Two news pieces today on games adding restrictions in response to government action.

First, Linden Lab is banning gacha mechanics in Second Life. I’m slightly embarrassed that my first reaction to this news was “There’s gacha in Second Life?” I’ve known for ages that people could make and sell content and services in that game, but I frankly haven’t thought about Second Life since before the lootbox controversies and so it simply never occurred to me that users would be using gacha mechanics there. Once mentioned, though, it’s totally obvious that it would happen.

But what’s interesting to me about this is that the announcement specifically says this move is because of “a changing regulatory climate”. I’m not aware of recent changes to regulations around gacha, so I’d love to know more about what prompted this action and what the discussions around the “difficult decision” were like.

It’s worth noting that we have gacha in real life and have for a long time. There are the physical capsule/gashapon machines from which the mechanic get its name, and also things like blind-boxes and CCGs. Why aren’t these seen as just as problematic and exploitative? Why isn’t there a “changing regulatory climate” around these?

I think that it’s mostly because the physicality of the product creates a secondary market. If you like buying a surprise, you can buy through gacha; if instead there’s a specific item you want (either because you only like some of the items in the set or because you’re looking to complete a collection) you can buy from someone who already found that specific one. And if you buy a bunch through gacha and decide you don’t want to keep everything, you can recoup your expenses by reselling your duplicates or undesirables to someone who does want those specific ones. Heck, you could plausibly buy a bunch of gacha, decide you don’t want any of them, and sell them all for a profit.

This flexibility makes the entire system less exploitative. Resalability both makes gacha-purchases more valuable and prevents anyone from being “forced” into gacha and potentially-bottomless spending to get the specific thing they want.

I would argue that what makes gacha a problem in video games (game design considerations aside) is lack of resalability. This is what makes it a money hole that takes more money from consumers while providing less value in return - other cheaper options are removed for users trying to get specific things and users have no way to get any portion of their money back after spending.

I have never played Second Life, but my understanding is that the in-game currency can be easily exchanged with real-world currency via an external market and that user-created goods are resalable - indeed, Linden Lab’s announcement refers to the ability to re-sell items that had been purchased through gacha and indicates this remains intact. So that means that gacha within Second Life does, in fact, have a secondary market and thus avoids the pitfalls and exploitations of non-resalable in-game gacha.

I previously wrote that “it’s very hard to write a law that prevents evil loot boxes while not preventing similar things that aren’t evil." If Second Life has to remove gacha mechanics because of regulations written to stop abuses by companies like EA, I think that counts as an example of this kind of failure mode.

The second news item that struck me today is that Chinese conglomerate Tencent will be curbing time and money spent in games by minors after Chinese state media called online games “spirital opium”.

Maybe you think that specific plan is a good thing and maybe you don’t, but what’s interesting to me about this is that I’ve been watching Tencent somewhat nervously as they gobble up ownership stakes in a number of international game companies, many of which have huge audiences. It’s hard to tell yet what the effects of this will be, but I can’t help but read it as a bit of a harbinger. It seems likely that Chinese state views on gaming and the Chinese “regulatory environment” are going to have an effect on a lot of popular games developed outside China and played worldwide, for better or worse.