Idolm@ster Cinderella Girls was just one of many games relying on ‘complete gacha’ sales.
Image: Namco Bandai
Following much industry and media speculation, the Japanese Consumer Affairs Agency has formally declared that “complete gacha” sales in social games are illegal effective July 1, 2012. Any games deemed in violation of the new laws will be subject to legal measures after that date.
“We wish to alert businesses and consumers that we have decided, in accordance with the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations, that ‘complete gacha’ sales are illegal,” Minister of State for Consumer Affairs and Food Safety Jin Matsubara announced in a press conference on Friday.
Matsubara made it clear that the agency was breaking new ground, noting that this was the first time this law was being applied to virtual goods sold online.
While “gacha” sales, named for toy vending machines, are only one of a number of microtransaction models used in social games, a “complete gacha” system offers rare prizes to players who complete a set of items via random drawings. It is this aspect of the service that the agency deemed illegal, not the selling of random virtual goods per se.
The move also bans “bingo gacha”, a similar practice in which players try to fill bingo cards through random purchases, according to coverage in the Yomiuri Shimbun.
Japan’s largest social game companies have already decided to drop all “complete gacha” sales by the end of May, well in advance of the government deadline.
With the self-imposed ban already taking effect around the industry, games are beginning to introduce similar sales mechanics that fall on the right side of the law. Shin Sengoku BUSTER by KLab now offers players a 1000-yen ($13) gacha game in which collecting a full set of ten cards earns a special rare card, according to Japanese blog ITmedia. The key modification is that it takes exactly ten purchases to win the rare card, thus circumventing the ban.
Other games have removed the “complete” aspect entirely. This has been to the chagrin of some users. Gundam Card Collection by Namco Bandai now offers ultra-rare cards as random prizes rather than as a reward for winning particular cards. Users are complaining they now have no idea whether or not they are getting closer to winning an ultra-rare card, with one reportedly spending 75,000 yen ($942) to no avail.
Gree, one of six publishers making the joint decision earlier this month, said it did so “in the interests of improving the content of its services for users,” not because of any “infringement of current Japanese legislation.” Gamemakers such as Konami and Namco Bandai quickly followed suit.
Prior to the official ruling, the Yomiuri spoke to an anonymous programmer working at a social game developer in Tokyo’s Minato ward who laid out how important the controversial “complete gacha” sales tactic is to the business model.
“Whether it’s a good game depends on how much you can make a player buy virtual items,” the 30-year-old man told the paper.
“The key is making ‘haijin kakinsha’ players use the game,” using a Japanese slang term for players hooked on online computer games, he said. These big spenders can run through tens of thousands of yen in a month.
“It’s our goal to make more than 10 percent of all gamers spend money,” he continued. “It’s important to keep their spending within certain bounds, since they may not come back to the game if we squeeze too much out of them.”
To that end, the company (which is not named) sends the programmer data every hour with notes such as “Sales are down” or “User counts are too low.” He then changes parameters on the fly, for example, lowering the price of a 300 yen item to 100 yen (about $1.26).
“It’s all about figures,” he says. Online feedback is also monitored and changes can be made to reflect complaints. When too many users say they can’t get the last card in a set, he makes it easier to win.
What of the so-called “haijin” addicts who play these games? Yomiuri talked to a 27-year-old Tokyo office worker about her experience. She started playing social games in April 2010, at first for free, but later she started spending on rare items. It took her less than a minute to spend 3000 yen ($38). In total, she said she had spent about 500,000 yen ($6281) on this “free” game.