As beloved as it is, people still find fault with Breath of the Wild. Chief among those complaints being weapon durability and lack of character progression. So when Genshin Impact made a splash as a free-to-play Breath of the Wild lookalike with RPG elements, many of those dissatisfied patrons flocked to give it a try. Less than two weeks later and the fantasy continent of Teyvat had grossed over $100 million; obviously developer MiHoYo did something right.
Now the honeymoon period between players and their colorful anime crew is coming to an end. The map has been scoured for those slippery noculi, NPCs have had their mundane concerns taken care of, and treasure chests have been emptied. With the first big update not being until November, many players have one question weighing on their minds:“What now?” That’s where we see Genshin Impact’s strength turn into a weakness, and that’s also the inherent difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.
Extrinsic rewards are those that come from an outside factor in recognition of an achievement such as gold for completing a side quest or even just the salary you’re paid at your job. Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, are less tangible; they arise from within and take the form of a sense of achievement or fulfillment from doing activities that we want to do rather than those we were told to do. That’s exactly what hobbies are. Maybe you pick up the guitar because you want to learn how to make music or maybe you learn a new language just because it fascinates you.
Intrinsic rewards have been repeatedly found in psychological studies to be a greater motivating factor than extrinsic rewards. Those that engage in an activity for the sake of the activity itself are more likely to stick with it in the long-term than those that started it for an external reward, and the latter is exactly the place that Genshin Impact finds itself in right now.
The opening hours of the game completely inundate the player with things to do and places to be, all of which contribute to character growth, adventure rank, forging and strengthening weapons, and other prizes. It’s constant dopamine stimulation as you pitter-patter about like a hyperactive puppy finding new toys to chew on. The characters you may or may not have paid real money for ascend ever-increasing levels of power at a rapid rate, and that can be positively intoxicating.
As more players reach the bottom of the well of resources to climb that power ladder with, though, the topic of burnout is becoming more and more prominent. Many have settled into a routine of logging in, completing dailies, and logging out – which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. However, when the extrinsic reward of a shiny new weapon or character uncap seems so far off and there’s little in-between, it’s easy for those dailies to feel more like a chore than a fun hobby.
On the other hand, there usually wasn’t a compelling reason to engage in combat in Breath of the Wild. There were no experience points to gain, you ran the risk of burning through resources, and in the end you got some rupees or a new weapon that may or may not have made up for the one you probably broke during the fight. For some, that came across as a waste of time. But others saw encounters as a sort of puzzle to complete as efficiently as possible and solving that puzzle was a reward in and of itself. That kept the fights from ever feeling stale because there wasn’t that invisible hand pushing you to do them.
“Now I wasn’t climbing the mountain because I wanted to, but because I knew there was something I needed at the summit.”
That invisible hand does apply to Genshin Impact’s exploration as well, though, since many of its important objectives and collectibles are clearly labeled on the map. This makes it easier for someone to fall into a checklist mentality and takes away from the organic and intrinsic joy exploration it is meant to bring.
One of the tallest mountains in the Liyue region caught my interest, but as I approached it the icon for a geoculi popped up right on top of it. Now I wasn’t climbing the mountain because I wanted to, but because I knew there was something I needed at the summit. Compare that to the multitude of peaks I scaled in Breath of the Wild simply because they towered above me, as if taunting me. Sure, sometimes I would find a Korok seed at the top but it was a surprise reward to an intrinsically satisfying activity. In fact, unexpected rewards such as these actually reinforce persistence for intrinsically motivated tasks more so than when a reward is expected.
Genshin Impact has conditioned its players to believe that it has to provide the content for them to have fun rather than letting them know that they can seek out fun themselves. Is that a problem, though? Outside of sandbox games like Minecraft, the vast majority of games are built around extrinsic rewards, and downtime between content updates is nothing new for the MMO crowd.
Genshin Impact finds itself in this weird corner case, though, where it’s an open-air action-adventure RPG with MMO-style progression and mobile gacha game mechanics. Those unlikely elements have synergistically combined to make the game the success it is, but it also makes it more unlikely any one player is familiar with all three styles. So when the stamina-like resin system brings progression to a screeching halt, or the gacha gods deem you unworthy of your favorite character, or when you miss the day the material you needed was available, suddenly the daily grind that normally wouldn’t bother you starts to touch a nerve.
Players taking a break then returning when new content is released is par for the course for games-as-a-service. Genshin Impact’s situation becomes complicated, however, when you consider its first big content update is arguably dropping at the worst possible time, right in the middle of the next-generation console launch, as well as one of the most anticipated games of the year, Cyberpunk 2077. Weathering that storm will already be hard enough as it is.
I do hope Genshin Impact makes it out on the other side, though. It’s been a long time since a title so unabashedly anime has dominated the mind-share of the gaming sphere so much, and I want to see it continue to succeed if only to prove the style can be widely accepted. Introducing more intrinsically rewarding elements would go a long way toward maintaining that momentum. It’s ironic, in that sense, that after all of the backlash Genshin Impact initially got for being a seemingly shameless Breath of the Wild clone, it’s still missing the one aspect that truly made it magical.