How Granblue Fantasy Players Built a Community

A difficult game spawns a dedicated player base

Although Japanese role-playing games have a tradition of being single-player affairs, Cygames’ mobile and browser title Granblue Fantasy is anything but. Granblue isn’t officially supported by any English-speaking app stores or marketplaces, however this limited accessibility hasn’t hindered its massive popularity in the west.

Thankfully, sites such as the Granblue Wiki exist to aid players getting into the game. With complex charts on how to build “weapon grids” and pages that sometimes resemble novels rather than quick how-to guides, Granblue’s intricacies might seem to target only attract a dedicated minority of players rather than casual newcomers. But the reality is very different: die-hard and casual players alike have embraced Granblue for its unique gameplay by collaborating on guides and establishing guilds. In fact, the game’s community has flourished internationally not despite, but because of Granblue‘s myriad barriers to entry.

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Danchous & Dragons

Granblue is a fantasy-inspired adventure role-playing game developed by Japanese studio Cygames, also known for their work on Shadowverse and Dragalia Lost. It was released in Japan in 2014, but didn’t see an English language option until 2016. You take on the role of either Gran or Djeeta — your standard boy or girl protagonist — and traverse the skies with your mysterious friend Lyria, dragon-lizard Vyrn, and a colorful cast of crewmates. The main goal of Granblue is to collect enough powerful weapons to build a “grid,” or an armory of powerful equipment for your party. The core loop is simple: you “roll” for good weapons and characters, then kill a few hundred monsters for rare items. And people cannot get enough of it.

Djeeta and Vyrn

But how exactly do Western gamers just jump straight into a game with a two-year delay from the main Japanese base? By being inventive, sharing knowledge, and forming strong cohorts of organized English-speaking player-groups. I spoke to one of the moderators of the Granblue Fantasy Wiki’s Discord channel, Adlai, about the challenges the Western fanbase might face as Granblue only becomes more popular.

“One of the biggest challenges the wiki still tackles is explaining the game to new players. Granblue has a significant learning curve that can deter players,” Adlai tells me. “Even the game itself doesn’t explain its major gameplay mechanics thoroughly, such as weapon grids. The wiki tries to fill in the gaps when possible. But once players get over the learning curve, the game becomes deep and rewarding. I think Granblue‘s gameplay is part of the reason for its longevity, along with its characters and writing.”

Longevity is a challenge plenty of mobile-games face — even popular, franchise-driven games such as Sailor Moon Drops sometimes can’t survive in the market. Despite Cygames raking in approximately $238 million in 2018 from Granblue, it’s still overshadowed by juggernauts such as Fate/Go and Puzzles & Dragons. So what else drives a player base to stay with a game in which the entire premise revolves around grinding boss fights?

You could point to Granblue’s full voice acting and many promotional crossover events with licenses such as Love Live! and Persona. But the players say it’s something more ineffable — the connections they make with one another through playing and helping each other through the game.

Crew Communication

One of the main aspects of any social mobile game is of course communication with other players. Granblue enables this through the ability to create and join “crews” in order to gain buffs and participate in guild-only events. My friend Dawn, a 20 year-old who admits she used to be “mostly passionate about idol gacha games,” is the leader of one such crew. After she learned Granblue was getting a Cygames-supported English version, Dawn says Granblue was suddenly the only thing she was interested in doing on her phone.

An average Granblue Fantasy player

“Being so new to the game, I felt like a child asking an adult to humor me by joining my crew,” she says. “Being able to become stronger in the game alongside my new crewmates, learning and growing off of each other, has made me feel the greatest sense of accomplishment from a video game. The way Granblue pushes its players to become mentors and mentees due to the game’s complex system makes for a truly fulfilling relationship. Having been both a mentee and a mentor, Granblue feels like a game I can truly be satisfied with.”

This type of arrangement, or at least the extent to which it defines the community, seems unique to Granblue. Games like Destiny 2 have attempted to set up official guide systems to match inexperienced players with veterans, but in practice they don’t work especially well. In Granblue, though, players had to figure things out for themselves. Without another person to guide you through the learning curve, playing Granblue is almost a fool’s errand.

“Doing multiplayer in real life”

The myth of the lone player hoarding knowledge of a game doesn’t apply to Granblue. The reality is, the amount of information about the game’s mechanics and strategies is growing by the day thanks to countless volunteers, all without an official English promoter.

“It may be surprising for those who have not experienced MMOs to know that the games are successful, in part, because of their complexity and difficulty, not because of their simplicity or capacity to satiate the needs of the so-called attention-deficit generation,” Steven Thorne, Rebecca Black and Julie Sykes write in The Modern Language Journal. For Dawn and Nya Squad, player relationships are flourishing thanks to Granblue’s mechanical complexity synchronizing with a mutually beneficial guild environment.

Nya Squad during the “Unite and Fight” guild wars event

Thorne, Black, and Sykes add that language used by MMORPG guilds emphasize “solidarity, compliments, encouragements rather than purely task-associated communication… [which] underscores the salience of interpersonal communication and relationship maintenance [in] spaces ostensibly oriented toward battle and competition.” Essentially: shitposting is an important part of group bonding in games like Granblue. So even as players are sharing relevant knowledge about the game, they’re building up relationships by joking around and encouraging one another.

Crews and wikis in the Granblue fandom are flourishing because of the game’s steep learning curve and hidden mechanics — not in spite of them. It’s a community project, one that strikes at the heart of what it means to play a game with absolute strangers all with the same goal: collecting better weapons, making stronger parties, and ultimately progressing for progression’s sake with pals. Along the way, players learn from each other and maybe even grow as people.

For Dawn, that certainly seems to be the case. “Granblue has definitely allowed me to become more social when it comes to gaming,” she says. “I’m a lot more comfortable approaching people, starting conversations and doing multiplayer online or in real life than before.”