The buyer can copy, modify, and transfer the item to someone else. This is most often seen in components for building and making apparel. For example, a mesh artist will sell a “full perm” version of a table, which the buyer can retexture and resell.
  • Copy only: Very common. The buyer cannot change or give/resell the item, but can make copies. A chair might be sold this way, allowing you to place as many as you wish without buying them individually.
  • Copy/Modify: Common. This setting allows the buyer to make changes to the product and copy it, but not give or sell it to another person. A pair of boots might be sold this way, along with the suggestion to save a copy before altering the size or texture.
  • Transfer: Previously rare. This made gacha items unusual when they were introduced and it’s why they are spreading in the manner we see today.

Generally if you want to give a gift of a particular item to another person in SL, you have to hope that the store offers a gift option or a has a vending machine specifically for gifts, or that the item you want is listed in the SL Marketplace. You enter the name of the other person’s avatar, pay, and the product is sent directly to that person. While this might be great for surprise gifts (I love surprise gifts, hint hint… wait, was that too obvious?), it’s not really a nice gifting experience. Searching for a transferable item is much harder and your choices are very limited.

Gacha provide giftable items easily and inexpensively. I keep a folder in my SL inventory called “Gifts”, to share some happiness or show appreciation. These are little things I’ve picked up over the years that have transfer rights; some are freebies, others are hunt gifts, but now the majority of them are gacha items. Also, if my Kay avatar gets an item from a gacha that is cuter or more punk than she would wear, I can give it to one of my alts. (In SL, every avatar is a separate account and you cannot share items between them, even if one person owns several accounts.)

The ability to resell items made gacha a radical element in the SL economy.

Long ago, stretching into the second wave years of SL (2005-2007ish), the least expensive way to buy furniture and other items was to search for a yard sale. Plenty of items had transfer permissions. Yard sales were usually just plots of land with stuff scattered around; buy an item for a few L$ and it was yours. Sometimes you’d find freebies being resold for a profit, but the profit was small. As technology advanced and creating high quality products required more skill, the atmosphere changed. Transfer rights were removed from most products and yard sales evaporated. You could still find some low price, generally low quality items alongside freebies, but a yard sale couldn’t generate enough income to justify the space anymore.

Gacha Alley

In SL now there are regions devoted to the resale of gacha items, like Gacha Alley above and Gachatopia at the top of this post. Think of them as virtual flea markets, where resellers rent a table or storefront for their ever-changing arrays. Some of the resellers have themed their stores, arranging items from different vendors and events that fit a certain category, such as a toy store for kids or a pet store. Some put up signs showing the range of items that were offered in a machine, along with numbers of how many of each they have available. This has turned into a small business opportunity for some resellers; not unlike flea markets in the physical world, you’ll find semi-professional resellers alongside people simply trying to make a small profit from their extra stuff. And, as a new business opportunity appears, so do scams: I’ve heard of a few people who set up tables at pop-up yard sales only to have all of their items suddenly returned as the organizer vanished with their rent payments for the month.

Gacha reseller pet shop

At a resale location, you might pay a small markup over the original gacha price but there is no risk of getting an item you didn’t want. Rare items have a more substantial markup, as do boxes where a reseller has assembled a full collection. It reminds me of vibrant marketplaces in MMORPGs I’ve played, where some items can be sold player-to-player but others cannot. Rare drops or items in high demand sell for higher prices.

I’m seeing more and more gacha resales across the grid and in unexpected places. I’ve seen them inside stores of unrelated merchants, on the lawns of virtual homes, and in areas that have no other retail aspect (like the little flea market tucked away in a corner of Picklemoon, pictured below). Yard sales are back. Gachas have injected adrenaline into the veins of person-to-person, low-cost transactions in SL.

Hidden flea market at Picklemoon

They are hugely popular.

You can find gacha machines at special events that feature them, in the booths at fairs, at non-retail events (they might not have full vendors, yet still offer some gachas), and increasingly in retail stores. Some have one or two machines; others have areas dedicated to machines from past events and new promotions. Looking at the selection above offers some hints as to why they are so appealing. You might not need a pair of glasses with food on them, but for under 15 cents, wouldn’t they be fun for a costume party or to surprise a friend? For 20 cents or so you can get a pair of shoes which would normally retail for several times that amount.

The Arcade is so popular that techniques have developed to make the shopping experience better. You can get a HUD that pre-caches the sale images so that the scene will rez faster, there is an off-sim pirate ship that you can use as a shopping base, moving your camera onto the salesfloor instead of your whole avatar, and the organizers recently began selling early access: a limited set of 20 passes that allowed buyers onto the sim for four hours before it was open to the public. I don’t seek out many sales events but I always look through the shopping guide for The Arcade, and I usually stop in. I’ve discovered some of my favorite creators through their gacha offerings there.

Popularity is also driven by the urge to collect complete sets, which you can see in the Plushie Pals and artisan cookie jars above. You don’t have to collect them all, but you can, and people do. There are groups, mailing lists, and websites for gacha collectors. This isn’t a motivation I understand well, especially when virtual items can’t be removed from the SL servers and usually depreciate as technology improves, but it’s a considerable market. In the video below there is some discussion about the desireability of particularly rare collectible items.

There are gacha blogs, gacha forum threads, and live gacha discussions. There is a subscription service that provides virtual listings for buyers and sellers to make it easier for them to connect. Designing Worlds produced an excellent show a couple weeks ago covering the SL gacha phenomenon.

DW266 – Gachas in Second Life from Richard Elen on Vimeo.

Are there other impacts?

There’s a quote in the video above, a creator tells a yard sale operator that “yard sales are killing us.” I wonder if that’s true. Now that resale mechanisms have become more standardized and sophisticated, I suspect that the growth of initial gacha purchases has slowed or stagnated despite greater interest. However, merchants get longer life from their gacha items by continuing to carry the machines at their stores after events are finished. There is a conversation later in the video about how gacha might be hurting creators who don’t participate in the events. I think it’s like other marketing processes in SL — themed events, weekly sales, hunts, holiday areas — a lot of work to participate, but powerful for attracting new customers. There isn’t a world where you can plop a store in the middle of nowhere and expect it to be a success without repeated advertising/marketing.

Gacha items are more like things I buy in the physical world. I only get one copy but I can use or dispose of it as I choose.  That means that the items have value; I might have to sell some at a discount, but if I really needed L$, I could put out some tables and offer all my old gacha items. That’s a subtle shift in how I think about my digital property.

I’m not thrilled about yard sales turning up everywhere, however. That’s purely personal; specific resale regions are fine, but seeing piles of clutter where I don’t expect them reminds me of when I played the MMORPG Perfect World International. Players could set up their own resale stores in the main city. Each one looked like a hovering cat (or later, a red bull). The result was that the main city was laggy and jammed with cat shops.

2010-08-2611-32-06

As I said at the top of this post, I think we might be seeing the peak of the gacha craze. They were introduced into SL about three years ago, were very popular in 2014, but I’ve heard others who dislike the yard sales, calling them “cheap” and “trashy”. If that attitude grows, it could shape the perception of gacha overall. It could also damage the craze if the professional resellers continue to grow, making gacha events seem like tradeshows for them rather than fun for individuals. It’s a delicate balance but it’s awfully interesting to observe.

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Posted by on March 27, 2015 in Gaming

 

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2 responses to “Considering the impact of virtual gacha

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