Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
Fire Emblem Heroes isn’t the first maliciously monetized mobile game to have rerolling, and it certainly won’t be the last. Like other “gacha” games, you spend in-game currency to get a random character for your team. Some characters are objectively better than others, and when you start the game for the first time you get a large chunk of these currencies. This results in the phenomenon of rerolling, where people will uninstall the game and constantly retry their first time until they get a very powerful hero. Why would a game designer ever want such a thing?
The Filtering Process
Rerolling is extremely boring. One whole cycle will take around five minutes of going through mandatory tutorials and unskippable battle scenes. The rate of getting a top-tier hero (five stars) is 3%. Some people spend hours rerolling until they get one. I got lucky and rolled Lyn around my fifth try, but that’s still twenty five minutes wasted doing absolutely nothing of value.
For how boring it is, rerolling is also mandatory. If you start the game with a bad roll, you will be able to make progress for a short while but sooner or later you will hit a wall that can only be overcome by grinding. Fire Emblem Heroes has very small maps and squad sizes, so levels can be solved like puzzles. When you don’t have enough stats, there is simply no solution except to grind or to reroll and start over.
Imagine how silly Pokemon would be if instead of choosing one of three starters, you got a random Pokemon instead. You could get a Caterpie or a Gyarados, and either way the game’s balance would be completely ruined.
It seems to me that if a developer wanted to remove rerolling, it would be extraordinarily easy to do so. The simplest thing would be to make it so that apps can reset their own data, rather than having to be manually uninstalled and reinstalled from the store listing. Or the game could allow players to skip the tutorials.
These are usability suggestions, but there are also ways to solve this through game design. Why not just allow beginners to pick one hero of their choice? Obviously, they will pick the strongest one, but that’s essentially what they do with rerolling anyway. This would just save time.
What if your starting rolls are fixed with a seed for a certain amount of rolls? This way, the game could even guarantee that every player received a well-balanced set of heroes that won’t make the game too easy or too difficult. Or, combining these ideas, what if you could choose from a curated list of heroes, just like picking one of three starter Pokemon?
Fire Emblem Heroes, like most other gacha games, seems to acknowledge rerolling without explicitly judging it one way or another. Yes, you are able to reroll, but it’s more inconvenient than it needs to be. However, rerolling still seems to have a structure to it, even though it theoretically breaks the game’s intended design. In most gacha games, rerolling takes around five minutes, give or take. You are also able to clear several missions to get enough currency for another roll, which increases your time.
Gacha Game Structures
It seems that many gacha games operate like this. I’ve only played Puzzle and Dragons extensively, but I dabbled in Terra Battle slightly and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this structure in every other gacha game. Fire Emblem Heroes is convenient because it exposes the drop rates for each hero tier, but I’m sure that other games will have similar drop rates.
As a completely random estimate, I will guess that it would take around thirty minutes rerolling in each of these games to get a high tier starting character. The forums are filled with people ranting about how many hours they’ve spent rerolling for nothing. This number varies based on drop rates and player tolerance levels (some people will settle for weaker characters). Through it all, it seems clear that rerolling is a precisely designed process, but what are the intentions behind it?
The cynical answer is that rerolling filters out people who are impatient, because they are not as likely to turn into whales. People who turn into whales are the types who will care about min-maxing and are willing to invest either time or money. If somebody wants to play the game with a mediocre starting roll, they will eventually hit a grind, get bored, and quit. To the ones controlling the purse strings, those people don’t matter. They weren’t going to turn into whales anyway.
A more hopeful perspective would say that rerolling gives players a degree of agency from the very beginning. The choice to reroll or not to reroll is still a choice that has many nuances, so players can decide from the beginning how they want to approach the game. However, these choices are not embedded in the game world: instead of trading in fictional currency, you trade your time, your level of boredom, and your sanity.
Rerolling also gives players a shallow-but-wide introduction to all the content that the game has to offer. Typically, you will be able to do a handful of missions with your newly rolled heroes so that you can get another roll. That time period enables you to try out those heroes from the first roll, even if you decide to reroll and erase all of that progress. Personally, I rerolled as soon as I hit 20 orbs (the minimum to summon 5 heroes), but someone could feasibly summon 5 heroes and then use them to grind another 20 orbs in about ten more minutes.
But these positive aspects are weak arguments. I can’t see any true benefit to rerolling other than as a way to sort people between whales and non-whales. It’s a manipulative process that lacks any kind of interesting challenge or gameplay.
In entertainment, there is a term called eudaimonic appreciation which means the things that you learn, the lessons you take away from the experience, and the meaningful knowledge you can extract and apply to your own life. For a game like Dark Souls the eudaimonic appreciation is obvious: you learn to persevere and stay calm in the face of overwhelming odds. But a maliciously monetized mobile games does not provide any kind of eudaimonic appreciation. This is the divide that causes mobile games to feel like shallow casual games.
It’s truly a pity, because Fire Emblem is the perfect kind of game for mobile devices. If Final Fantasy games can be ported, then the early Fire Emblems should be able to be ported too. But Fire Emblem Heroes takes the brand name and twists it into a shallow gacha game with only a fraction of the series’s trademark tactical gameplay.