Mario Kart Tour. It’s the talk of town across the world but especially in high school classrooms; it’s nigh impossible to talk to someone without at inkling of what it’s about. On its surface, Mario Kart Tour a pretty neat game: the controls are simple but tight if you can put in the practice, nearly everyone with a phone and stable WiFi connection can play it, and even if you’re bad, you’ll still be able to have fun and compares scores and characters with your friends. However, underneath its friendly exterior lies the crux of why it’s so successful and also horrifying: the gacha system.
“Gacha” is a term that specifically relates to a loot crate type mechanic in a game. However, for a gacha game, the entire game must be centered around the gacha/loot crate mechanic because success for a gacha game is nothing but dollars. Thus, to entice players to spend, gacha games will design mechanics to support this gacha structure: they’ll be free to play, the best characters/skins/etc. will be attainable by free-to-play players but much more available to big spenders, the most desirable and valuable items will always be the rarest, and there is always a limited edition item whose rate to get will be temporarily be higher. In turn, all of these features make it so that as soon as free-to-play players hit a wall in their progression, either they want a specific character or want to fulfill a certain goal, they’ll spend. However, gacha games need one specific type of player though: the “whales”. The ones who will drop entire college funds to get their favorite character. In order to capture these whales, the gacha game must not give enough to the free-to-play player to keep the whales satisfied with their purchase and continue playing. This preference is usually demonstrated by low rates of getting the premium currency and premium features that greatly aid whales.
In Mario Kart Tour, one can find all of these features in abundance. The flow of rubies is high initially, but quickly drops off over time. Specific drivers, karts, and gliders are “recommended”, i.e. given more items and bonus points, for each individual level, and all of the high-end items (including drivers, karts, and gliders) come out to a 6% probability. Of course, one’s probability increases and comes 100% if they use 100 pipes, but that comes out to 450 gems at the least, coming out to nearly five $50 of in-game currency. Mario Kart Tour’s most devious feature is it’s gold pass: for the low price of $4.99 a month you can get yourself around $20 of premium currency, “free” items, and even an extra mode — the ultra fast 200cc. And if you’re a free-to-play player, good luck getting those high-end characters or getting enough points on the later levels, you’ll need the items especially suited for that level to get the highest chance. But those items are usually the high-end items, and to get those you can grind — you can get 5 rubies bi-daily, the most consistent method of getting rubies for free, or just save up 12000 coins, although you can only get 300 coins per day from races. Ultimately, once you’ve completed all the tracks, there’s nothing left for you to do except compete with other players to get a higher score. But yet again, to compete with the best players, you’ll need to either grind or spend.
Most people will grind. Some will spend a couple dollars lying around, maybe they had a leftover iTunes or Google Play gift card burning a hole in their pocket, but once that’s moneys gone, they too will grind. Finally, the whales will spend as they want, but even despite their spending, they too must grind: they have to finish the same levels as everyone else and play their best in order to out-compete those who’ve spent less money but much more time refining their karting technique. But the point of the matter is, no matter how much you spend or play, you must grind and the grind never ends. There will always be another glider, kart, and limited-edition swimsuit Mario left to acquire and another tour to finish. So what’s the point, if you can never get everything, at least, not for long and never taste victory, if never for more than a few fleeting days?
Indeed, what’s the point? The game will tell you to get a high-score on each track, but the game is ultimately a vessel for Nintendo’s paycheck. But the for the players, the highest scores only last as long as the tours, two weeks, and the best characters will be out-placed by newer, likely more appealing characters. While they last, those scores don’t necessarily mean anything either, they’re fine as bragging rights but no-ones getting accepted into college based on their Mario Kart Tour score (at least for now). And even if you move past those scores and you genuinely enjoy the characters you have, the game servers could always be taken offline and all your progress, your characters, your scores, your achievements, will cease to be. So again, what’s the point?
Ultimately, there isn’t any inherent meaning or point for the player. Just like in our real life, nothing in the game inherently matters. That being said, like existentialists would say, that doesn’t mean that there’s meaning to be found in the life or game. Just because your high score doesn’t last doesn’t mean it’s without meaning: you worked for it after all. Ultimately, the game has meaning insofar as you give it meaning. I believe that this self-created meaning is fine, as long as you know what you’re getting in for. Since if you don’t and play the game according to Nintendo’s terms, then you’ll still find enjoyment, but are still confined in the soul-crushingly monetary system that Nintendo have created.
So how do you going about giving the game meaning? I believe that the answer to this question lies best in the story of Pokémon Go. For those uninitiated, Pokémon Go was a phenomenon when it come out. People were spending their entire afternoons, weekends, etc. catching virtual Pokémon. People were playing so much and so devotedly that they broke laws and found a dead body. After the initial rush, most people had quit the game, but even now, the most devoted still play the game, maybe alone or maybe with a group of like-minded players, and enjoy themselves.
Ultimately, I believe that from an existentialist point-of-view, both sets of players, the launch players and the current players, both have found their rock. The launch players played enough to find enjoyment by having fun with their friends, strangers, and Pokémon, and when they no longer enjoyed it, stopped. They were happy, and their happiness came solely from their own toil. For those devoted enough to play to this very day, they too are happy. They’ve played the game through the thick and thin, and have likely created their own schedule and checklist for their game. But everything they’ve done, from catching, battling, to walking and driving to special location, have been of their own accord. They’ve derived meaning from their self-imposed routine and must be satisfied with their efforts, since why would they still be playing if they still enjoy it.
Back to Mario Kart Tour. Eventually, I predict that around 95% of the player base will die out. After this launch period, most people will either get fed up or bored with the system. A minority will keep on playing, and a smaller minority will continue to spend big. However, this prediction isn’t to say that anyone who quits or stays is wasting their time, but rather the opposite: they’ve spent their time meaningfully. When they played, they likely played due to other people playing, after all, no-one wants to be left out. But from their efforts, they’ve been able to stand a common ground with many people united by Mario Kart. In essence, through Mario Kart, they’ve been able to bond and connect with people. However, even if they haven’t, they’ve still staved away their boredom for another few days.
Ultimately, there is no deeper meaning to Mario Kart Tour. But just because there’s no inherent point to it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun playing it by yourself or with friends. In the end, we’ll all be dead, our accomplishments will be forgotten, and our name will never be spoken again. Thus, there’s no reason why Mario Kart Tour is any less meaningful than anything else we do. So if you like Mario Kart Tour, then keep playing it, spend money on it if you’d like. If you’ve never played before, either out of rebellion or ignorance, then try it out, it might be fun. But whatever you do, enjoy yourself. Or don’t, just act as you please.