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Genshin Impact, Honkai: Star Rail, and all the other gacha games out there can be huge sinks for your hard-earned money, if you let them. They bait you into an ecosystem that might as well be a slot machine, dangling all those powerful new characters and items in front of you – ‘come,’ they say, ‘try your luck and this beautiful anime girl can be your new companion, but you only have three days to get her and of course the odds are low, so better be quick!’

If you have the sort of addictive personality to fall for stuff like this, better stay away. Personally, I’ve always been rather resistant to those methods. It’s just a game, after all, and it’s perfectly possible to enjoy titles like Genshin Impact completely for free. That was my mindset for a long time. Honestly, though, I’ve put so many hours into the game and enjoyed it so much, at some point it felt like theft not to pay for it. I know the whales are technically paying for everyone else in this kind of game. But how much money can you realistically put into a single title without getting everything it has to offer? How can games like this sustain themselves on what a minuscule share of the player base is paying?

The recent review period for Honkai: Star Rail, which launched on April 26, 2023, was the perfect stage for an experiment to answer that question and become a mobile game whale for a bit. HoYoverse graciously provided the press with a test account loaded with in-game currency, which was supposed to give us access to more characters so we could experience the combat system in all its variety. I did not get to keep this account or transfer anything from it, to be clear.

I had 100,000 Stellar Jade to play with, which is the in-game currency you need to buy gacha tickets. 160 Stellar Jade is enough to purchase one Star Rail Pass or Star Rail Special Pass, which is one entry for the gacha machine (the Warp). You get them through playing or by exchanging Oneiric Shards for them at a 1:1 ratio. These Shards, in turn, can be purchased with real money. Had I bought 100,000 Oneiric Shards to convert them all into Stellar Jade it would have cost well above $1,500 – for 625 Warps in total. That’s a whole lot of money, but also a whole lot of pulls from the gacha.

So, I converted that Stellar Jade into Passes and just started pulling – again and again. I swear, I sat there for half an hour just triggering this Warp animation, which is designed to make you feel happy and suspenseful at the same time, have you sit on the edge of your seat in anticipation of what you pulled. I didn’t watch the animation much, of course. I’d seen it during the final beta. It’s a nice animation.

I sat there, staring at the screen, thinking about what whales – or gamblers in general – get out of this. Sure, it’s nice getting that super-colorful and special animation for a 5-Star pull. Yes, it’s awesome to see your inventory fill up with so much stuff you hardly know what to do with. And the game did feel noticeably different from when I played like a true free-to-play player in the final closed beta thanks to having more options and more power. Maybe it was because I knew I’d never get to keep all this or because I didn’t earn the currency myself or because I just don’t enjoy gambling in general, but it didn’t make me happy or feel satisfied, that’s for sure. I just sat there, clicking a button again and again, checking the clock and thinking I should get back to actually playing. I had a review and guides to write, after all.

What did I get out of this, then? First, the conclusion that I – fortunately – don’t have the kind of personality to easily be sucked into spending my money on stuff I really don’t need.

Second, I got ten 5-Star items from those 625 pulls (duplicates generate secondary currencies, which in turn can be converted into more tickets, so I had a few more pulls in total), which is slightly above the minimum I should have gotten (there are some guarantees in place for pulling 5-Star stuff after certain amounts of pulls without getting any). Nine of those were characters – Seele four times, Himeko three times, Bronya and Clara once – and one a Light Cone. I got the full Eidolon levels for three 4-Star characters, which means I pulled them at least seven times each. I put about a third of the pulls into the standard banner and the rest into the time-limited banner.

Honkai: Star Rail character overview.

I was missing five characters despite having over 600 Warps at my disposal.

Overall, I got 16 out of 21 available characters in version 1.0 (dividing my pulls the other way around might have helped the variety, especially as you get to choose a 5-Star character from the standard banner after 300 pulls from there). Despite beating the odds a little bit, I still didn’t even have all of the characters, which brings us to the third conclusion – the answer to “how much money can you realistically put into a single title without getting everything it has to offer?”

A ton, it turns out. I’m no longer questioning the effectiveness of this business model – those whales really put in the work to make brilliant games like Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail free for the rest of us, and the odds sure aren’t in their favor even in HoYoverse’s comparably fair gacha model.

I’ll still buy a battle pass or whatever from time to time, simply to show my appreciation for the awesome work the developers are doing. I’d have to subscribe to play a MMO, right? Paying for something you’re enjoying of your own volition is never wrong, so I’m not judging those who do love to sit there for half an hour watching blinking lights and feeling satisfied by what their money bought them (that what it’s for, after all) – just be careful, spend responsibly, and if you know you’re easily influenced, stay away entirely.