Genshin Impact: Encapsulating the Phenomenon One Month Later
Going into 2020, I never would have dreamed that Genshin Impact would have ended up being one of the biggest titles this year. Don’t get me wrong, I like it quite a bit. Even at Adventure Rank 37, I still log in everyday to do my dailies and pursue various in-game activities to enhance my characters. For better or worse, I have played a lot of gacha games over the years and this feels like the one that penetrated the mainstream audience in a significant way recently. Yes, long-standing titles like Granblue Fantasy, Fate/Grand Order, the numerous mobile Final Fantasy entries (Record Keeper, Brave Exvius, Opera Omnia, etc.), and even Puzzle & Dragons remain immensely popular in that space, but none of them have occupied the social mainstream mindshare the way Genshin Impact has.
This is not to say that any of these games are better than the other. They all have good and bad aspects about them. I’m not here to judge you if you play any of them… well, unless you’re an Epic Seven player.
I kid, I kid.
What distinguishes Genshin Impact from past releases is an amalgamation of several factors: accessibility, scope, and timing. Before we dive into it, let me contextualize this a bit if you aren’t aware of the state of the gacha game industry these days.
A lot of the popular ones that often dominate the conversation are either only officially available in Japan or end up receiving an English release months, sometimes years, later than its original Japanese release. Even then, examining the history of official English gacha titles points to some significant concerns as time has gone on. It’s not rare to see English versions of gacha games end their service as the native Japanese version thrives for years on. The graveyard of these cases is vast, including notable games like Star Ocean: Anamnesis, Tales of the Rays, Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story,Valkyrie Anatomia: The Origin, Symphogear XD Unlimited, Monster Strike, Chain Chronicle, and so on.
Thus, long-time gacha game players often remain on their accounts in the Japan release with little incentive to switch over. The English releases are usually behind content-wise, may be missing quality-of-life features that were later added into the original release down the road, and are more likely to shut down prematurely. After all, it’s very easy to acquire Japan’s release of gacha games these days through third-party applications like QooApp and APKPure.
The risks incurred of playing versions of these games from territories that are not officially supported aren’t enough to dissuade players. All they really lose out on is relying on the game’s customer support to help them out if something goes wrong and in some cases, being able to make microtransactions depending on payment processor restrictions in certain regions. Almost everything else is solvable with online communities in Twitter, Reddit, Discord, YouTube, and other corners of the internet. Players can find basic translations for menu navigation, gameplay mechanics, and other game options. Popular ones that are more narrative heavy, as with Fate/Grand Order, will even have its loyal community provide a full plot synopsis of the newest story chapters farahead of when the English release will receive that content. Needless to say, the Japanese release of Fate/Grand Order not only released two full years before the English one, but it’s also many magnitudes more active and popular even among English-speaking communities.
This overview helps to contextualize why Genshin Impact feels significant. There are several outliers to this, naturally. Granblue Fantasy is technically only “released” in Japan, but it can easily be accessed through web browsers internationally and added support for English in its native client years after its initial launch. Other later-released English versions for gacha games, Shin Megami Tensei: Liberation Dx2 for instance, accelerated the pace of rolling out content to catch up with the original Japanese release and eventually merged with it, since the English release on its own was struggling as is. A recent example of a gacha game that shared the same servers internationally from the get-go is Dragalia Lost; Tales of Crestoria does have its content synced up between the Japanese and English release, but their servers are separate from one another.
What does this all mean? Why lay out this convoluted microcosm of gacha game release patterns? Is Genshin Impact going to be a turning point moving forward?
Obviously, it is too early to say anything. One month in for these kinds of games is nothing in the grand scheme of things. We all won’t know if this game will end up being an important milestone or merely another flash in a pan till years down the line. The only safe, reasonable call is that Genshin Impact will lose the momentum it has now and it will experience its share of ups and downs throughout its lifecycle.
Now, onto Genshin Impact itself in how its accessibility, scope, and timing all contributed to where it is today.
As with pretty much all of these types of games, Genshin Impact is completely free to play. All people have to do is either go through the game’s official site on their PC, the app store on their mobile device, or the PSN store on their PS4 to start the download free of charge. There’s already a key distinction here from a lot of other rivals in this space; it’s natively available on other platforms besides mobile on day 1. Few western releases of gacha games receive PC releases in the first place; some that come to mind for me are Langrisser Mobile, Onmyoji, and miHoYo’s previous title, Honkai Impact 3rd. PC releases for Japanese versions of gacha games have begun to proliferate over the last few years thanks to the DMM Games client and other similar services. Princess Connect! Re:Dive, Last Cloudia, SINoALICE, and Overlord: Mass for the Dead are some examples of games that now have PC clients synced up to the mobile versions in Japan through them.
All the PC releases for these titles arrived much later than their mobile counterparts, though, and since their PC releases synced up instead of starting fresh, players that began with them may have missed out on content and limited-time events. Genshin Impact is not completely absolved of this problem. A Nintendo Switch version of it was announced earlier this year and it remains to be seen whether it’ll start from scratch or sync up with the current unified release across the other three platforms; I suspect the latter is the most likely case, so future new Switch players may miss out on some stuff.
Nevertheless, Genshin Impact is starting off on the right foot in this regard. All of its releases are just about in parity with one another. The minor ripple in this is that new content added so far, such as the Elemental Crucible event and Klee banner, arrived in eastern territories roughly half a day or so before they did on western servers. It’s a negligible difference. The important part is that for the price of free, you get a lot of game.
Awareness of Genshin Impact has been bubbling up for some time now. One of the earliest stories that penetrated the mainstream occurred at last year’s ChinaJoy conference when a heated individual broke their PS4 in protest over Sony’s promotion of the game citing its striking similarities to The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild at first glance. Many people had similar takeaways upon seeing Genshin Impact’s debut trailer as well. Now that it’s had some time to simmer throughout the masses, people have begun to realize it’s quite different in numerous aspects.
What it does share with Breath of the Wild is the feeling of freedom it evokes as you explore the world of Teyvat. Even though Genshin Impact has only launched with the regions of Monstadt and Liyue so far, they feel fleshed out and expansive. Fully exploring and experiencing what Genshin Impact has to offer out of the gate takes dozens upon dozens of hours. It shares Breath of the Wild’s open world design philosophy of capturing the player’s curiosity in wherever they go, something is sure to catch their eye.
The marketing partnership deal between miHoYo and Sony played a key part in spreading the word of Genshin Impact to the masses. With access to the PlayStation Blog and Sony’s humongous social channels at their disposal, miHoYo was able to garner attention towards their upcoming title in a way that very few traditional gacha games can begin to dream of.
Genshin Impact’s core structure is antithetical to the typical gacha game release, which tends to present its content through small stages with waves of enemies. Their stories tend to unfold through static or, more recently, animated Live2D portraits and tell their tales similar to how visual novels handle it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this style of storytelling and it works well enough for their more mobile-focused endeavors, but this is where Genshin Impact diverges due to its scope. Cutscenes are rendered in-game allowing for an effective visualization of events transpiring on-screen, opposed to shaking portraits or whirling visual effects on top of a black background to convey it.
Genshin Impact’s presentation and flow is more akin to a video game you buy rather than a free gacha game you download.
This is where Genshin Impact and something like Fire Emblem Heroes split off from one another. Although Fire Emblem is now considered one the big popular Nintendo IPs internationally, I feel that Fire Emblem Heroes didn’t quite capture the mainstream headlines upon release the same way Genshin Impact has. It’s mostly in part due to its constrained presentation tailored to a mobile environment. The maps had to be extremely small by nature, the battle system was relatively diluted to other entries, and the story it was released with wasn’t one that resonated for fans of the series. Fire Emblem Heroes remains a financial success continually to this day raking in record profits for Nintendo’s mobile game endeavors with the help of Intelligent Systems and their partnership with DeNA, but it has had a rocky journey to get to where it is. At the end of the day, first impressions are everything and when Fire Emblem Heroes initially launched, a lot of people eventually fell off because it was dismissed as just another gacha game with all the bells and whistles that entails on the presentation side of it. Again, this is not to say that one game is better than the other; it is merely a side-by-side comparison of initial impact.
Lastly, Genshin Impact launched at the right time. Let’s face it; late September and most of October was a dry period for brand-new releases for RPGs. We are all currently in this calm before the storm of next-generation consoles launching alongside the year’s biggest releases of Cyberpunk 2077, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Yakuza: Like A Dragon, the Demon’s Souls remake, and much more. There was a small gap in these last few weeks and Genshin Impact swept the world for a brief amount of time.
Its sharp rise to popularity set the stage for outlets, big and small, all across the internet to jump on it too during this relatively dry period. As you may not know, SEO (search engine optimization) is the shadow of... well, everything that happens for online discoverability and persistent web traffic. It’s why you may encounter awkward “clickbait” headlines and by clicking on those, you yourself have become part of the reason why the system is so important to websites, content creators, streamers, influencers, guide makers, and so on.
Everyone’s trying to keep their lights on one way or another and Genshin Impact became a beacon for that because it’s a remarkably dense game with a plethora of systems that mark it as prime material for producing written and visual guides not only to help the numerous masses, but to keep traffic coming in. Some go down the abyss even further with streaming or making videos of gacha rolls and since Genshin Impact has been a lot of people’s first gacha game, the risks and pitfalls of that are highlighted even more so to modern audiences. It’s had an especially bountiful viewership on Twitch and YouTube though it remains to be seen how long that retainment will last.
I am looking forward to seeing where the future takes Genshin Impact. Although it has its fair share of problems now, it is important to note that the game is still very much in its infancy. There is a lot of potential in it and I hope the developers at miHoYo take it in the right direction. In some ways, I consider it the “AAA” gacha game that has broken the mold as far as the bigger picture is concerned. I wouldn’t call it the best gacha game I’ve ever played, but it is one of the most refined ones out there because of its astounding production values relative to other gacha games. Genshin Impact is certainly worth keeping an eye on, even if you don’t play it or have decided to quit it already.
As for other new releases in the gacha game space, Octopath Traveler: Champions of the Continent and Sakura Kakumei: Hanasaku Otome-tachi are the ones I’m most curious about. Both will only be coming to Japan soon with no announced plans to localize them in the west.