Genshin Impact (2020)

Genshin Impact has had a great global launch – indeed, I struggled to come up with some good comps on Sensor Tower as it has really stormed out of the gates. In terms of launch revenue, I actually couldn’t recall a better game than Pokemon Go. See below launch-aligned revenue graph:

If we just look at China, where it’s easier to compare apples-apples (at least for iOS only, since Sensor Tower doesn’t track China Android), we have an early 3-way tie across AFK Arena, Brawl Stars and Genshin Impact – as some of the best launches of 2020:

As a side note – AFK Arena’s $60M launch month on iOS in China (in January before Chinese New Year), is the best new mobile game domestic launch this year as far as I can tell. (The usual caveats about lack of China Android estimates apply…)

But, Genshin is not just a mobile game – in China, it launched on PC first on Sep 15, a full two weeks of early access. I still find this an unusual choice – the most affluent, hardcore gamers rushed in on day 11, but the negative reviews came in almost instantly. Snobby PC/console gamers mocked the game’s lack of polish and lower graphics fidelity compared to premium AAA titles; whereas mobile gamers looking for a progression head-start via PC immediately raged at the poor gacha loot table. They didn’t hold back their emotions on Taptap:

The poor reviews didn’t seem to impact sales much (and the Taptap crowd is hard to please). It’s also interesting to contrast this reception with the western audience reception – there seems to be a lot of voices expressing surprise that the game offers so much content and is free.

In any case – it’s very early days yet as we are barely two weeks into the official launch, but all things considered it’s a great start for Genshin Impact. It will be fascinating to see how the game trends over the next few months.

Core gameplay

The game is quite well-reviewed on Metacritic (though a small sample size), and deservedly so. The scope of the open world, the combat system, and the character roster (and their visual presentation) are impressive.

The game is most fun (I’m currently Adventure Rank 27) when you are doing the dependable open-world loop: you start out with a particular objective (maybe a quest, or just a point-of-interest you spotted in the horizon), and along the way you get side-tracked by numerous side content. There is a lot of side content: collectibles, side quests / daily missions, environmental puzzles, loot chests that respawn periodically… You get the picture.

Genshin Impact certainly takes a lot of inspiration from Zelda: Breath of the Wild‘s open-world formula, but ventures far enough to end up in its own place. The biggest departure is combat: Genshin referenced the elemental interactions from BOTW, and converted it into a catchy combo system that still feels intuitive enough. It can get repetitive, but it’s still satisfying to set up an explosive fire-lightning combo (for example), and there are hints in the equipment system (I haven’t gotten far enough yet) of intriguing build possibilities.

Personally, I’m not too concerned with the graphics fidelity on PC – I’ll always take smooth frame-rate over graphics quality, and this is where Genshin does not fully deliver. On mobile, I can’t run reliably run 60fps on an iPhone XS Max (even when I toggle everything down); and the game’s min-spec on iOS is iPhone 8 Plus, which suggests dev challenges with performance optimization (in comparison – PUBG Mobile‘s min-spec is iPhone 6s).

I do want to talk a bit about gameplay feel and polish, where Genshin is behind its PC/console peers in some areas. As a player, I found myself often wrestling with the game’s character, camera and controls (the “3Cs”), on mobile (more egregious) as well as on PC. Some examples of jank:

  • Ranged aiming feels finicky in general, even on PC with mouse; sensitivity settings are too coarse in my opinion. And for mobile / PS4 there should have been some aim-assist support (even if they can be turned off).
  • The camera has janky movement at times – as a tiny example, when you fall and roll forward, the camera takes too long to recover from facing downwards, and requires a manual adjustment2.
  • Some characters have attacks that dash through the enemy, which would require you to rotate the camera 180 degrees to see the enemy again. This is in my opinion dangerous design space for a 3rd-person mobile game with virtual joysticks.
  • Similarly, the Traveler’s ability that creates a giant rock is also dangerous design space in combat: this is a climbable rock that can cause unintended player interactions; and it often displaces enemies to the top of the rock, where they don’t seem to know how to get down (and thus severely disrupting combat pacing). The fact that the ability is aim-able is also stress-inducing on mobile.
  • Enemies who are displaced from the combat area (for example, falling off a cliff) get reset (with full health), which is often frustrating.

I’ve also found the game’s boss fights tend to have more jank and annoyances. For example, the first major boss fight below:

There’s a bunch of things here that irritated me (and yes, my skills are probably below-average…):

  • The level requirement stated upfront was a bit of a misdirection, as you are given a trial character with their own level, and the whole fight is primarily designed for that character.
  • Unskippable cut-scenes, which is a pretty big no-no if players have a chance of having to replay this fight several times (which I did…).
  • The flight combat sequence starting around 1:30 has readability issues, with the backdrop that is quite static and the boss always center-screen – the first 2 times I played this fight, I didn’t understand I could actually fly towards the pick-ups (I tried maneuvering and felt I couldn’t change direction).
  • The final phase has a custom camera angle (side-scrolling), which is a bit jarring as most of the game you are not driving your character’s movement primarily with left/right input. Combined with the ledges, this created a level where I fell off quite a few times – while not lethal, it was very annoying for combat pacing.

Over time, the player learns to work around these problems, but there’s clearly a gap in terms of the developer’s capabilities, sensibilities, and/or priorities – these are the 20% issues that can take 80% of the time to solve to get that AAA polish.

Progression and monetization

When it comes to progression and monetization, Genshin at a high level shares a lot of the generic Chinese mobile RPG template (of which AFK Arena, mentioned earlier, is the current best-in-class example).

The basic formula of such games is a deep progression system (with layer upon layer of different stats to chase), with stringent upgrade gates interlaced with periods of relatively smooth leveling. The stringent upgrade gates provide heavy incentive to do the daily/weekly grind for resources (certain key resources can only be farmed on specific days of week). And the sheer amount of dimensions to progress (amount of characters + depth of each character) converts into aggressive monetization design, where ultimately cash can be turned into characters (through gacha), upgrade resources (directly purchased), stamina for grinding resources and so on.

This is the rinse-and-repeat formula that hundreds of Chinese games have used – Soul Hunters, Naruto, Honkai Impact 3rd, Onmyoji, Arknights, AFK Arena, to name just a few of the biggest over the past decade.

The marriage of such a formula to the open-world gameplay in Genshin is at first jarring – the early leveling experience of a player who immediately spends several hundred dollars on gacha is going to be very different (and arguably for the worse – as all sense of early pacing is out the window) from a non-spender. I know such a gamer – he is trained to plunking down a few “648”s (by convention the most expensive SKU in the cash shop, roughly $100) any time he starts a Chinese mobile game – and were it not for social peer pressure, he would have churned several times by now (despite spending almost $1k already…).

After 20 hours in, when I’ve largely picked up the various complex systems and are somewhat invested in some characters, the disconnect starts to go away. It becomes very clear that access to a lot of fun gameplay is gated behind monetization – the 5-star characters that everyone is enamored with are not going to come easily (and even if you unlocked them – you need so many duplicate copies to fully level up their powers). You can still have a good time – but you will be missing out on a lot of gameplay possibilities.

Regardless of whether you monetize or not (or how much), the grind is still somewhat egalitarian3. That’s the other funny part of this RPG formula – it demands both money and time.

Usability pains

One part I’d like to complain loudly about is the game’s UI/UX and usability issues – not only because I suffered lots of irritations here, but also I feel there’s a hard-to-measure (but perhaps material) impact on the game’s engagement. Genshin is already overloaded with design complexity (as is typical with Chinese RPGs), and the usability issues amplify the cognitive load.

I already discussed some issues in the gameplay section above, but here are a couple of examples specifically about the UI. This part of the discussion is quite tactical.

First, I found it baffling that the map and quests UI were not integrated. They are activated via separate buttons on HUD, and don’t link to each other.

On the world map, you actually can’t see available quests (with the exception of the 4 daily quests). You have to “track” a quest in the Quests UI for it show up in the map. This would be much less of a problem if the Quests UI were available as a pop-up / side-bar in the Map UI. But currently, you have to jump back and forth across 3 UI screens to complete a simple action of “select a quest and find nearest teleport point”.

The Map UI is also lacking functionality in some other basic areas. For instance, you can place custom nodes on the map to keep track of points-of-interest (players use it to tally the important collectibles, for example). But you can’t “navigate” to a custom node, which feels like a pretty useful interaction.

For an open-world game, the Map feature should be something that really emphasizes ease of use – help you make decisions about what to do next, and get out of the way as fast as possible, so you stay immersed in the world. But in Genshin it currently is subpar compared to most contemporary open-world games (e.g. Ghost of Tsushima for a very recent example). I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so confused at the map feature of a game in this genre.

The second UI issue I’d like to talk about is the various screens related to character and team management – I did a quick navigation flow to help illustrate my point:

Broadly speaking there are 2 distinct needs: roster selection and character management (leveling, gear management, skills upgrades etc.). So having separate menu entry points for “Team setup” vs “Character” does make sense, even though they could be combined in an alternative flow. But I find the “Characters” vs. “Character” flows puzzling – they are largely made up of same/similar screens (just with reversed navigation), but there are some weird UI inconsistencies:

  • The ordering of characters is inexplicably different – in “Characters”, sorted by level by default; while in “Character”, the active roster is shown first, then the rest by levels.
  • The “Characters” screen and the “Character selection” pop-up also make for an interesting comparison: these two screens have largely the same layout and high level purpose (view list of characters, select one to navigate to), but have numerous small UI differences (list of 4 in a row vs 3 in a row; blank space vs. right bar of character details; “X” vs “back” navigation buttons…).

I might sound nitpicky here, but these small inconsistencies add up to unnecessary cognitive load (forcing the player to actively think), which begs the question of why do these 2 largely redundant flows exist?

To me, this is a reflection of lack of holistic game polish, and perhaps related to the production culture, which I’ll do some extrapolation and speculation below.

Closing thoughts

I wrote a post last year “Assessing China’s game development capabilities.” I think Genshin Impact is a continuation of the trends I discussed there, but it should also be proudly celebrated by Chinese developers as a product breakthrough in original IP on the global stage.

It succeeds in part due to its sheer audacity in vision and content scope – original IP, open-world, cross-platform (with mobile as the core), and years of live-ops content runway. miHoYo is well positioned to tackle this, having honed its IP creation skills in the Honkai franchise, and with good access to China’s “industrial scale” mobile production capabilities.

I do think it’s a “quantity over quality” approach, as I feel the game clearly prioritized volume of content (and future expansibility) over polishing details. But again, this is the proven formula for Chinese devs – getting the fundamentals barely good enough, then production scaling like crazy. Whereas western devs tend to be wary of the content treadmill (e.g. WoW’s expansion cycles), Chinese devs seem unfazed about embracing it. They don’t enjoy it – but they are more willing to grind it, and for the successful games, the economics seem to pay out well. While we don’t know for sure currently, I expect Genshin to have a stream of major updates planned already (the next one is probably close to completion by now), and the update cadence may again surprise the global audience4.

(UPDATE: the update schedule was actually announced, and it looks like initial reactions from the hardcore community globally was disappointed. See this reddit thread.)

Where Chinese devs should/need to grow further, in my opinion, is the discipline, thoughtfulness, (and frankly) prioritization of better UX5. This is not easy to do – in my personal experience, I’ve found Chinese devs’ strong production-scaling tendencies and general haste to be big barriers for holistic game polish. But as the market, and gamers, get more demanding, I expect higher emphasis here in future, which may force shifts in development models.

Before I forget, a couple of things to highlight that are part of the game’s breakthrough:

  • First is localization: I played the English version for a while before switching back to Chinese, and I thought the English localization had very high production quality, made by a veteran team of writers and VO cast.
  • Second is the music: I love it. It’s clear no expense was spared in music production, and the soundtrack is lovely. However, sometimes the music transition triggers seem a bit ungraceful (again, perhaps one of these polish cases).

At a macro level, I think it’s safe to speculate that Chinese devs are going to have even bigger ambitions post-Genshin, despite significant external headwinds (China-domestic regulations, state of economy, global geopolitics). The NA/EU market is the last frontier geographically. It will also be interesting to contrast East/West approaches to cross-platform: Chinese devs will be grounded in mobile-first (otherwise they leave a lot of money on the table with the China-domestic market), whereas western devs will tend to prioritize PC/console à la Fortnite.

  1. As a sign of Chinese gamers’ constant vying for status (which is a huge part of their motivation for gaming), gamers actually complained loudly that miHoYo opened the servers a couple of hours ahead of schedule – they felt betrayed about missing out on snatching a sexy low-digit UID.
  2. I don’t remember specifically, but this was probably one of the ear flicks that caused me to give up on using a controller on PC.
  3. If you spend for stamina, you earn the privilege to grind more.
  4. While simultaneously being criticized by Chinese players for being too little too slow – such is the diminishing returns.
  5. by UX I’d like to refer to this particular framework here.