When we were confined to our homes during the pandemic, millions of people escaped lockdown to explore Teyvat, Genshin Impact’s fantasy world.
Genshin Impact is a free-to-play adventure game about a mysterious traveler searching for their long-lost sibling – and the vibrant, intricately designed characters they encounter on their journey through a sprawling fantasy land.
It began operations in September 2020 and is celebrating its first anniversary this week.
It was almost like a rescue remedy for people who were desperate for something to do with their time,” Jess Weatherbed, a video game and technology journalist, tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.
I was trapped in it for months with several of my friends.
One billion dollars in six months
Genshin Impact is available on PC, PlayStation 4, and mobile devices, and developers Mihoyo keep players engaged with weekly game updates.
It earned more than $1 billion (£730 million) in its first six months from mobile phone users alone, and an estimated three million people play the game daily.
It earned more than its big-name free-to-play competitors in the first half of 2021, including those based on the Marvel universe or Dragonball Z.
EA titles like FIFA routinely earn significant sums of money, but that is due to the power of EA and years of video game marketing.
Genshin was a complete surprise because it appeared out of nowhere during the pandemic with little to no marketing, particularly in the West.
Within weeks, it was everywhere on popular streaming platforms like Twitch and the majority of mobile phones of a certain age group. It was virtually unheard of for a game to emerge from nowhere and achieve such success,” Jess explains.
This revenue is generated through in-game purchases of randomized items, similar to loot boxes, so the game is not fully available in countries like Belgium, where such activities are prohibited as a form of gambling.
You may have seen something similar in games like FIFA, where after purchasing the game, you can then spend additional funds to acquire the players you desire for your team.
Except that instead of attempting to recruit Premier League strikers, you’re trying to recruit a flame-throwing lawyer or an icy exorcist to your crew – and you’re only guaranteed to do so after spending a variable amount of in-game currency.
“I believe there is a great deal of animosity among what people consider to be real gamers,'” Jess explains.
“They don’t want to feel duped into parting with their money to play a game. However, you can play games like Genshin for free, which is part of the appeal.”
It’s a gacha, or gachapon, model, named after the high-end toy vending machines found in Japan.
While you can play Genshin for free – as you can with Fortnite – the game will go to great lengths to entice players with its newest virtual items.
It also won several awards at the end of 2020, including Game of the Year from Apple and Google.
Jess believes that one of the game’s primary draws is its accessibility, as it is entirely free to play and available on various platforms.
“You didn’t need to purchase an expensive gaming laptop or queue up in vain to obtain a PS5; you could simply download it onto your smartphone or play it on PC,” Jess explains.
“There was a sense of magic in the air that I hadn’t felt in a long time.”
During the pandemic’s peak, gamers told the BBC how video games enabled them to communicate during the lockdown.
Genshin Impact is primarily a solo game, but it provided an alternative for people trapped in their homes and who need to be distracted from reality.
“With these massive open-world games, you can simply disappear into them; they contain fully functioning communities,” Jess explains.
“It’s straightforward to become absorbed into that type of community – even if you’re not experiencing a global pandemic and are unable to leave your home.”
Following Genshin Impact’s success in its first year, Jess believes rival companies will look to “increase their production values” to compete for a piece of the Mihoyo millions.
“Other gachapon games are typically card trading games with a bit of narrative thrown in; they lack any real gameplay.”
“Unquestionably, the bar has been raised.”