The House Always Wins

The best way to make yourself sound smart is to explain, as if to an audience of fools and children, how some aspect of the world is inevitable and necessary. Since in the last few centuries it’s become unfashionable to invoke the Creator in these arguments, I would recommend you stick to concepts of nature, human or otherwise, and in general make reference to forces far above our meagre understanding or control, such as invisible hands and national character, just so long as you don’t slip up and namedrop God. In particular it’s important to stress that anyone suggesting that some outcome was preventable, or expressing any kind of emotion about the issue except for cheerful acceptance, is immature or a fantasist. Try it; you’ll be a popular public figure in no time.

For the rest of us fools and children, all that’s left is tediously picking through the crime scene that is the world, painstakingly ordering effects after causes, intent alongside motive.

I started playing Fire Emblem: Heroes about a month ago. Honestly, I like it a lot, but I would struggle to call it “good”. It’s a series of RPG party-building and strategy-puzzle problems that engage my brain in a pleasant way for short periods of time, plus some plot even thinner than the usual Fire Emblem fare. I’ve found myself completely fascinated by other aspects of it, though: specifically, its economy and the social relations it generates or reinforces.

By this point almost everyone is aware that gacha games like Heroes employ an inventive new form of gambling. They hook you with just enough free stuff to make the game reasonably playable and fun, and hand out most of it upfront to make it seem like everything else is also quickly and reasonably obtainable. That’s a lie, of course; the vast majority of premium content (in this case, new characters and the skills they carry) is locked behind random rolls, with reported single-digit percentage chances of obtaining any one particular thing (and the actual chance much lower than that most of the time). To top it off, there are microtransactions, but you can’t buy the heroes you want directly – only more slot machine tokens to make more rolls, with no guarantee of success.

Take Lewyn, for instance. Lewyn is currently the only source of the powerful Special Spiral skill, which can be “inherited” to other units by consuming a copy of Lewyn. Currently, there are just shy of 300 heroes in the game, with more being released constantly. Of them, 50 or so share Lewyn’s colour – green, the least populated one – with the lower rarity greens being, I believe, slightly less numerous than the most premium five star ones. If you buy the gacha currency in extreme bulk, one summoning event comes out to about one dollar and change. To obtain a single copy of Lewyn during an event when he is featured (which lists the chance as 3%), with a probability above 90%, it is not unreasonable to expect to have to roll fifty times on green orbs, and, randomness being random, just as reasonable to expect to have to roll twice as much or more. In fact, since there’s no way to ensure any of your orbs will be green, and assuming the colours of the orbs you get are split evenly, we may be talking about upwards of two hundred rolls. That’s like 250 bucks – in a sensible good-case scenario, and with many potential scenarios being much more expensive – for one measly skill!


You thought you were getting your five star wizard, but instead it was me, Axe Dad!

(I’m really winging the math here. I don’t think I’m off by a lot, since my point is about the scale of the expense and not the precise number. Still, if someone is terribly inclined to run the exact numbers and tell me how wrong I am, I welcome the correction.)

Of course, you don’t have to use Special Spiral to enjoy the game or clear all the PvE content. With the free stuff you get and a little bit of optimization, you can finish most of the ridiculous endgame challenge maps, which is where all of the fun of the game has been for me. But it’s there! It’s so good! Why wouldn’t you put one of the best B slot skills on everyone on your team who can benefit from it? And really, two hundred and fifty bucks doesn’t sound so bad when you think about it, right? I could probably put that together if I sold my TV…

The game also has a competitive PvP arena mode. Going up against a synergistic team constructed by another player, you really can find yourself needing every possible advantage, which means you need a wide roster of reasonably built-up characters that can handle prominent meta threats. This is really the part that is more likely than anything else to get new players spending: taking your freebie team that’s been steamrolling the PvE missions into the arena, finding yourself up against something both fairly common and decently powerful, like a Pain+/Savage Blow healer hiding behind a Nowi with Vantage, and realizing you don’t have anything in your barracks that can win that fight. (Like, say, Lewyn, who will absolutely one-shot that Nowi under most circumstances.) So you build your team more, and to build it, you have to roll. It’s not even so much that the teams you encounter at higher ranks are that much more difficult to counter; the way matchmaking is implemented means you eventually hit a rank ceiling based on your team’s stat total, and the only ways to raise that are extremely long-term investment into merges or rolling for newer, shinier heroes with better base stats. So you roll more, and depending on how determined you are to rank up, eventually you’ll either get tired of the potentially months-long grind or start spending.

The fascinating thing, to me, about gambling, is that it’s a blatant counterexample to the idea of people being driven by rational self-interest. A rational actor with even a passing understanding of the math involved would never commit money to this kind of endeavour, unless they had more than they knew what to do with. It’s not even similar to old-school gambling in the promise of the big win: nothing you get from a gacha is resellable per the terms of use. The conclusion is simple: since people throw money at games like these constantly, often more money than they can afford to spend, people are not rational actors. We are easily manipulated through our hopes, perceptions and desires, and an integral part of existing in society in a responsible way ought to be acknowledging that fact, and being mindful of how we affect and are affected by everyone around us.

The ideology of capitalist society has come up with a different solution than what I outlined here, of course. To resolve the contradiction posed by gambling, it relies on the idea of responsibility. It posits that anyone not behaving as the idealized rational actor, who makes all their decisions based on a sober assessment of probabilities and potential benefits, is lacking in self-control, frugality, asceticism and other such virtues ascribed to the bourgeois citizen. As ever, when reality presents inconvenient facts, proponents of the rational actor theory say: no, it is reality that is mistaken for not adhering to our metaphysics.

But the metaphysics also carries an ethical dimension. “Self-control” is wielded as a moral judgment: it is considered good to have it, and bad not to. As evidence, we are presented with the rich and powerful of this world who, it is often said, got to where they are through hard work and frugality – a laughable claim to anyone who bothers skimming their biographies. Whose hard work built the apartheid fortunes of the Musk dynasty? Did they pull the emeralds that made them rich from the ground with their bare hands?

android emulation 2

By far my favourite thing about this game is that even the emulator I run it in is trying to hook me with its own microtransactions now.

But the part that really, really gets me is how people have been so well trained in the gospel of personal responsibility that, when presented with this blatantly rigged game, they will post extensive threads on Reddit about how yes, it may be unfair, but if you just buckle up, be responsible, save your orbs and feathers for months, invest only in the things you need, you too can get into the highest echelons to compete with people who can just casually drop a couple thousand dollars to fully merge all four of the latest heroes on the day they drop.

Yeah, you probably can. But you shouldn’t want to.

Nevermind even the Reddit posts; every other month there’s an article on one of the big games news sites about how the lootbox economy, while regrettable, is now inescapable and necessary, and that the poor beleaguered publishers of more old-school single player titles simply aren’t seeing the return on investment that exploiting people’s emotions and desires could bring them. Spare a thought for poor Electronic Arts and their two billion dollar yearly revenue.

Here’s the thing: I’m good at not spending money on games like these, but I don’t consider that a moral virtue. It’s just a sad necessity of existing in an economic system that finds ever more inventive and manipulative ways of extracting value from genuinely enjoyable and worthwhile aspects of life. If you fall for a con, you might feel bad about getting fooled, but the responsible party is still the con man.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to believe in inevitability. There’s all this microtransaction money for the taking, so of course Nintendo or any number of other publishers would develop clever ways to extract it. Of course they manipulate people, that’s just how the world is. What are they supposed to do, not take advantage of you?

But the funny thing about strategy games is, if you play them for long enough, they end up teaching you how outcomes are produced by decisions, and that even very minor shifts in the allocation of resources can have dramatically cascading effects fifteen or fifty turns later. Or, as Fire Emblem’s poster girl Lucina would put it, the future is not written.