- Arknights has reinvented the tower defense genre on mobile by adding several layers of gameplay and strategy, including character collection, RPG progression, idle base-building, and more. It towers over its competition in terms of both aggregate revenues and revenue per download.
- The game is affiliated with the “Anime, Comics, and Games” (ACG) subculture in China, and many of its key stakeholders have previously built games of that nature. This ACG alignment permeates every aspect of the game, from its art style and customization options to its expansive web of fan creations and player tools.
- Though gacha drives much of Arknights’ revenue, it is viewed as one of the most player-friendly gacha titles on the market. Many of its supporting systems reinforce regular, habitual engagement with the gacha features and character collection metagame.
- Arknights’ cosmetic economy, idle base-building system, and live-ops all support the ever-expanding narrative and reinforce players’ investment in the characters and story – a feat that is hard to replicate on mobile, where narrative and lore are often disregarded.
Arknights is a free-to-play, hero collector, tower defense, role-playing game developed by HyperGryph and published by Yostar Games. The setting is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world, and players take on the role of the amnesiac “Doctor” and lead heroes (“Operators”) from a disaster management organization called Rhodes Island.
The game features an intricate combination of tactical tower defense battles, gacha-driven hero collection, idle base-building, and cosmetic customization, all wrapped in an anime art style and an ever-expanding narrative.
Having initially been launched in China in May 2019, the game was released to a global audience in January 2020 and has grown into a formidable powerhouse ever since, racking up over $678M in revenue across just 17M downloads, according to data.ai. No other title in the mobile tower defense genre even comes close to enjoying the level of success that Arknights does:
It’s hard to overstate the dominance that Arknights asserts in the tower defense category. Since its launch in mid-2019, it has managed to capture a staggering percentage of the genre’s revenues. One could argue that the game essentially reinvented the genre: prior to its launch, total revenues earned by all games in the “Tower Defense - RPG” genre (as defined by data.ai) were less than $2M per month. During Arknights’ launch month, that figure jumped to nearly ~$38M, with Arknights representing more than 95% of the total.
That success has continued to this day. Despite being live since 2019, Arknights achieved its highest revenue day on record just a few months ago. On August 11th, 2022, the title pulled in nearly $5M from China alone in a single day. The game also draws meaningful revenue contributions from such distinct markets as Japan (roughly equivalent to mainland China in share of revenue), United States, and South Korea.
Clearly, Arknights has dominated the competition in the “Tower Defense - RPG” genre. However, it’s also worth examining the more mass-market “Tower Defense - Strategy” genre — home to breakout games like Rush Royale and Plants vs. Zombies — for additional points of comparison in an adjacent space.
While it’s not uncommon for a China-first game to trade low downloads for higher revenue per download (RPD), the extent to which this has benefitted Arknights when compared to the competition is noteworthy. Arknights cannot boast the broad reach or lifetime download numbers of Rush Royale (37M LTD) or Plants vs. Zombies 2 (448M LTD), but it outshines all rivals with its monetization, bringing in a whopping $40 per download – nearly 4x its closest competitor.
On its way to establishing this formidable position, Arknights has bucked several trends and managed to carve out its own path. For one, the game has infused a breath of fresh air into what had previously been a stale tower defense concept by introducing a heavy dose of RPG progression, classes, and character collection. It would not be an overstatement to say that Arknights has revived tower defense.
Rather than taking the standard approach of upgrading towers with resources earned through defending, Arknights instead asks players to strategically deploy Operators across the levels using Deployment Points (DP) that slowly regenerate as the battles progress. Players can also activate special abilities for each Operator, requiring deft timing and a thorough understanding of each Operator’s kit. Level design adds a further strategic element, with environmental hazards and interactive map tiles rewarding players who know how best to utilize them and frustrating those that do not. You can get a quick overview of the basic gameplay in this video.
In a further move to contradict mobile gaming conventions, the game has leaned heavily into its expansive narrative, whereas traditionally most F2P mobile titles eschew long, drawn-out stories for quick-hitting action. Through its Story mode, Arknights drips out its unfolding narrative using an episodic format, keeping players engaged and pushing forward to learn what happens next in the story.
While it can be difficult to quantify the KPI impact of investing in a game’s narrative, we have some evidence from the world of puzzle games that challenges this notion. In an interview with the Elite Game Developers podcast, Caroline Krenzer (co-founder & CEO of Trailmix Games, makers of Love & Pies) attributed an update to Love & Pies’ narrative to a 10% increase in retention. Our friends at data.ai and Deconstructor of Fun also noted in a recent report that investing in narrative was a key driver behind the success of Metacore’s Merge Mansion this past year.
What do lessons from casual puzzle games have to do with Arknights’ success in the tower defense genre? As it turns out, more than one might think! Arknights takes several design cues from the mobile puzzle genre: from its saga-style campaign map and measured introduction of new in-match mechanics to its reliance on strategy and tactical thinking. We’ll explore this connection in greater detail later in this deconstruct, but for now it would be helpful to view Arknights’ success through this lens when trying to make sense of the developer’s various strategic choices.
Even beyond the comparisons to narrative-driven puzzle games, one can easily see the qualitative effects that the story and characters have had across Arknights’ player community. Fans of the game have produced their own fanfiction, fan art, and explainer guides for new players seeking to delve deeper into the lore. This fan engagement has even extended beyond the narrative and aesthetic of the game into other areas, such as the production of intricate strategy guides, wikis, gacha simulators, base-building guides, and much more.
This sprawling web of player creations is not only indicative of the game’s tremendous popularity among its fans but also speaks to the gameplay depth available to those in search of it. Furthermore, the sheer volume of user-created tools and guides available allows new players to ramp up quickly on what is a meaningful step-up in complexity from the standard tower defense game.
Of course, the game is not without its shortcomings. Arknights leaves much to be desired in terms of social features, for example. Tower defense is largely PvE, and while Arknights has made meaningful strides in expanding and redefining the genre, it has not been able to incorporate cooperative gameplay, clans/guilds, chat, or any other sort of needle-moving social features.
Furthermore, Arknights remains a phenomenon largely limited to Asia. Though the game has achieved outsized success beyond the Chinese mainland in places like Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, it has yet to meaningfully penetrate the West. Over the last 52 weeks, Arknights has never drawn more than 18% of its weekly revenue from any country outside of Asia.
Nevertheless, Arknights has clearly outgrown its tower defense roots and reached a broader audience. Its ability to draw inspiration from tower defense games, character collector RPGs, idle games, anime, gacha games, and puzzle games has led to a unique, genre-dominant title that has proven to be a sustainable revenue engine for developer HyperGryph. Additionally, Arknights’ player-friendly take on gacha monetization and live-ops has helped it to establish and maintain an active, devoted fanbase.
How has Arknights been able to accomplish all of this, and what can we learn from its success?
In this deconstruct, we’ll explore these questions and more, including:
- How did the experience of HyperGryph’s founder influence the development of Arknights?
- What differentiates Arknights from other tower defense games?
- What makes Arknights’ monetization so player-friendly?
- How does Arknights’ live-ops create such eye-popping success so long after launch?
Let’s dive in.
Setting the Stage: The Rise of ACG
Arknights is the first and only live title from Shanghai-based developer HyperGryph. Founded in 2017, HyperGryph is one of several up-and-coming Chinese developers seeking to challenge Tencent in its home market. Some of the company’s peers include Lilith Games (AFK Arena), Nikki Inc./Paper Games (Shining Nikki), and HoYoverse (Genshin Impact), the latter of which was at one time a nearby neighbor of HyperGryph.
Interestingly, all three of those studios have risen to prominence by tapping into the large “ACG” subculture in China and beyond. This can clearly be seen in how all three studios’ flagship titles draw a majority of their revenues from China, Japan, South Korea, and (surprisingly!) the United States.
In order to properly understand the context in which HyperGryph and Arknights are operating, it is worth taking a few moments to unpack this further.
Short for “Animation, Comics, and Games,” ACG is a massive industry that also spans the fields of apparel, toys, merchandise, publishing, and more. Market research firm iResearchChina expects the number of “pan-ACG users” to exceed 500M in China alone by 2023, and it credits this growth in part to “the publishing of excellent ACG mobile games such as Arknights and Genshin Impact.” The same report estimates that ACG games account for 10% of the entire gaming market.
Our friends at data.ai have also explored this intersection of anime and games in their State of Anime Gaming 2022 report, which notes that $1 out of every $5 spent through mobile app stores in 2021 went to anime games. The report also shows the anime games market size increasing year-over-year across downloads, consumer spend, and hours played. This can be seen in the chart below, which shows worldwide data, but the same up-and-to-the-right trend holds true specifically for the United States and United Kingdom, indicating that this is not a phenomenon exclusive to China or even Asia more broadly.
The data clearly shows that this is a large and growing audience of gamers. What’s not obvious, however, is that there is more to the ACG subculture than just the anime aesthetic. Beyond the obvious visual style, ACG can be characterized by a few key tenets:
- Centrality of Narrative
- Affinity for Collaboration
- Outsized Monetization Potential
Centrality of Narrative
Narrative plays a key role in ACG gaming and the subculture more broadly. Many ACG games draw from source material (e.g., comics, animated TV shows, webtoons, etc.) that already have existing episodic narratives, established characters, and recurring themes to fall back on. If a game like Arknights with no pre-existing IP was to neglect developing its story and building up its characters in a similar manner, it would struggle to connect with the audience and likely appear to be inauthentic.
Arknights unfolds its in-game narrative and builds its lore in a variety of ways (many of which we’ll cover below), but it has also expanded beyond the confines of mobile gaming into other forms of media. Arknights has released an animated series, a comic anthology, merchandise, and more.
By focusing so intently on story and world-building, ACG IPs are able to build loyal audiences. If handled well, this lends itself towards stronger long-term retention and fan engagement. In the world of ACG, this engagement frequently takes the form of user-generated content (UGC).
The ACG subculture is known for its dedicated community of artists, writers, cosplayers, and content creators. These superfans frequently leverage their favorite IPs to come up with their own fanfiction, fan art, and other creations. Arknights is no exception, having generated its own fair share of derivative works.
This is a critical aspect of the ACG subculture to keep in mind throughout this essay: while Arknights’ central narrative and world-building are left up to HyperGryph, players want and expect to insert themselves into the world they’re delving into.
Affinity for Collaboration
ACG properties also make for natural collaboration partners via in-game crossover events. Traditionally, this has occurred within the anime gaming realm: ACG-first games doing crossover events with other ACG-first IPs. This naturally aligns with the subculture’s aforementioned proclivity towards UGC. However, this has rapidly expanded to include all sorts of non-endemic brand and IP collaborations.
Given ACG’s desirability and highly regionalized nature, anime collaborations are often viewed as a sort of “East-meets-West” partnership. Western brands get access to a young, highly engaged audience in Asia, while ACG IPs get exposure to Western audiences through association with an established brand. This is far from being the only reason, though. In fact, Western gaming companies are increasingly flipping the script and turning to anime IPs in order to drive engagement, viral growth, and monetization, particularly in regions like China and Japan that can be hard to penetrate via traditional means of distribution and user acquisition. Examples abound here, including heavy hitters like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Dead by Daylight all executing anime crossovers. Even blockchain gaming is getting in on the action, with Limit Break’s DigiDaigaku collection leaning heavily into the anime aesthetic and preparing to unleash it on the West via its forthcoming Super Bowl ad.
Anime crossovers have been a popular tactic even beyond gaming for some time now. Fashion brands have increasingly partnered with anime IPs in an effort to connect with younger audiences. Examples here include Jordan and Naruto, Dolce & Gabbana and Jujutsu Kaisen, Gucci and One Piece, and Bape and Pokémon, among others. This makes even more sense when you consider that ACG games like Arknights and Shining Nikki have meaningful cosmetic economies and “dress up” gameplay features.
Arknights specifically has run a number of collaborations of its own. Examples of more traditional crossovers include partnerships with The Nine-Colored Deer (a classic Chinese animated film from 1981) and The Legend of Luo Xiaohei (a Chinese animated series, initially launched in 2011 as a flash animation). However, the game has also expanded beyond traditional ACG tie-ins and done collabs with brands like KFC, Rainbow Six Siege, and Monster Hunter.
Outsized Monetization Potential
As with many aspects of the games industry, all of this ultimately comes down to monetization. Many of the factors detailed in the previous sections (long-term retention, high player engagement, transmedia extensions, brand collaborations, etc.) either lend themselves to or inherently create a high monetization potential for ACG properties.
Furthermore, some inherent structural differences signal greater revenue upside. For one, ACG’s concentration in China and other Asian markets tells us that the audience is primarily mobile-first, indicating a greater alignment with free-to-play business models (and their greater spend depth).
Asian gamers have also historically been much more receptive toward gacha and other randomized mechanics when compared to the general mobile gamer population. While utilizing gacha in and of itself doesn’t guarantee success, when implemented effectively, these features can be strong revenue drivers for developers.
Additionally, gacha systems have the added benefit of stretching out game content over a longer period. This makes the dreaded “content treadmill” of mobile F2P development much more bearable for game operators. Combine that with the overall lower cost of development for the 2D assets primarily required of ACG games (as opposed to those for 3D titles), and what results is an operating environment with extreme upside for high-performing gaming businesses.
Projects operating in the ACG space can also seek to diversify their revenue streams across multiple forms of media (comics, toys, games, etc.) without fear of being viewed as inauthentic. ACG fans expect a transmedia presence, which (for successful IPs with highly engaged fanbases) will inevitably be attained by way of content creators and UGC.
Arknights takes advantage of all these levers, as we’ve previously highlighted, and its RPD towers (pun intended!) above the rest. Yet, despite the strength of the ACG gaming audience, there is still meaningful untapped potential. In the aforementioned State of Anime Gaming 2022 report, data.ai notes that “global usage penetration was < 3%” for the most used anime game in 2021. Given the audience’s relative youth (data.ai notes that it skews heavily towards Gen Z) and increasing spending power, further growth in Western markets should be on the near horizon for the ACG industry. That said, whether the Asian audience’s high affinity for gacha-driven monetization would successfully migrate over to Western players is still up for debate. We assume that Western companies looking to build for a growing Western ACG audience will need to adapt various Asia-first monetization principles to unlock the same earnings potential.
While the ACG trends outlined above are becoming increasingly apparent on a global scale, they were much more localized to mainland China in the mid-2010s when the pieces for Arknights’ development were first falling into place. At the time, “the ACG genre represented faithful players and massive incomes. Developers wanted to explore the ACG market, distributors wanted to manage it, publishers wanted to monetize it, and countless investors wanted to put their capital into the ACG market.” (Source)
The founder of HyperGryph and main visionary behind Arknights, Hai Mao, comes from an art background and is himself a fan of ACG. He previously worked at Sunborn Network Technology (aka MICA Team) where he was part of the development team for Girls Frontline (GFL) — a similarly ACG-themed game (albeit more risqué than Arknights). It was during this time that Mao found some of his ideas to be at odds with the game’s direction, ultimately culminating in his departure from the company.
The story of GFL’s development and the spin-out of HyperGryph is complicated and fraught with conflicting interests (you can read a translated version of the GFL story here and find more details on HyperGryph’s relationship here). If Mao’s wiki on Arknights’ Fandom page is to be believed, his time at Sunborn was crucial to what would eventually become Arknights.
Some fans view Arknights as "what GFL could have been," and it would appear that Mao brought other GFL team members along with him to found Hypergryph. Even Mao’s own concept art for GFL found its way into Arknights, including concepts that would eventually become the protagonist “Doctor,” as well as the operators W and Kal’tsit.
Arknights’ publisher, Yostar, is similarly entangled in the complex web of relationships surrounding Sunborn/MICA Team and HyperGryph. Yostar’s founder, Yao Meng, himself played an integral role in GFL’s early development alongside MICA Team colleague Yuzhong. After the two had a falling out (you can read a full breakdown of the issues here), Meng left to form Yostar, which quickly found success developing its own ACG title called Azur Lane (a tactical RPG/2D Shooter).
Azur Lane was a breakout success for the company (11.9M LTD downloads, $521M LTD revenue), particularly in Japan, where it garnered more than half of its earnings (compared to just 16% from mainland China). This gave Yostar the global publishing and live-ops expertise it needed to operate a sustainable publishing business and propel the Chinese ACG genre beyond the country’s borders. Yostar would later go on to invest in HyperGryph and announce its intent to publish Arknights globally shortly after the game’s Chinese debut.
When Hypergryph needed a publisher for Arknights, Yostar was an obvious fit. Not only did the publisher have a proven track record at this point, but both companies’ founders had a shared working history on GFL and ideological alignment toward serving a specific audience.
For its part, Yostar also bought into the business opportunity available in the ACG subculture. According to its website, Yostar aspires to “become the premier anime internet game publishing company.” Its other titles — the aforementioned Azur Lane, Mahjong Soul (a Japanese mahjong game), and Nekoparaiten! (a rom-com adventure game based on the NEKOPARA anime) — are all strongly ACG-themed.
The company’s strategy is clearly proving to be successful. While not often mentioned in the same breath as its larger rivals, Yostar has established itself as a formidable gaming business in China. Over the last year, the company ranked at the top five in both total downloads and total revenue, right alongside such noteworthy competitors as Tencent, ByteDance, and NetEase.
Now that we’ve covered the key players behind Arknights and discussed the community that they come from, we can return to the game itself. It’s critical to understand this context, as the ACG subculture permeates throughout the game and guides much of its strategy.
Welcome to Planet Terra
All players start in the linear Story mode, where they are quickly introduced to the game’s battle system and central narrative through a series of tutorialized “operations.” Over the course of the first few operations, players learn about the planet Terra (where the game takes place) and the protagonist group Rhodes Island and its quest to stop the antagonist Reunion Movement. Players learn to configure their squads, upgrade their Operators, and balance different Operator types against the variety of enemies presented by each subsequent operation.
Like other games that feature this type of Story or Campaign mechanic, each level can be completed with 1-3 stars (determined by the number of enemies you let through your defenses). Missions can be “auto-played” upon a successful 3-star completion, allowing for easier resource farming in the late game. A further Challenge mode (where players can attempt previously 3-starred levels with additional enemy buffs, Operator debuffs, or other limitations) is also made available as the player progresses deeper into the game.
These operations are the core of Arknights’ gameplay. In many ways, operations are akin to the levels of a puzzle game. Like in many puzzle games, Arknights’ hundreds of operations are arranged sequentially across a saga-style map, with the occasional tutorial operation peppered in to introduce new mechanics. Further, each level can be beaten with the right combination of placement, timing, problem solving, and perhaps a bit of luck.
A typical operation starts at the Squad selection screen, where players choose which set of 12 Operators to bring into battle with them. Players can preselect multiple Squads for easy swapping and borrow additional Operators from other players via the “Friend Assist’ feature.
Once the operation begins, the player is presented with a tile-based map that dictates where certain Operators may or may not be deployed, what paths enemies will take, where those enemies will spawn, and which tile(s) must be defended from their onslaught. Players assemble their defense by strategically dragging and dropping Operators onto tiles within the level, at which point the Operators automatically attack any enemies that come within range.
Each Operator costs some number of Deployment Points (DP) to deploy, with DP regenerating steadily throughout the operation (with some exceptions). Once deployed, Operators generate Skill Points (SP) until they are able to deploy their special Skill, which may be manually or automatically triggered depending on the Operator. Skills cover all manner of different buffs, nerfs, and status effects and are typically complementary to their Operator’s Class*.
*We’ll go into greater detail on the Class system and how Operators work later in this essay.
Each operation requires that a given number of enemies be defeated in order to complete the level. Players may allow a small amount of enemies to slip through their defenses, but letting too many through will trigger a mission failure.
Every battle in Arknights requires Sanity, which limits the number of battles per session and thus controls the player’s pacing. The more difficult the battle, the greater the rewards and hence higher the Sanity cost to start the battle , all of which is standard to games that use energy systems of this sort.
What is different about Arknights’ approach is that the game returns Sanity to the player if they fail the battle: 100% on the first attempt and 95% for subsequent attempts. This ensures that when energy gets consumed within a session, the player is always rewarded and never feels like they were tricked into wasting energy on an unexpectedly tricky operation.
On the other hand, this limits the monetization potential of such an energy system, as developers would typically want to drive spend towards energy refill consumables. Arknights is able to mitigate this in the mid- to late-game by guiding players towards repeated resource farming of previously completed operations (which always consumes 100% Sanity), rather than frequent attempts at new levels. Arknights is further insulated from this risk by its heavy emphasis on gacha monetization.
Each successful level completion rewards the player with account EXP, increased Trust (a stat modifier) with the 12 Operators brought into battle, and a variety of consumable rewards. Like other games that take this campaign-style approach, certain rewards are only obtainable by beating their respective levels.
This pushes players to replay operations multiple times in order to get the resources they need, slowing their progression (as each attempt requires Sanity) and pushing them to re-engage with older content. This has the added benefit of limiting the costs of the content treadmill for HyperGryph, while potentially pushing monetization of Sanity refill consumables.
Maintaining Your Sanity
The game makes great use of the interplay between enemies and level designs to create unique, challenging skirmishes that require players to collect, assemble, and level up a large roster of Operators in order to progress. However, unlike puzzle games that typically pinch players when they run out of moves — offering additional moves for a cost — Arknights asks the player to start operations again from the beginning, allowing them to change their Operator lineup, alter their placement strategy, or vary their timing in the next round.
This has both advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, the game is intricate, layered, and presents a higher skill cap than other tower defense games. However, that comes at the cost of complexity and ambiguity for newer players: when an operation fails, it’s not always clear how the player should seek to improve. Can they simply perform better with the roster they have, or do they need to enter battle with a different team composition? Perhaps they just need better, stronger Operators?
To be transparent, I may be reflecting a Western bias in my perception of complexity for new players. This aligns with the early retention data, as players in China and Japan retain at much higher rates than their American counterparts. Regardless of location, however, Arknights boasts healthy D7/D1 and D30/D7 retention ratios, indicating that once players do get onboarded to the game, they are much more likely to stick around for the long-term.
Arknights seeks to overcome any potential confusion via UI cues, a healthy amount of system-specific tutorials, and player-friendly meta features. For example, players can preview an operation’s layout and enemy information before starting a new round. This helps them preserve Sanity (perhaps in more ways than one, as some levels can take several minutes to complete).
Each session feels satisfying by providing growth across the game’s various progress vectors, whether it's moving to the next operation in the main campaign or taking part in one of the many variations on the core gameplay. Much of the variety comes in the form of live-ops-driven events that introduce new enemies, Operators, and tilesets (something else we’ll touch on in a bit). However, there are also other permanent and semi-permanent game variants, such as Annihilation (where the player fights back endless waves of enemies), Integrated Strategies (a rogue-like branching path of several operations in a row), or the rotating schedule of Resource Missions (operations targeted at a specific currency; see table below).
All that said, Arknights unabashedly pushes players to grind old content and thereby drive character development/progression. Even though early sessions might feel very satisfying in terms of rewards gained, this is likely Arknights’ balancing strategy to get players hooked and invested so that the mid-to-late game grind is approached with strong internal motivation. But as players progress further in the mid-game, the character upgrade requirements work against the narrative content progression and associated rewards given out. This results in the game’s pace suddenly coming to a standstill. While grinding is not all bad (and is likely contributing to Arknights’ monster RPD), grinding in deep economies should both actively and passively drive an overall feeling of moving forward.
Operators are the atomic unit of Arknights: they act as the “towers” in the core tower defense gameplay while also driving the character collection metagame (in addition to being featured prominently in the narrative). At time of writing, Arknights has a total of 244 Operators available for players to collect, ranging in rarity from 1 to 6 stars. The more stars an Operator has, the higher its stat caps are and the less likely it is to drop from gachas.
Operators are further subdivided into several different classes, each with several variants, or “branches.” For example, the ranged Caster class has branches for individual attacks, area-of-effect attacks, chained attacks, splash damage, and so on.
Not only does the breadth and diversity of Operators allow for a deep and varied gameplay experience, but the game’s cleverly designed puzzles also necessitate effective utilization of each class and branch in order to progress the story and acquire items needed in other systems, such as Operator leveling and promotions, Skill leveling, or base building.
With that said, not every level will be intellectually satisfying to puzzle-oriented players. In practice, many operations rely on a specific dominant strategy to complete. This forces players into a curated experience where investment in certain Operators or classes is required to progress. These dominant strategies are widely available online.
Operators have numerous growth vectors available for players to invest in, such as gaining EXP to level up and increase stats, promotions to increase stat caps, and skill and talent upgrades. Operators can also be customized in a variety of outfits, adding an interesting cosmetic layer to the game economy.
Character cosmetics create additional spend depth for elder-game players who have already invested heavily in a certain set of Operators and may be less interested in spending on things like progression or power. Cosmetics also allow players to delve deeper into the world of Arknights: perhaps they want to explore the various Terran fashion brands and franchises (of which there are several, ranging from high fashion to streetwear to holiday gear and everything in-between), or maybe they simply want to find a cool outfit for their favorite “waifu” or “husbando”?
Whatever the case, Arknights’ cosmetic economy — despite being easy to overlook at the start — plays a crucial role in the product’s success. It increases spend depth (Operator outfits cost roughly $15 to $24 each), expands the game world, and provides additional content variety for live operators to leverage. We’ll explore the game’s monetization and Operator spend depth in greater detail in the coming sections.
Recruiting a Squad
To build out an epic roster of Operators capable of tackling even the toughest late-game operations, players must engage heavily with character collection gachas. In many ways, this is the true “game-within-the-game” for players who have made it past the earliest stages of install retention.
Players engage with the character collector gacha in two main ways: Headhunting and Recruiting.
- Headhunting is the standard gacha experience: players spend Orundum (a soft currency earned through engagement or converting hard currency) to pull one Operator from the available selection. Players also occasionally earn Headhunting Permits (vouchers for free pulls) via engagement or monetization. There is a standard rotating pool of Operators to pull from, with new pools appearing frequently as part of live-ops events. Some of these time-limited Operators can be exceedingly rare, which can drive a lot of VIP spend for players seeking to acquire and quickly level up a rare character.
- Recruitment is a free, time-restricted gacha pull, somewhat akin to the Treasure Chests in Clash Royale. Players are prompted to select one or more from a random set of tags specifying the type of Operator they are seeking to “recruit” (e.g., Vanguard, AoE, Melee, etc.). They may also select a wait time from one to nine hours, with longer intervals returning rarer Operators. This wait time can be skipped with the aptly named Expedited Plan consumable, available via Daily Mission or through the game’s Store.
Many of Arknights’ supporting systems and gacha-related features help to build and reinforce the ritual of playing the game (and engaging with the gacha) over the short- and long-term. For example, the time-bound nature of Recruitment pulls incentivizes the player to return to the game later on to see what Operators they’ve pulled. Completing Daily Assignments rewards players with Expedited Plan consumables (among other things), encouraging them to skip the wait altogether and get an extra pull. Even Headhunting Permit consumables can be acquired through the soft currency Store on a monthly basis.
Part of what makes Arknights’ gacha system so successful is the amount of strategy and planning that players can put into it even without spending. They can accumulate enough currency to participate in both the Headhunting and Recruitment gacha systems without making any IAPs, so long as they know which operations to farm and which daily/weekly missions to complete. In fact, many of the guides I read while researching Arknights recommended that players who want to spend money actually preserve their hard currency for cosmetic purchases rather than gacha, due to the relative ease with which gacha pulls can be obtained for free.
While this might seem like cause for concern from a monetization perspective, the sheer number of Operators to obtain combined with the multiple lengthy progression vectors available for each one means that even with a min/max approach to accumulating free gacha pulls, players would still need to spend to complete their goals for any particular Operator. This can require an even greater investment if the player is hoping to snag one of the rare six-star Operators from a non-recurring, time-limited Headhunting rotation.
Another means by which Arknights offers additional strategic depth can be found in the tag system in the Recruitment gacha. This feature allows players to influence the Operator drop rates in their favor, reducing the potential for a “bad draw” experience. This is somewhat akin to the “Ban Pick” or “Custom Box” gachas in games like PUBG Mobile or Free Fire, where players have the ability to remove certain items from the prize pool in order to increase the odds of receiving their desired rewards.
This characterization of Arknights as a player-friendly gacha game — strange though it may sound — is not found solely in our analysis here at Naavik. It is also reflected in other reports, such as this Polygon article titled “Arknights is the only gacha game I recommend to people.”
Not only are all gachas accessible without spend, but the rewards they dole out are not required to progress through the game. Arknights doesn’t sell power so much as it sells variety. None of the shiny new six-star Operators are required to complete any level, and in fact all levels can be beaten with the right combination of low-rarity Operators. Many of the user-created guides actually discourage players from pursuing high-rarity Operators, as they are much harder and costlier to max out (given the rarity at which they drop from gachas).
That’s not to say that deep-pocketed players can’t “whale out” on the gachas, though. Aside from simply chasing characters they like or fulfilling their completionist motivations, Arknights again sells these heavy spenders on variety. New Operators are often introduced for a limited time only and may not reappear again for months or years (if ever). Furthermore, five- and six-star Operators can be leveled up to unlock new Skills, changing the way the Operator is utilized in-game. The combination of FOMO and the need to acquire duplicates in order to max out a character can lead to large gacha-driven revenue spikes. For a quick point of reference, it could cost players ~$167 just to have a 50% chance of receiving a Limited Banner (time-limited Operator)*. After 500 pulls, or more than $1,650, players would have a ~75% chance of pulling that same Operator six times (enough to “Promote” it with permanent stat boosts, level cap increases, and new skills and talents).
*Assumes a cost of ~$3.33 per Headhunting pull during time-limited events. Note that when factoring in the aforementioned caveats about Orundum also being available via F2P engagement, the actual observed cost may be lower on a per-pull basis.
Mobile games tend not to receive much positive coverage by Western outlets, so when a gacha-driven game like Arknights starts to garner attention, it is often met with skepticism. To be sure, there are many valid criticisms of gacha monetization, but if other developers are looking to implement this type of system in a way that doesn’t simply put players’ fates (and bank accounts) at the mercy of a random number generator, Arknights presents a worthy model to draw inspiration from.
Originite, Orundum, and Other Offers
Arknights sells only two types of real-money IAPs: Originite Prime and Packs.
Originite Prime (sometimes also referred to as Originium) is Arknights’ primary hard currency. It can be bought in packs of varying sizes and has a base unit cost of 1 Originite Prime = ~$0.99 USD (though there are a variety of discounts and bonus currency options available, too). Interestingly though, very few items are actually priced in Originite Prime. All Headhunting gacha pulls, for example, are priced in Orundum — a gacha currency that players must convert to at a rate of 1 Originite Prime = 180 Orundum. For reference, the most valuable Headhunting pulls cost 600 Orundum per pull.
Beyond Originite Prime bundles, the only real-money purchase options available are “Packs.” These Packs come at a variety of price points and are targeted at different types of players based on where they are in their player lifecycle or what aspects of the game interest them most. For example, Arknights has a few different “Starter” Packs aimed at new players, as well as mid-priced Packs focused on Operator leveling (Starter Upgrade Pack, $9.99) or base customization (Starter Furniture Pack, $9.99). This allows players to dive deeper into the different parts of the game that interest them most, rather than trying to assemble Packs that appeal to everyone broadly.
Arknights also offers a Monthly Card that acts as a sort of engagement-driven subscription. For $4.99, players are given a lump sum of Originite Prime and granted the ability to earn a month’s worth of daily login rewards in Orundum and Emergency Sanity Boosters (energy refill consumables). Not only does this provide one of the best values in the game for highly engaged players, but it also drives recurring revenue and engagement for the developer.
Because Arknights only offers a small number of real-money purchases — and because Originite Prime is so readily converted into Orundum (gacha currency) — it makes sense that the Originite Prime hard currency bundles are the most purchased among players. Anything that is not a hard currency bundle must be a Pack, and this allows us to infer which premium items are resonating most with the playerbase.
When looking at both the Worldwide and Mainland China versions of Arknights, we see that six of the top nine or ten IAPs are Originite Prime bundles. Beyond that, the most popular Packs are the $0.99 Starter Pack, the aforementioned Monthly Card, two different versions of Headhunting Packs (Monthly, Starter), and a Weekly Growth pack (Worldwide version only).
The Starter Pack makes sense, given its low price and included unlock of a four-star Operator. The Monthly Card’s popularity tells us not only that players recognize its great value, but that Arknights has a strong base of monthly recurring revenue and engagement. Finally, the strength of the various Headhunting Packs (which contain multi-pull Headhunting Permit consumables) indicates the importance of gacha to both the players’ and developer’s bottom line.
Arknights makes use of several interesting techniques to drive new players to the Store and introduce them to the value they can obtain by interacting with the game’s various meta systems:
- Small increments of Originite Prime are dripped out to players through the main Story mode. Players earn 1 Originite Prime upon 3-star clearing each Story mission for the first time, and also for clearing any Challenge mode missions for the first time. They can even earn a one-time Originite Prime reward for watching Story interludes.
- A small number of Packs are level-gated and made available for free at every 5-level increment (e.g., Level 5, Level 10, Level 15, etc.) up to Level 40. These Enhancement Packs primarily contain consumables for leveling up Operators.
By giving out the game’s most valuable currency for interacting with narrative features, Arknights encourages players to stay engaged with the game’s most difficult-to-replicate feature and strongest competitive moat: its ever-expanding lore.
Of course, these hard currency drops slow down over time as the player progresses through the story. As such, these features alone are not enough to spur them to develop a daily ritual of interacting with the game’s monetization features. To overcome this, Arknights rewards daily visits to the Store with Credits — a soft currency that can be exchanged for a randomized selection of items, as well as a few Operators available exclusively through this system.
Credits may also be earned by decorating Dormitories or interacting with the Reception Room in the Base (an area of the game we’ll explore further in the next section). Importantly, Credits are capped, and any excess expires daily, encouraging players (particularly non-spenders) to repeatedly engage with the system in order to maximize value.
The Store also features a section devoted to Certificates, of which there are several varieties. These can be earned in several different ways that drive players back to the game’s core systems. For example, Commendation Certificates and Distinction Certificates are earned by pulling gachas, Intelligence Certificates can be won by engaging with Events, Shop Vouchers can be obtained from Daily and Weekly Assignments, and so forth. The items available for purchase with these different Certificates also rotate regularly, again encouraging players to interact with the Store frequently to see what’s on offer.
Setting Up Base Camp
The Rhodes Island Infrastructure Complex (RIIC), commonly known as “the Base,” represents one of the more unique elements that Arknights brings to the tower defense genre. In fact, it really has nothing to do with tower defense at all.
Early in the game, players unlock the ability to access the Base and build it out with a limited choice of rooms, such as Trading Posts, Factories, Power Plants, and others. Each room has its own unique purpose: some produce consumable items to level up Operators, others allow players to craft higher-value items, and still others connect to social features, gacha, or Skill mastery. Furthermore, every room can be staffed by one or more Operators, providing various bonuses to production based on the Operator(s) selected. Each Operator in turn is best suited for a specific task within the Base and will incur bonuses when properly matched with the right jobs.
All of this plays out via idle gameplay, allowing players to check in on the progress once in a while to collect their spoils without requiring much in the way of active management. This base-building mini-game acts as the mid-term bridge between the early retention loops of the core tower defense gameplay and the longer-term retention loops of acquiring and upgrading Operators.
It’s also worth mentioning that this system leans further into the narrative concept of a band of Operators working together. Just as each Operator can be assigned to work a shift at one of the Base’s many rooms, so too can they grow tired of working. Operators have a Morale level that must be monitored, as it will slowly decline while they are on shift until it is refreshed with a stint in one of the Dormitories. Of course, no self-respecting Operator wants to relax in an empty, dingy Dormitory. Fortunately, players have the ability to customize each Dormitory with Furniture items, increasing the room’s Ambiance and in turn more rapidly restoring the Morale of any Operators stationed there.
Here again is another example of Arknights turning to cosmetics as a means of leaning into the ACG community’s predisposition towards player-driven customization. As with the Operator outfits discussed earlier, the game’s Furniture items are also divided into numerous collections evoking a variety of styles, such as “Iberian Resort Town,” “Golden Game Room,” or “Express Chain Pizzeria,” among others. Additional furniture items are commonly introduced via live-ops.
Events & Live-Ops
Keeping in line with its aforementioned strategy of introducing variety to the game, HyperGryph has maintained a steady cadence of Events to keep the gameplay fresh, the narrative evolving, and of course, the revenue coming in. These time-limited Events can be broadly bucketed into Major Events and Minor Events.
- Major Events are the most robust releases on the game’s live-ops calendar. These introduce all new operations and stories to the game, alongside new tilesets, enemies, and gameplay mechanics. Because these events are so closely linked to the game’s central narrative, they are unlocked sequentially (just like the Story mode) and always receive a rerun for players who may miss it the first time around. These major events come in the form of either “Intermezzi” (events that feature plot points tied to the main narrative) or “Side Stories” (events that expand the world of Arknights, separate from the main theme).
- Minor Events — often referred to as “Vignettes”, “Story Collections”, or omnibus events — are different from Major Events in that they rely on recycled content rather than new releases. These, too, feature additional stories and interludes, though they are not sequential, rather allowing players to unlock them in any order. Minor Events are never rerun, though they are made available in the Record Restoration system.
While it’s clear from the visual above that live-ops events are driving revenue spikes, it’s worth mentioning that this trend appears to be holding steady over time. Even if we remove China and Japan (the clear #1 and #2 money-making regions, respectively) from the graph, we see that event-related spikes are consistently coming in between $1-$2.5M per week. This is indicative of healthy live-ops, a dedicated core fanbase, and consistently solid monetization.
There are also other event variations, such as Commemorative Events (done in celebration of new episodes in the Main Theme), Login Events (time-limited login calendars), holiday events, and so on. In addition to releasing new content (Operators, outfits, Event furniture, time-limited gachas, etc.), these events will sometimes unlock the rotating schedule for Supply Missions, allowing players to freely farm resources throughout the Event’s run.
Though the events are all time-limited, they contain a fair bit of additional narrative and world-building that occasional players might miss out on. As such, HyperGryph has included a feature called Record Restoration that allows players to revisit past events and earn some of the rewards they may have missed.
To get an idea of what a tentpole Major Event looks like in Arknights, let’s examine the approach HyperGryph took during one of the most important live-ops periods on the calendar for all Chinese game developers: Lunar New Year.
To get players excited for Lunar New Year 2022 (which fell on February 1st that year), Arknights kicked things off with a 10-day Login Event that began all the way back in December 2021. This was paired with a time-limited Headhunting rotation of six-star Operators featured throughout the prior year.
For big events like this, Arknights will often drop a 3D animated video trailer to get players excited. This is a slightly different approach from the game’s normal story drops, which adopt more of a 2D talking-heads-style of storytelling.
As the event progressed into January, the game introduced new storylines tied to the Lunar New Year, an event-specific game mode, time-limited IAP bundles, and event currencies paired with a new event-based shop. All of this resulted in a 20% increase in downloads and a near 400% increase in revenue compared to the game’s 14-day baseline (source).
Though this particular Lunar New Year event did not feature one, it is also common for Arknights to leverage these Major Events for brand collaborations. Collabs and crossover events are increasingly common across a variety of mobile game genres, but where Arknights excels is in its ability to integrate these brands more deeply into its game. Arknights’ cosmetic economy, for example, affords the opportunity to introduce new themed outfits or furniture pieces that live on in the game beyond the conclusion of the event. From a branding perspective, this feels much more valuable than the simple time-limited activations more commonly seen in other games.
One gripe we do have with Arknights’ live-ops roadmap is that HyperGryph still hasn’t expanded on the game’s social features. For example, Alliances/Guilds are usually major features launched after 6-9 months of going global, but Arknights still maintains a barebones social feature set. Not only does it make elder gameplay a lonely experience, but also leaves additional RPD upside (especially from Western audiences) on the table and doesn’t capitalize on an additional vector for increasing gameplay variety.
At first glance, it is easy to dismiss Arknights as just another anime gacha game. It has all the hallmarks of other ACG-themed character collectors. This is by design, of course, given what we know of the game’s backstory. HyperGryph and Yostar have always been focused on creating a game that would meet the expectations of the ACG audience.
In many ways, this is the simplest explanation for the game’s lasting success: strong alignment with a lucrative audience that is deeply invested in the product, its evolving storyline, and its expanding cast of characters. Yet, the anime wrapper masks the complexity and design innovation hidden beneath. Arknights delivers an experience that is unmatched elsewhere in the tower defense genre, and its business results support that.
Interestingly, it would appear that HyperGryph’s next move is to head in a different direction. Its forthcoming title, Ex Astris, is currently planned to be a premium game on mobile — an odd decision for a company so heavily leveraged on F2P gacha gaming. The company describes it as an “exploration of episodic narrative and 3D RPG gameplay,” which is another intriguing pivot away from Arknights. However, the emphasis remains on narrative and ACG theming, which should come as no surprise.
Will HyperGryph be able to replicate its success in a new genre and business model? Only time will tell, but Arknights shows no signs of slowing down and should serve as a sustainable cash cow for the studio as it looks to grow beyond its debut title.