“It was my birthday and I had to have Elza.”
This middle-aged, married man, going by Nothing024 on Reddit, missed out on his first chance to get the limited-time promotional crossover character in Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, and only had two weeks to try to get her again. A patch had increased the chances he’d pull rare characters like her, but nowhere did it say that Elza was a 1-in-400 pull, with each try costing about $2.50. He eventually got her, though — one character in a game with a cast of hundreds.
“I charged $1500 that day to get her,” he wrote.
It’s easy to get hooked on Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. It’s a traditional Japanese role-playing game split into episodes, with new ones released roughly once a month, and streamlined for mobile play. Brave Exvius’ main selling point is its huge crossover melting pot of characters from almost every Final Fantasy game, and from many other Square Enix titles. In the game, these characters appear as “visions” of “legendary warriors given life.” When publisher Square Enix and global developer Gumi released Brave Exvius outside Japan in June 2016, it featured characters such as Cecil and Rydia of Final Fantasy 4; now it also features characters like Noctis of Final Fantasy 15, a game newer than Brave Exvius itself.
The mix of quick play sessions and Final Fantasy nostalgia has worked for Gumi and Square Enix. So much so, in fact, that Square Enix highlighted Brave Exvius and a similar mobile game, Kingdom Hearts Union X, as profit leaders in its 2017 earnings report.
What the report doesn’t mention is what makes these games so profitable: The main way of improving your collection is by taking pulls on a slot machine. It’s what many call a gacha game, after Japanese gachapon toy-vending machines. Instead of having characters join the party during the story like they might in a traditional role-playing game, the player buys loot box-like crystals that each contain a single random character in a “summon” tab. Making progress in the game earns a trickle of free Lapis gems, the currency used to buy summons, but the amount pales in comparison to buying Lapis with real money.
That leaves players feeling underfunded, as most pulls only have a 3 percent chance to get the rarest and best rank, a “rainbow” five-star character. And that rate was all rumor and supposition until a patch in late January 2018, when Gumi added the exact chances to pull a four- or five-star character, shortly after Apple announced plans to require posted drop rates for in-game purchases in iOS games. The change didn’t just affect Brave Exvius; gacha games often use low drop rates and limited-time promotions to encourage players to pull and pull and pull to get the latest new addition. And many of these games encourage players to repeatedly pay large amounts.
The human cost of this was well-illustrated on the Brave Exvius subreddit in particular when Nothing024 posted his story last December, about racking up debt in excess of $15,000 and almost ruining his marriage. It was met with a groundswell of support from the community, as well as several other posters sharing their own cautionary tales.
For this article, Nothing024 and several others with similar experiences spoke with Polygon about their time with Brave Exvius. Crasher is an IT technician. Carlos (not his real name) is also an IT tech. Shane is a truck driver. Each of them is protective of their privacy; although they confirmed their identities and the details of their stories, they spoke on the condition that we keep many personally identifying details secret. It can be hard to publicly admit that you have a problem with something as relatively frivolous as a cellphone spinoff game, they say.
[A rep for Square Enix did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.]
A whale is born
Nothing024 describes himself as a “whale.” The term originally comes from traditional casino gambling, but that’s not where he learned it. He’s only gambled in a casino a few times, never spending more than $100. A whale is a big spender in free-to-play video game lingo, too.
He didn’t know anything about that when he found Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. He was initially attracted to the Final Fantasy name: “It was a fresh take on an old classic, my favorite series of all time,” he said in the Reddit thread. Unlike older games, it fit into his life as a family man: “It didn’t require a console or a TV, just a few minutes to play a couple of dungeon runs or a quick exploration.”
Although he was initially attracted by the limited time investment, Nothing024’s fixation on Brave Exvius started taking a toll on his relationship with his family. “[They] kept asking me, what am I tapping on my phone all the time? Why am I always looking at my screen?” he said on Reddit. Despite this growing obsession, he played it without paying, just as he had with other free-to-play mobile games like Candy Crush.
“There was no one I knew spending on it,” he tells Polygon.
That changed when Nothing024 found r/FFBraveExvius on Reddit, after getting stuck on a limited-time event. He points to that as the start of his problems: “Seeing other people talk about spending, it felt more acceptable,” he says. “That was a big mistake.”
Opening the wallet
In Brave Exvius, as in most gacha games, new characters are released as “banners.” A banner promotion features three to six units, which are almost always better than previous units. The banner’s limited run is the best time to get them: Summoning during its two-week period — “pulling on a banner” — makes that pull relatively more likely to be one of the promoted characters. An estimated one pull in three will land one of them — a fact that still isn’t explained anywhere in the game, even after the January patch that added the rates for each rarity.
While players get a trickle of resources to make free pulls, it’s often not enough to get all — or any — of the units on a banner before it ends. The lure to buy more to get the newest and best is always there. Shane describes the constant temptation: “It’s so easy to spend it when you have the money,” he says. “You are able to just press a button and presto, you have a bunch more pulls you can do.”
Carlos describes how spending can creep up on you. “The first time always seems to give you something really good — at least in my case,” he says. “This initially gets me interested in [keeping] playing the game. In the beginning, I would maybe use $10 [...] and didn’t go over that. It was when there was an ‘event’ that I told myself I really wanted something.”
The event that snared Nothing024 for the first time was a November 2016 banner featuring the main characters of Final Fantasy 3 for Nintendo DS, including Luneth and Refia. More than a year later, Nothing024 still recalled them as “the best DPS and the best Healer available at the time” on Reddit, echoing the banner’s advertisement copy.
He had to have them, particularly Luneth, the five-star unit of the banner. About 30 pulls with gems and tickets he earned from playing Brave Exvius weren’t enough: All he got was “trolled by a rainbow Edge,” he said on Reddit. Early on in the game’s life, a pull could appear to be high-rank, but turn out to be a low-ranked character; in this case, Nothing024 was set on tilt when a rainbow summon turned out to be Edge from Final Fantasy 4, a common, weak character. “I was enraged, insenced [sic], insistent that I get Luneth. I put in my card number into my digital wallet and upped myself $99 of Lapis,” he said on Reddit. That was enough for roughly 40 pulls; still not enough. “So I put in another $99 and pulled and pulled and I got Luneth!” He didn’t know it at the time, but that was lucky. User polls on the subreddit estimated Luneth’s drop rate at about 1 in 200 pulls.
Nothing024 rationalized the impulse purchases. “It was only $200. I can spare that. I haven’t bought a video game in 6 years. I deserve it, I earned it,” he said on Reddit.
Sliding down the chute
Only a few weeks later, however, he was back at it. Gilgamesh from Final Fantasy 5, known as “Greg” among Brave Exvius fans, headlined the banner, and Nothing024 had to pull Gilgamesh in order to get a Genji Glove. He used up his remaining resources pulling, then again considered spending real money, since “it was only $200 to get Luneth,” he said on Reddit. He recalled his obsession:
I put in my money again, $99....no Greg, $99....no Greg, $99....no Greg.... I took a break for a little bit. My family had plans for the day. I was angry now. How could I have spent $300 and not gotten what I wanted? When nobody was looking, around everyone, I did it again. $99....no Greg, $99...no Greg, $99...no Greg, $99... Finally. I had Gilgamesh. [...] Yeah, I spent $700, but I would stop now. I had enough.
He didn’t stop. Even now, as he thinks about it, he says, “I don’t know why I couldn’t stick to that resolve.” Three weeks later, when Noctis from Final Fantasy 15 was released, “I got greedy. I pulled again ... another $300.”
A month and a half later, a collaboration banner broke his resolve again. Collaboration banners, common to many gacha games, are crossover promotions. In Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, they’re usually characters from other Square Enix games, even far-flung ones like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft or the cast of Nier: Automata. Sometimes the crossovers go even farther afield, like Ariana Grande’s guest appearance to promote her Dangerous Woman tour. No matter the source, these crossover characters — and other promotional characters, like holiday-themed units — are only available for the banner’s two-week run.
This particular collaboration had Nothing024 excited: “Secret of Mana! The Secret of Mana was, hands down, one of the best games to ever come out for the SNES,” he said on Reddit. All three main characters were on the banner, but he “had to have” Randi, the main protagonist and rarest of the three. He remembered, “I could afford it to have a piece of my childhood back, no matter what the cost. It cost me about $400.”
It was at that point that Nothing024 realized he had a problem. “I had spent nearly $1700 on this game now, I couldn’t spend any more,” he said. He had a plan to get the spending under control — “I unlinked the credit card and got back to my senses” — but couldn’t abandon his sunk costs. “I could keep playing my game. [...] I was determined to get the most out of [Randi], no matter what. It was my hard earned money.”
He didn’t have it under control. Four months later, he spent $1,500 chasing Elza, a collaboration character from Brave Frontier, an older game by Gumi. That banner was a “split” banner — it had two five-star characters — so his odds of pulling her were 1 in 400, despite the removal of “troll” rainbows. A month and a half later, he was pulling another split banner. While he pulled and pulled, netting more than a dozen other five-star characters, he spent $2,500 before he got the one he wanted: Veritas of the Dark, Brave Exvius’ mysterious antagonist.
Overspending on collaboration and split banners was a common story, due to the limited availability and lower drop rates for their characters. The first time Carlos spent more than he wanted to was during a collaboration event, and he recalls them as “when the pendulum started moving the other way” for him, he tells Polygon. Crasher overspent on the same Brave Frontier banner, as well as a later Nier: Automata split banner: “Both times left me feeling depressed at not getting what I wanted,” he says.
By this point, Nothing024 wasn’t even pretending he wasn’t going to pay for more pulls, even though he was still hiding the thousands he’d spent from his family. He followed the money he spent trying to get Veritas of the Dark with “another $1000 just to keep me going with energy [refills],” he wrote on Reddit. He spent $400 here on Nyx, the protagonist of Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15, $500 there for Rubicante, a Final Fantasy 4 boss.
It came to a head for Nothing024 last December. There was a Black Friday sale on Lapis, and the five-star pull rate had just been increased from 1 percent to 3 percent. But most exciting for Nothing024 was that the Cloud banner was coming soon. As he put it on Reddit, “Cloud is iconic! Cloud is the heart of Final Fantasy!”
Until Cloud, Final Fantasy 7 was noticeably absent from Brave Exvius. Square Enix gave Cloud’s release a promotional push with his own trailer. It even broke out of the relatively insular mobile gacha ghetto into mainstream game news.
Most banners focus on a particular game. If you pull on the Final Fantasy 4 banner, you might be chasing Dark Knight Cecil, but you have a chance of pulling Rosa or Edge as a consolation prize. Cloud’s banner was unusual: Except for Cloud himself, even on-banner pulls were disappointing nobodies created specifically for Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. Since he was splitting the five-star spot with a filler character, Cloud was just as rare as Luneth had been despite the “3x Rainbow Summon Rate Increase,” according to the subreddit’s estimates.
Between the sale, the rainbow rate increase, and the impending release of Cloud, Nothing024 “went all in,” he wrote on Reddit, making one of his biggest single spends yet in preparation: $3,000. (Lapis is cheaper when bought in bulk, which also prevents players from easily figuring out the real-money cost of each pull.) Again, he attempted to make sense of his spending: “I have my zero interest card at $11K, but I am paying it. I have a way of making it look like I am paying off an old debt to cover if my wife asks where the money went.”
The first step to recovery
Nothing024 wouldn’t get a chance to use that Lapis. After his wife asked to use his credit card, he finally broke down: “I confessed to having a balance of $5600 on my card due to Final Fantasy,” he wrote on Reddit, part of debt totaling $15,800. “I flushed $16,000 down the toilet over a game.” That’s just what was outstanding at the time; he estimates his full spending on Brave Exvius exceeded that, although he isn’t certain by how much.
That’s when Nothing024 first posted his story on the Brave Exvius subreddit, and it quickly spread across Reddit, then across the internet. The players speaking for this article all seemed affected by his story, each acknowledging that they had a similar problem. All of them spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on gacha games, in many cases more than they wanted to think about or more than they could afford.
Crasher tells Polygon, “I do think I have a problem. I think it’s a weakness every human can have if they are in a position I am in.” He says he’s deeply ashamed, though “no one but myself knows how much I have spent. [...] I really hope that it never comes out that they know. It will be embarrassing.”
Even so, he still plays, but says he has things in hand. “I think I have learned enough not to go too far in the deep end,” he says. He has a strategy for how to spend money: “Control your whaling pulls for when it matters as opposed to doing it on every banner. Saving resources is key.”
When Carlos thinks about his spending on gacha games, he cringes. “Honestly, I don’t know how I even got up to $20K in debt,” he says. He plans to tell his wife about his spending very soon: “I don’t want to destroy my family over my addiction.” He hopes she’ll be able to help him consolidate his debts and limit his access to the family’s credit cards.
Carlos isn’t shy about calling his problem a gambling addiction: “Looking back at it now, I don’t know how I didn’t realize it was gambling,” he says. “It came up to a point where I didn’t see purchasing the $80-$100 [of] in-game currency as actual money.” In hindsight, Carlos says he wishes he had known what he was getting into: “If I realized it was gambling from the start, I wouldn’t have spent a dime. I know I have an addictive personality.” He is outspoken in his opinion that games like Brave Exvius are gambling: “I understand that it may not fit the legal definition of ‘gambling’, but the motivation of people spending money and effects they can cause are similar to loot boxes. [...] People need to stop being hung up [on] the term ‘gambling’ for loot boxes and look more towards the effects.”
Even so, Carlos too still plays Brave Exvius about two to three hours a day, although he doesn’t buy Lapis anymore. He says that when the temptation to spend creeps up, “I look at my $20K debt, give myself a panic attack, then tell myself it’s not worth it.”
Shane, who estimates his spending on gacha games to be around $10,000 or more, also keeps his spending to himself. “None of my friends know about it,” he says. “And I’d rather not really go into it with them.”
He is normally frugal, and can’t explain why spending on Brave Exvius is different. “Why is it so easy for me to drop $500 on a banner, but when it comes to a whole new console so I can play [Monster Hunter], a game I love, then it becomes such a problem? [...] I’ve been wanting to buy myself a new trumpet since I had my old one stolen, but hey I have stupid pixels to buy,” he says. Shane, too, still plays Exvius. “I’m trying to have self control, which isn’t very easy. [...] I’m going to do my best to no longer spend on the game,” he says.
Nothing024 is frank about where things went wrong. “Pulling is a strong addiction,” he wrote on Reddit. “I became a gambling addict over a game where there is no return, no reward, for spending my money.” Above all, he says he regrets hiding everything from his family. “If you think you have a problem, open up to your loved ones as soon as you can. Hiding it from them will cause them to no longer trust you. If they find out by catching you, it will hurt more to them than the money.”
When we last speak with Nothing024, he says he hopes his story will leave an impact on game developers. “I would hope that the creators of these games will see the players as more than [wallets],” he says. “Safeguards such as spending limits that can be set by the user would help, but an upper limit, or a point at which the randomness is eliminated would help people refrain from losing control.”
In the meantime, he’s taking things one day at a time. One of his last posts in the subreddit is in the weekly banner thread for Cloud:
“I didn’t pull... Yay?”