Zhang Lingfan really loves NetEase’s turn-based role-playing mobile title Onmyoji. He loves it so much he’s spent 4,000 hours on it over four years. He loves it so much he placed 175th among the 1.5 million daily active users (in Chinese) in a September 2017 competition. He loves it so much he pays for other people, and computers, to play it for him.

But as Zhang advanced further into the late game, he got frustrated. To get to the top of games like Oymyoji, you have to spend lots of time and lots of money. First, you have to buy “shikigami”—characters that fight for your side. Shikigami come in loot boxes, a sort of raffle that may or may not give you the character you want. Then, to help your characters become stronger, you need to “grind,” performing repetitive tasks to earn powerful equipment. You can pay for perks that make the process faster, but there’s no way around it. 

While these features were previously limited only PC and console titles, the development of smartphone graphics has brought them to mobile. Among the 10 highest-grossing mobile titles in China for the first half of 2019 compiled by game researcher Gama Data, contains different levels of grind or loot boxing, players told TechNode.

So Zhang was interested when he heard about a shortcut from top-ranking players in his online “guild.” Merchants on Taobao offer to cut out the busywork, selling computer scripts and human services that handle a game’s tedious tasks. Zhang estimated that the automated scripts and manual grinding services he purchased grinded for at least 6,000 hours while he was away from the game.

“When you see a combat animation for the first time, it could look super cool, but you will grow tired of it when you see it for the five thousandth time,” Zhang told TechNode. “I would rather pay others to finish these monotonous tasks and play the content that I find interesting.”

“You usually find your own time more valuable,” Zhang added.

Players with demands like Zhang have driven the creation of a services marketplace on Chinese e-commerce sites. Search for any popular game with grinding, and you’ll find hundreds of stores offering shortcuts to get around it. 

Analysts warn that such services threaten the profits of gaming companies, offering players a backdoor around monetization features like loot boxes. But players seem to agree that these services have helped them get started in new titles or stay invested in old ones. Despite using these tools, Zhang is still spending in-game, more than RMB 10,000 (about $1,400) over his career with it.

Paying to save the trouble

For mobile games, grinding could take forms other than staying online and doing the same quest over and over again. Many titles have mechanics that encourage users to play several times a day—stamina bars that deplete as users play and take time to refill—or playing every day. In Bilibili’s turn-based role-playing game (RPG) “Fate/Grand Order,” for instance, players need to complete daily quests, which could easily take up to two hours, for more than 20 consecutive days to receive rewards for most exclusive events, Gabriel Liu, an analyst at gaming company FunPlus told TechNode.

“If you play casually, you have to have a very peaceful mindset.”

In comparison, mobile title loot boxes are relatively uniform. Although they don’t always appear in the form of boxes, these virtual bags generally charge players real money for a lottery draw for in-game avatars, cosmetics, gears, and other items of different rarity. Most games also offer new players free draws as welcoming gifts and login rewards for loyal users. In addition to loot boxes, some games also provide the option of purchasing stamina with tokens bought with real money.

Despite their prevalence among Chinese mobile games, however, grinding and in-game spending are rarely compulsory, with most titles being free-to-play. But according to veteran players, without some level of drudgery and expense, users could find it very difficult to enjoy games with these two features.

“If you play casually [without grinding or putting money into games], you have to have a very peaceful mindset,” joked Zhang, the Onmyoji player. “You have to accept that you will be weaker than most people and can’t get the same rewards for participating in the same events.”

If players can’t stomach that, they will have to grind or spend money to become stronger, and sometimes, they have to do both. Zhang said that many Onmyoji players that he knows spend thousands of yuan on stamina and loot boxes just to grind more effectively and for more extended periods.

An ample supply

“Countermeasures” for grinding and in-game monetization features are easy to find on Chinese e-commerce platforms such as Alibaba’s Tmall and Taobao. A search of “FGO daigan,” which is the shorthand for the “grinding service for Fate/Grand Order,” on Taobao reveals hundreds of stores, three of which have more than 10,000 transactions per month.

A Tmall store named “Zhuifeng online game specialty store,” for instance, has sold more than RMB 500,000 worth of grinding services in December as of Dec. 17. The service ranges from helping customers to progress in the game’s main storyline, gain more in-game characters, level up characters, and grind for resources or special items.

Screenshot of the product description of a top-selling grinding service for ‘Fate/Grand Order’ on Taobao. (Image Credit: TechNode)

In its description, the store also promises immediate service, pure manual grind (often considered the best option to avoid getting banned), as well as compensation if customers’ accounts get banned during the process.

For players who wish to reduce spending or have a smooth start to a game, stores on Taobao also have solutions. Many stores sell “stone accounts:” relatively cheap, mass-produced accounts that have accumulated a certain number of tokens that can only be purchased with money—usually through login rewards or daily reward missions over long periods—allowing users to open loot boxes or purchase other items. Other sellers skip the step of letting users draw the lottery and directly sell accounts with rare characters or gears, which are usually priced higher.

These types of accounts exist for most popular games centered around collecting and upgrading characters, such as Fate/Grand Order, tower defense RPG “Arknights,” and action RPG “Hongkai Impact 3rd.” A search for “Arknights initial accounts” on Taobao reveals dozens of items with 5,000 reviews, which can only be left once a transaction is completed. The best selling item, priced at RMB 3.8 per account, has more than 237,000 reviews.

According to the seller, all accounts come with a certain amount of in-game currency, real-money tokens, rare characters, and vouchers for loot boxes. The store also assured customers that the accounts are registered with defunct phone numbers so no one will recover them, but users can still change their passwords using emails provided by the seller.

The store selling the item, “Honest taotao mobile games,” includes a banner announcement stating it is actively purchasing high-quality accounts and looking for partner studios that can supply these them in large batches.

A “necessity” with limited impact on revenue

The damage caused by grinding services, especially those done with automated scripts, and “stone accounts” is apparent. On the players’ side, these services could quickly enlarge the gap between players, especially those who haven’t purchased them or haven’t poured money into the game, as well as pose account security risks, Liu Jiehao, an analyst at research firm iiMedia, told TechNode.

“We simply can’t afford loot boxing.”

For game publishers, they could lower the demand for in-game spending, which would directly affect the profitability and lifespan of titles, Liu added. These risks prompted game publishers such as NetEase and Bilibili to punish users with suspicious in-game activities. In July, Bilibili froze the account of more than 70,000 Fate/Grand Order users for suspected use of grinding scripts.

However, despite being prohibited or discouraged, demand for grinding services and “stone accounts” have remained stable in recent years, primarily due to Chinese players’ general acceptance of them in mobile games, analysts told TechNode.

Some players have gone beyond acceptance, saying saving time or getting started in a game for a nominal fee is almost a necessity. “When you reach the level I have in Onmyoji, playing the game without grinding services will most likely be very painful, since you can barely make any progress even after a week of grind,” said Zhang, the Onmyoji player. “I’d have given up the game if I did all the grinding myself.”

Gabriel Liu, the FunPlus analyst and Fate/Grand Order player, agreed, saying that he bought a “stone account” when he started playing the title in 2017 and would be even more inclined to do so if he were to start now. “We simply can’t afford loot boxing in this game,” he said. “You might spend RMB 500 just to open four loot boxes using regular means, but on Taobao, you could open 100 of them for just RMB 5.”

Although the sales of stone accounts will lead to less spending, the damage is likely to be minimal, since players will still spend in the game, said Liao Xuhua, an analyst with researcher Analysys. “Games with stone accounts are generally those where character growth takes a long time and compared to the resources the process requires, those offered by stone accounts are insignificant,” he told TechNode.

Similarly, the impact of manual grinding services could also be minimal, since it is essentially account sharing, Gabriel Liu told TechNode.

However, as game publishers create more casual titles, hoaxes that feature excessive grinding and the market for grinding services could go downhill, analysts said. “The ideal situation—though it is a little exaggerated—is having users play for five minutes a day and still spend money,” said Liu.

Tony Xu

Tony Xu is Shanghai-based tech reporter. Connect with him via e-mail: tony.xu@technode.com

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