Before I knew it, I was $130 poorer.

I approached the free-to-play game “Genshin Impact” with trepidation (as I mentioned in my initial impressions of the game). As a former smoker and drinker (and a current gamer), I’m no stranger to imprudent spending. But then, the game swept me off my feet with its windswept, breezy orchestrated score, deep role-playing mechanics and surprisingly well-written characters with compelling arcs.

While “Genshin Impact” by developer miHoYo is taking the gaming world by storm (in part thanks to PC and console releases), it’s worth stressing again that although the game is free, there are many insidious ways the game tries to nab your real-world cash. It’s a mobile-first game in the “gacha” genre, which is essentially gambling real-world cash in a casino where the house always wins, no matter how bottomless your luck.

Here’s how it works: You punch in your credit card to buy the game’s fantasy currency. The game offers three “banners” to try your luck, each with its own set of detailed chances for various items. In “Genshin Impact,” the main draw is to win characters. Once you decide to spend, the game will “open” a wish with either a weapon inside, or if you’re lucky, a four-star or five-star character. The game also offers “pity rolls,” where if you roll too many times without a good pull, the game will randomly select a good reward for you. More often than not, it won’t be what you wanted.

Case in point: Pat Boivin is a Twitch streamer and longtime gaming personality, as well as a new fan of the game who’s decided to regularly stream it to his 84,000 followers on his channel Pat Stares At. In an Oct. 2 stream, Boivin decided to spend $100 of his own money, as well as $40 of donations from his subscribers, to gamble and roll for new characters.

He ended up getting a lot of characters he didn’t want, duplicates of ones he already had, and more than a hundred weapons that will end up being recycled for materials and trash. It didn’t feel good. One of his viewers, a user named Mortal Man Baby, wondered if Boivin was scaring people away from trying the game.

“If there are people that see this monetization explained in depth and get scared away from it, that’s fine,” Boivin said on stream. “I don’t care if this game is successful. I’m having a blast with it, genuinely. I also realize that some of you may be susceptible to gambling problems. And if I continue to play this on stream without a proper warning, that means I am enticing you to engage in your gambling problem.”

The game is already a resounding success. Analytics firm App Annie said the game saw 17 million downloads in its first four days of release. This doesn’t include the number of downloads on PC and PlayStation 4, the two ports that brought global attention to this game.

It’s because “Genshin Impact” is unlike any mobile game before it. The trick is to create a compelling universe in which players invest their time, and hopefully money. It worked on me, like a spell.

It happened when I finally met Venti, a whimsical, happy-go-lucky boy bard. His character design seemed cool enough. All the characters are exceptionally designed, a combination of gorgeous anime people and Chinese-inspired outfits and accessories. But Venti’s backstory, in particular, was so compelling that I needed him in my party. No spoilers here, but anyone who’s played through this knows that there’s more to him than meets the eye, and that he becomes the driving narrative force of the game’s opening chapters.

Yet he’s not available as a playable character. Not for free, at least. There’s a “50 percent” increased chance to “win” him if I gamble my real world money. The pull was irresistible, despite all my caution. It’s a huge credit to the game’s writing staff’s talent that they’re able to flesh out such believable and likable characters.

I broke out the credit card and punched in my digits to buy “Genesis Crystals,” so I can convert them into “Primogems,” which I then convert to either an “Acquainted Fate” or “Intertwined Fate,” so I can finally “make a wish” for a new character to join my team. Which doesn’t happen most of the time. That makes three different types of fake, magical currencies to track and convert, all stemmed from the invisible money available on my credit card. There’s already so much jargon behind our finances. Video games seemed determined to make them even more confusing.

About $90 into my spending spree, I finally landed Venti. It was a huge sigh of relief, after spending the last three minutes groaning and slapping my head. You can easily spend $90 in “Genshin Impact” very quickly, and have very little, if anything, to show for it.

As a developer in China, miHoYo is legally bound to reveal the chances for its gambling mechanic, unlike in the West. All the details are available in selectable fine print in the “Wish” menu of the game. It’s worth reading it all before you engage. These disclosures show just how miserable the drop rates can be. That “50 percent chance increase” for Venti? It’s worded in confusing language to think those chances to win Venti are greatly increased, but they’re actually a small percentage increase for Venti within the already-tiny chance to win a five-star character or weapon.

This gambling mechanic and confusing jargon is far from unique to “Genshin Impact” or even gacha games. Loot boxes and gambling mechanics are the subject of legislative action in Europe and Asia. Activision Blizzard’s popular “Overwatch” is probably the most mainstream Western example of implementing gambling into the game. And yes, Activision and “Overwatch” defenders will say that its “just cosmetic,” but it’s a fact that cosmetics can enhance a player’s experience, depending on what they’re looking for. Even if it’s just an alternate look for Mercy, “Overwatch” puts a lot of work into alternate costumes to make them enticing.

I also want to stress that I call it “gambling” in writing because that’s what it is. Outside of referring to them directly, I’d rather not use industry-made terms like “wishes” or “star crates,” all created to obfuscate and blunt the language. Gacha games and loot boxes are gambling, with nothing of hard monetary value coming in return to the player.

To test the gambling rates further, I spent $30 on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which doesn’t have cross-save support with the PC and mobile profile. But as I was doing this, I rolled and landed Diluc, the handsome, fire-headed winemaker who’s not just ridiculously strong, but charismatic. He was the other character I wanted, and here he was, on my PlayStation 4, where I’m not investing my time.

I now have my ideal team, but split across two different platforms. If I were a richer, weaker man, I would spend more money on either one, in the hopes of getting Venti on PlayStation 4, or Diluc again on PC. That’s how strong the pull is.

I won’t, and I’m publishing this article to keep myself accountable. But I’m also writing this in the same spirit of Boivin: Yes, “Genshin Impact” is free and popular and alluring. But you should really take into account how well you know yourself, your spending habits, and the kinds of things that motivate you to spend money.

While free-to-play games like “Fortnite” barely bother with a story, miHoYo has crafted an epic that promises to span across seven different nations inside the game. “Genshin Impact” currently features two wildly different regions, each featuring their own monsters, musical themes, cities, culture and quests. The investment into its world is massive, and it’s hard not to get lost in it, especially if you enjoy third-person adventures.

I’m more than happy to invest in good writing. And that led me to gamble. If that same trick might work on you, and you can’t afford to engage, stay away from these games.

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