Most rhythm games feature an expansive cast of cute girls. Starlight Stage, one of the most populous, features 183 idols in total -- too many to know them all intimately, but the perfect amount to trigger that "Gotta catch 'em all!" instinct in a target market raised on Pokémon. These large casts operate on the same marketing strategy as real-life idol groups: If you keep throwing in more characters, eventually everyone will find someone to love.
It'd be easy to assume from the platoons of cute female characters that rhythm games are marketed mainly to men. Some rhythm games are deliberately geared toward a female audience, such as The iDOLM@STER Side M LIVE ON ST@GE!, which functions essentially like the other iM@S rhythm games but features 46 cute boys as your singing stars. Rising Beat, with 57 characters, capitalizes on the mostly-female fandom that the Prince of Tennis manga and anime series has been building since 1999. However, plenty of girls (particularly in the American side of the fanbase) play iM@S and Love Live! as well, picking out favorites they'd want to befriend or mentor in real life.
Story chapters are released regularly in most rhythm games. In idol-centric games, the player is cast in a producer/manager role and can sometimes interact with the characters via dialogue options. As they interact with the characters and learn about their personal quirks, players become emotionally invested--and that's where the money comes from. None of these games expect you to love all the characters equally, although some players attempt to raise their idols without playing favorites. But the developers count on users forming attachments to their personal "best girls." You vote for them in popularity polls, you buy their keychains and cell phone charms (if the publisher is generous enough to make you some), and, if they're a featured card in the gacha box, you pull and pull until your girl "comes home." Featured cards generally come with unique outfits for the 3D model, and in some games, users can merge multiple copies of the same card in order to increase item drop rates during normal gameplay or raise a card's stats.
Eruruu, who has been playing Starlight Stage since its release, explains that he liked Shirasaka Koume, the game's resident horror-movie fanatic, from the moment she was introduced. "I think I was interested in her because she looked so eccentric," he said. "The gap between her appearance and her personality was also appealing." His famous 1,693-pull video shows not only his dedication to his favorite character but also a certain "team spirit" that develops between players. Eruruu, who livestreams many of his gacha pulls, states: "I think of them as a form of entertainment. I try to make sure my gacha streams are fun for my viewers, too." He clearly succeeds in doing so, as some audience members donate cash toward his gacha expenditures in return for the thrills he provides.
Quizoxy acknowledges that gacha systems are, at their core, gambling, but they point out that gacha is also "the main source for game developers to fund production for free content access." While they disapprove of practices that pressure players to spend on microtransactions, Quizoxy acknowledges that paying players help keep the game up and running for the F2P crowd.
I'm of the same camp. While I don't always get the card I want out of the gacha, I'm voting with my dollars -- funding the addition of new features and story chapters, and hopefully contributing to a sales spike that demonstrates my favorite characters' popularity and profitability.
No matter how cute the characters are, a rhythm game lives or dies on the strength of its music. iM@S frequently features songs by members of the famous MONACA music studio, as well as Linda AI-CUE, who composed for Taiko no Tatsujin, and singer-songwriter Fujita Maiko. Most games attempt to diversify their offerings, playing to different characters' personalities. Even if the characters are idols, their repertoire surpasses traditional idol pop to include enka, rock, techno, rap and even death metal. The publishers rake in further earnings by publishing extended versions of these songs on CD and digital download, often accompanied by audio dramas. The Prince of Tennis franchise has been releasing character songs as anime tie-in merch since the early 2000s. With over three hundred CD singles already published, some of which are written and composed by the voice actors themselves, the developers have chosen to stagger implementation and dole out their existing material gradually.
Uta Macross deserves special mention here as well: Although the game features only 10 playable characters, the franchise itself dates back to the 1980s. In order to appeal to the established fandom and bring in older players, classic songs such as "Lion" (2008), "Sudden Attack Love Heart" (1995) "My Boyfriend Is a Pilot" (1982) and "Do You Remember Love?" (1984) are made available to players almost immediately.
The songs have to be catchy because players will spend a lot of time with them. When new songs are introduced for special in-game events, players who intend to "tier" for ranking rewards often repeat the same song dozens, even hundreds of times. For the most part, I'm not particularly ambitious about chasing rewards; I only play about 12 hours per week between Starlight Stage and Theater Days, with a further two or three hours on Uta Macross and Rising Beat. Livestreamer Eruruu estimates that he puts in twenty-four hours every week between Starlight Stage, BanG Dream! and Osu!.
"On average, I spend four to five hours daily on weekdays and roughly eight hours daily on weekends to assist users, plan and initiate content release for months to come."
Quizoxy, meanwhile, is a highly competitive player who plays "pretty much throughout the day if I am not at work or busy with other commitments." They have earned multiple high score trophies for Starlight Stage in-game events, as well as 13 SSS trophies, which are awarded monthly to the top two thousand players. In June 2018, Quizoxy placed at Rank 1 for the Season 22 SSS ranking cycle, making them the single most active Starlight Stage player worldwide for the month of June. In addition, they also play Theater Days, BanG Dream! and Tokyo 7th Sisters.
However, Quizoxy also keeps busy by moderating r/StarlightStage and r/TheaterDays, two of the main sources of English-language information about these games. Because neither game has an English localization, Quizoxy has devoted countless hours to writing startup guides, translating official announcements and providing technical support to other players. They describe his commitment as fairly time-intensive: "On average, I spend four to five hours daily on weekdays and roughly eight hours daily on weekends to assist users, plan and initiate content release for months to come." Quizoxy hopes that this work can inspire other fans to participate in building the English-speaking iM@S community.
But why do users like Quizoxy need to put forth this effort? Unfortunately, most companies are unwilling or unable to do it themselves.