Genshin Impact - Finding the fairness in a fundamentally unfair game

Posted by Campbell Bird on December 7th, 2020
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Update: Shortly before this piece was posted, miHoYo released an official response to the community feedback around Zhongli. You can read it here.

The official statement acknowledges the feedback and some specific bugs with Zhongli’s abilities , but makes no promises about fundamentally changing the character beyond that. As a result, the contents of this post remain relevant to the current community conversation around Genshin Impact.

There's no getting around the fact that gacha games are predatory. Their entire design is contingent upon luring as many people as possible into an experience that will tempt them to spend money over and over again. This makes Genshin Impact--despite all of its other positive qualities--a predatory game, but is it too predatory? Does such a distinction matter? And, if so, who gets to draw the line of demarcation?

These are the kinds of questions that have risen to the top of the Genshin Impact community over the past week, ever since a new banner event allowed players to feed the in-game slot machine for a new playable character: Zhongli. In the lead up to his release, players awaited anxiously, poring over his teaser trailer, investigating leaked footage, and analyzing his strength based on his importance to Genshin Impact's story, only to face disappointment once they finally got their hands on him.

Rarely does anything live up to the hype created by diehard fans, but the release of Zhongli isn't just a case of mismatched expectations. Many see it as a bellwether, tipping miHoYo's wildly successful and accessible action rpg into a playground where only routine big spenders can truly enjoy it.

Most of this observation comes from looking at Zhongli's constellations. For those unfamiliar, constellations are kind of like a skill tree in Genshin Impact, but the only way to unlock these abilities is by pulling duplicate characters from the game's gacha machine. These constellation bonuses usually grant some buffs to adventurers' strengths and abilities, but an overwhelming amount of players believe Zhongli's constellation unlocks are so significant that he is an incomplete and underwhelming character without them.

Part of what makes this so troubling is just how hard it is to get one Zhongli, much less multiple copies of him. Given Genshin Impact's published drop rates, players estimate that paying to pull Zhongli (or any other ultra-rare, five-star character) costs about $400. Obviously, this is its own problem, but the idea that you'd have to multiply that spending to actually make Zhongli comparable to previously released characters (that you only need one of) has players wondering if this will be the trend moving forward. To fight back against the possibility that new characters will be increasingly handicapped without spending gobs of money on them, players are pushing back against miHoYo hard and fast to try and make sure the game stays "fair."

Most of the tactics here come in the form of Reddit posts trying to unite the community around the cause and telling everyone to submit feedback to miHoYo. Some online communities in China are getting even more crafty by taking advantage of the law and overwhelming miHoYo with requests for printed receipts for their online purchases in the game (which miHoYo is legally required to provide). These calls for unity seem to even be winning over players who were quick to defend Zhongli after he was released. In fact, it seems like there's little debate at this point as to whether Zhongli deserves to be changed or not.

Curiously though, the only voice that truly matters in making these changes happen has been relatively silent. miHoYo hasn't said much about Zhongli since his release, which is a bit odd considering the company has otherwise demonstrated a willingness to listen and respond to player feedback since Genshin Impact's release. Perhaps the most notable instance of this was when miHoYo made elemental reactions in the game more hazardous for players. After a smaller and less organized outcry, a change to scale back the effects of this change was announced and implemented within a day.

It has been over a week since Zhongli released, and the noise being generated over his relative weakness is unavoidable for miHoYo, yet there is no apparent news on how they plan to address this issue. If I had to guess why this is, it's because miHoYo feels like their response to the Zhongli outcry has huge implications for the future of Genshin Impact. If they simply make Zhongli stronger, players will feel like they can make demands to get all kinds of things about the game changed. If they do nothing, however, they may risk losing their audience.

By waiting, miHoYo is making their fans pretty nervous, but each passing day probably makes their decision a little easier. If money is still rolling in, daily user counts stay constant, and community activity remains high, I can see it being hard to justify reworking Zhongli. This will be doubly true if the energy around this issue in community spaces dissipates, which is entirely possible. After all, Genshin Impact isn't a terribly difficult game. Only the highest level endgame content demands team and gear optimization, all of which can be achieved without any five-star characters.

This is ultimately where the whole Zhongli debate rests now, and it seems to be a contest of wills. Can the audience stay unified enough to demand a certain level of power from new characters, even if it's not entirely necessary? Is miHoYo beholden to respond to these demands? Do all of these things actually make Genshin Impact more fair? If Zhongli receives a buff, will that actually improve the game's balance, or start a trend where newer, more powerful characters motivate people to spend more money to keep up with the power curve? Without any resolution or transparency from miHoYo, there's not much insight into these answers, but they will ultimately determine the future success of Genshin Impact moving forward.

As for me, I plan to continue playing Genshin Impact for now. Prior to his release, I had already decided not to spend any Primogems on Zhongli's banner for a variety of reasons that didn't have to do with his strength. Given what I've seen of him, though, I can understand why someone who got him might want him to be improved. I do hope that miHoYo doesn't push players too hard into spending more money just to get complete characters, but at the same time I don't want the design of the game and its balance to be completely dictated by the audience. I plan to leave miHoYo this feedback, and as long as I feel like neither of those things start encroaching on my own experience with the game, I'll be happy to keep playing it.

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