How Love Live Has Consumed the Life I Love – Part 1: The Mobile Game
If you asked me at the beginning of 2014 what I thought of Love Live, I would’ve responded with mild indifference. I’d heard of it, sure, but only vaguely; I knew it was some anime series that involved characters who were idols and, despite my enthusiasm for the much-beloved Idolmaster, the Love Live series remained something of an enigma to me. For one, I thought it was ‘the low profile’ Idolmaster, and the character designs, at first glance, seemed nothing out of the ordinary. I figured it was just another one-off moe-moe idol anime series that wasn’t really worthy of my attention.
As the first part in a series of Love Live related posts, I am pleased to kick things off with the mechanism that enabled my glorious fandom: the mobile game Love Live! School Idol Festival.
Having made a non-commital, non-decision that Love Live was nothing to lift my head over, I eventually caught wind of a new music/rhythm game coming to the west for mobile platforms called Love Live! School Idol Festival. Now, being an notorious sucker for music/rhythm games, and never having actually dove into the whole mobile-gaming shin-dig, I figured I’d try my hand on the whole Free-to-play craze for kicks. I’d played a lot of Beats in years past (basically Step-Step Revolution for your phone) almost exclusively to anime-related music, so being able to play a game with actual release schedules for content seemed like a great idea … Again, especially because it was a music/rhythm game, which I adore.
After a quick trip to the Play Store, I booted the game up and was finally introduced to the main cast of Love Live. Not knowing a thing about the series, I decided to go for a combination of what I thought was the cutest voice and best character art — which just so happened to be Minami Kotori.
Love Live! School Idol Festival (LLSIF) is a simple music/rhythm game where you use the touchscreen to tap circles that originate from the center of the screen as they drop down to any of 9 available idol icons, each represented by an idol card in your possession. Off the bat, you have only a handful of cards, each with their own statistics to affect your score based on where they are placed on the field, their color, and a bevy of other hidden mechanics — I’ll spare you the details, but the basic objective is to collect rare cards that allow you to score higher on songs. Plus … the cards all have exclusive, beautiful artwork!
Like many mobile games, non-stop play is a difficult feat; you are given a certain amount of ‘LP’ based on your rank, and each song that you play costs a certain amount of LP, with difficult (and more exciting) songs costing more (15LP for Hard, 25LP for special event Expert). The higher the song’s LP cost, the bigger your EXP reward is for completing the song, which in turn get you higher ranks to increase your maximum LP pool, and so the cycle continues.
Normally, your LP regenerates over time (6 minutes per 1 LP), but in true Free-to-Play fashion, there are special gems that can completely restore your LP — gems that are obtained either very slowly through in-game achievements, or as a pay-feature to the tune of roughly $1USD per gem, with the cost lowering as you purchase them in bulk.
The other cash cow is the gacha system, which is basically gambling your gems away for the chance to obtain extremely rare and powerful cards. The rarities that can be pulled from this gambling system range from Rare, to Super Rare, to Ultra Rare, with each progressive tier providing more powerful cards and (usually) prettier and more detailed artwork. To put it in perspective, the typical chance for obtaining an Ultra rare is 1% from a single gacha — and each gacha costs 5 gems, roughly the equivalent of about $5. Things can add up quick, but the gambling thrill is there and, for some, even that is just enough to get you hooked.
There’s also the ‘idolization’ mechanic, where you collect two of the same non-idolized card and ‘merge’ them into a single ‘idolized’ card, with improved stats and maximum level. It also bumps the rarity up slightly and has new artwork. So while it’s great that you were able to get that awesome, Ultra Rare card — there’s still a reason to get another one!
There’s plenty of songs to play, plenty of cards to compete for. A loose ‘Story Mode’ is present, which are simply full-voiced cutscenes that can be watched, often with free gems being given at the end. Progression through Story Mode is gated by completion of songs — after one or two events, you will have to play and successfully complete a new song in order to progress the story (or reach the current story cap). New songs and content are released every few weeks, so there’s always something new to look forward to even if you are simply a casual player.
Additionally, During bi-weekly events, special rare cards are offered for collecting points (earned through playing songs well and often, or score competitions with other players). With 9 main Love Live characters, there are often people who will adamantly hunt for their waifu cards, so the competition can be somewhat fierce for those trying to obtain several copies of an event card. Enough so that it’s practically an impossibility to obtain top or near-top rewards without shelling out a reasonable amount of cash.
Be that as it may, the game is absolutely playable without spending a dime — things will just take a bit more time. Gems are given out fairly often, and collecting them will allow you gamble them during special events where at least a Super Rare card is guaranteed if you spend a certain number. This, combined with other gameplay-related events that do not require ranking, allow players to slowly build up their card collection and see progression in their game, which is important. In that sense, it might seem to a completely ‘free’ player that the content is nearly endless or even overwhelming, given the number of current cards and songs in the environment. There are special ‘Daily’ songs, as well as special ‘Expert Mode’ for a select few songs, also on a time rotation, to keep things fresh for players with access to all of the story-mode unlocks.
Now, what needs to be considered in the context of this mad-dash to purchase gems to play is that Love Live! is a multi-faceted media phenomenon, with an extremely popular mobile game, two seasons of anime, a boatload of album releases and a thriving amount of official (and unofficial) merchandise. The interesting thing is how the series is constantly being driven by the fanbase — the name of the idol group, μ’s, was voted on and decided by fans, and the ‘centers’ (center girl or main idol group focus) for the animated music videos are often decided by popularity polls. The nine girls are even split into three sub-idol groups, whose names and members were also decided by fans. You have character songs, specific character vocal-only albums, mini-idol group albums — so on and so forth. It’s a reactionary series, which is something I can see a lot of fans, especially Japan, getting very excited over.
Inevitably, with nine characters, people are going to have favorites, so when an Ultra Rare, limited edition card is going to be released for one of those favorite characters, it’s understandable for many to go ahead and throw down a large sum of money at it. Even for something intangible, being able to craft an extremely powerful team of Ultra Rare favorites is nice, and the game does reward for extended play. Again, the more you play, the higher your maximum LP goes, which means the longer you can play off of a single $1 gem. It follows the same basic marketing principle as practically every other Free-to-play mobile game out there, but it’s an effective one.
There are also several other-media tie-ins to the game, both in Japan and in the west. Media releases sometimes come bundled with codes that can be redeemed in-game for exclusive cards. I for one was able to pick up one of these exclusives by purchasing the Love Live season 1 limited edition set for the anime, so hopefully this trend will continue with other domestic releases.
All in all, it’s a game that honestly caught me by surprise, and I highly recommend giving it a shot if the music is something you’re on-board with. I know that a setlist of primarily bubble-gum-poppy Japanese songs might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for fans in the osu, Stepmania and typical extended music/rhythm online community, it’s the best experience you can get on your mobile device in my opinion. The backing of an actual online infrastructure is just icing on the cake, though there are times where the required connection can be admittedly irritating (like when I’m traveling through tunnels or commuting via metro or subway).
My addiction to music/rhythm games aside, the game served as the primary catalyst for my roaring fandom, enough to the point where one of the key factors in choosing my next phone will be how comfortable it is to play LLSIF on. To say the very least, my interest in the series was piqued. Knowing absolutely nothing about Love Live going in, I found myself wanting to know the girls’ personalities a bit better so I knew which cards I wanted to really strive for. So I decided that the best way to do that was to jump into the anime…
And that’s when I knew things were going to start getting a bit crazy.