It all started with a tweet. Last year, I’d heard several people talking about the game Genshin Impact. I don’t consider myself much of a gamer — I’ve mostly played the same three titles, Pokemon, Animal Crossing, and Harvest Moon (now Story of Seasons) for the past decade. So, when my brother and a few friends picked up the game, it wasn’t really something that I felt compelled to play or even search. That all changed when a tweet with eight characters on it made its way to my feed. One of them, his name was Tartaglia, captured my attention. He was a taller character, wearing a grey suit, a tattered scarf, and a mask to the side of his face. Out of curiosity, I googled him (and how to pronounce his name) and that’s when I learned he was a character from Genshin. An hour later, I was knee-deep in guides on how to build him — at that time, I didn’t understand what they were saying — and random clips on YouTube. I wasn’t even playing the game yet but I needed him. I stewed on the thought (or, rather, resisted the urge knowing my own obsessive tendencies) for a few days until I finally bit the bullet and downloaded the game on my phone. Now, close to five months later, I haven’t stopped playing.
What sets Genshin Impact apart from the games that I was used to was its format. While like Pokemon, it features a landscape meant for players to explore and characters to collect, it is a gacha game. For those of you who are like me pre-Genshin, a gacha game is typically free-to-play, making most of its money from in-game purchases. In Genshin’s case, they’ve perfected the art of creating characters with beautiful designs and compelling backstories. I mean, that’s how they got me.
Having only played games that I paid a set amount for, gacha gaming was an entirely new concept to me. While it is possible to go the entire time being “free to play,” there are certain benefits to paying up. You get access to more resources and stand better chances at getting certain characters. Tartaglia, for example, is a limited character that you have a 0.6% chance to get within a certain time period. This opened me up to a whole new world: an entire market where real currency is being used in gaming.
John, who has been an avid player of Dota 2 since elementary school, explained to me what “the Dota economy” is and how real money plays into it. “Dota’s market is just for cosmetics. They do not really improve stats or anything like that [but] for some reason, people really like them.” These cosmetics were obtained either through purchase via real money or by playing the game and getting really lucky winning against abysmal odds. Because these cosmetics are so hard to come by, players have taken to buying, selling, and trading them to each other. “There are a lot of things that I just sold because I felt that the supply was going to go up — like I got it super early and then I felt like the value was going to go down.” Valve, the video game company that made the video game distribution service, Steam, created a market for players with a centralized economy to regulate the values of the items. Outside of that, players are also able to trade with people they personally know or have met, or using eBay or other reselling sites.
“There are a lot of websites online dedicated to buying skins at around 50-60% of their value. So if you really need to just liquidate, you can get instant cash for your skins. You can probably get a few thousands for that,” John explained. In the Philippines, Dota 2 is a game that has become almost synonymous to growing up for many boys. There has even been a paper written about it, where the popular Filipino lingo used and how local Dota tournaments are run are elaborated on. Thus, it’s only natural that we have our own Philippine Dota store selling a range of common to rare in-game items.
The concept, broken down, felt very close to buying and selling stocks. “It’s similar to real life commodities,” John described. He broke down what determines the value of an item into three things: supply and demand, perceived value, and ability to be traded. One example was the “Golden Baby Roshan.” For those unfamiliar with Dota, a roshan is a boss with one eye and bat-like wings. The Golden Baby Roshan was a prize given out to players during a Halloween event in 2012. “The top ten teams that scored the highest in that minigame were given Baby Roshans. The Golden Baby Roshans, I think they cost at least ₱100,000 because there are only 10 in the world and I think that is not even the peak.”
Rather than in-game items or skins, local streamer, Evanuell, mostly deals with Steam Trading Cards. Earned by buying and playing games on Steam, they can similarly be used for trading. “There was a time where I did have a lot of gaming cards and I would sell them and, basically, buy games for free on Steam,” he explained. “If you’re able to put packs together and be able to get some rare cards as well — if you’re so much into the Steam Market, you’ll be able to see all these different cards that you can buy and sell. And even items from different games, as well.”
Spending ₱100,000 to get a Golden Baby Roshan or a character on Genshin Impact is not any different from buying designer bags or collecting exotic plants. It’s investing money in something that makes you happy and improves your quality of life in some way.
For John, who learned Dota from his brother before he started playing it with his closest friends, views the game like a tradition being passed on, so he feels more inclined to spend on the game. “I think there was a time I probably mainly spent on these compendiums,” he said. The “compendium” is a book in Dota that you level up either through playing the game or paying. Serving as Dota’s battle pass (something games commonly monetize for extra content), you’re rewarded for going up the tiers with effects, voice lines, limited edition sets, among others. “The compendiums are like the combination of all the reasons to spend, as I’ve mentioned.”
Lexi, who I’d seen post on the Genshin Impact Philippines Facebook group, had spent ₱40,000 on her favorite character, Ganyu. For Genshin Impact, you need to make “wishes” on banners to get characters. The chances of getting a five-star character like Ganyu and Tartaglia are, like I’ve said, really low at 0.6%, only increasing when you hit 75 wishes. While these characters are already strong, they get even stronger the more you get them, and the only way to do that is to keep on wishing.
“My gosh, Ganyu, to be honest, was not in the plan,” Lexi explained when I asked her why she’d decided to invest in Ganyu compared to other characters. She was initially saving for another character when she’d fallen in love with her. “It was [Mihoyo’s] promotional video of Ganyu that made me want her so bad. Her aesthetics and her skill set — frozen flowers? I’m sold — were on point for my taste. Ganyu was just all across beauty, grace and power plus she’s an ice element user, which, in most games that I play, has always been my top pick.”
Evanuell told a similar story when I asked him about why he’d decided to spend on his Tartaglia. “I remember, I was trying to think of a character that I really, really enjoyed playing. And when Tartaglia came out, it was like, ‘Oh, this is me.’ I love playing characters who are very complicated, who are very fast paced and everything,” he explained. “Everybody was saying, Targalia is so complicated because he has this switchable stance from range to melee. And then a lot of people kept saying he’s not good and everything. So, I kind of wanted to be that person who proved people wrong.” He talked about the act of “whaling,” which is dropping large sums of money on a game, and likened it to starting a relationship with someone. “If I remember correctly, the way I explained it to some of my viewers, it’s like pagmamahal lang, like when you’re going on a date. If you like the person, you wanna spend on them. Of course, you don’t have the “intimacy” with Genshin Impact.” He laughed.
Both Lexi and Evanuell are happy with their characters. “My Ganyu is like my own medal now whenever I go play,” Lexi said, proud that she had been able to land Ganyu’s best weapon too. “Whenever people see my Tartaglia, they’re like, oh my god, he’s so strong. He’s able to decimate enemies, like single target and AoE (area of effect, which means a large area of enemies), which is what I really, really love about him,” Evanuell said.
On top of it being a hobby, spending money in video games, in some cases, can also count as an investment. For Evanuell, as streaming is kind of like a part-time job to him, he was more willing to invest in a stronger character for content because there are returns for him. “I’ve been an official streamer for Genshin Impact for six or seven months now,” he said. Since starting the game last September, Genshin Impact increased his viewership immensely, some of his guides raking in hundreds of thousands of views. So, as he spends on characters he likes, he’s getting some money back from his streams, too. Before Genshin, he had also invested in a card game called KeyFore, which he was set to compete in the Worlds before the pandemic. With Dota 2 and League of Legends becoming official esports, the best players in the world are able to make money playing these games just like athletes of other physical sports. They even stream official tournament matches just like any NBA or football match.
“It’s cool because people just find these things that generate money for people and people see the value in these things,” John said when I said that it seems entirely possible to make money “dealing skins” and other digital items just like stocks. “It is super similar and a lot of the value, unless you’re really, really good, you can’t make a lot of money out of it, so it’s also very, very risky. It can also be a problem especially for people who don’t really have a safety net.”
As it is with everything else involving money, it’s important to set a limit. Fortnite, a popular free-to-play game among teenagers that made $2.5 billion in 2018 alone, received a lot of backlash from parents. They complained that the “loot boxes” were too accessible and easy for their children to keep spending on. In fact, following a lawsuit, Fortnite has committed to making loot boxes transparent moving forward. Other popular games among a similar demographic, like FIFA and the NBA video game series, have bankrupted families due to micropurchases within the game. Genshin Impact recently hit $1 billion in revenue solely from mobile purchases.
In my case, my first experience spending on Genshin Impact was because of a character named Albedo. He was blonde and prince-like, described to be a genius alchemist. Since the game was still new to me when he had become available, I wasn’t prepared for how easy it was to get sucked into spending. At first, I resisted, and tried my best to earn the currency I needed to get him by playing the game. After two days of bad sleep, I decided to spend some money. “I can finally rest,” I said as I saw his image flash on my screen. Like a ghost possessing me, I was suddenly overcome with the desire to try and get more of him. For days I fought the temptation, the itch to make another wish. I was constantly calculating how much it would cost to get more of him and if I had enough real cash to do it. Ultimately, what stopped me was knowing the other essentials I had to pay: phone bills, replenishing groceries and toiletries, and ensuring I save enough per month for an emergency.
Regular spenders like Lexi and Evanuell have made sure to set a monthly budget. “On a monthly basis my cap would be from ₱5,000 to ₱6,000 but it can get lower than that, and I will be extra happy if I need not spend as much,” Lexi said, adding that ever since she started earning a fixed salary, she’s always set aside a portion for games. “I usually set around 5-10k for games, like new games I wanna buy, spending for Genshin, and everything. If I spend purchasing some games, that stops me from spending on Genshin,” Evanuell admitted, similarly having always set aside a “game fund.”
With all that said and done, at the end of the day, it’s all about what you want to spend your money on. I mean, a Saudi Arabian prince spent over $40,000 on Dota 2. While we all don’t have the same level of access as a prince, if it makes you happy and you have the financial capacity to spend, then go for it.