The theorycrafting scholars of Genshin Impact

genshin impact theorycrafting

Entire communities have sprung up around the gruelling mathematical study of Genshin Impact and its systems. We talk to KQM, the game’s largest theorycrafting group.


Theorycrafting has changed our relationship with video games. Our collective pursuit of the meta – that is, the mathematical study of game mechanics – has pushed us to the point where, as Dan Olson declared, “It’s rude to suck at Warcraft.” Even single-player communities aren’t immune. It’s so pervasive that much of the games media ecosystem depends on an unseen legion of guide writers.

But there is more to theorycrafting than using mathematical analysis to deal big damage.

Formed in late 2020, KeqingMains is Genshin Impact’s largest English-speaking theorycrafting community. At first, the group focused on finding the best gear for the eponymous Keqing, one of several dozen characters players can use to explore the free-to-play RPG’s Breath of the Wild-inspired world. Now known as KQM, it includes 350 volunteer staff across two different games, a YouTube channel, a highly regarded website, and a thriving public Discord server.

In its early months, KQM was a 280-page, quasi-academic Google Doc famous for crashing browsers, but the process was the same. Someone makes a theory, records a series of playtests, and analyses the data. The recording and theory are posted in a dedicated Discord channel, which is then verified by another theorycrafter. These theories form the basis of KQM’s elaborate, 6,000-plus word guides that outline dozens of possible loadouts, playstyles, and more.

genshin impact theorycrafting

Credit: KQM.

The connection between theorycrafting and academia is hardly a new one. Academics have written extensively about Elitist Jerks, World of Warcraft’s most famous theorycrafting group. While it’s impossible to draw a straight line from Elitist Jerks to KQM, it’s hard to imagine the latter existing without the former. Elitist Jerks had an outsized impact on World of Warcraft, which itself influenced a generation of video games.

In fact, Doug, the group’s founder, readily admits KQM was born out of a desire for the guides he used while playing League of Legends and MapleStory. But unlike those games, Genshin Impact is a mostly single-player experience. This makes the likelihood of getting yelled at for using an off-meta character low. Viewed through a traditional theorycrafting lens, theorycrafting in Genshin Impact is a largely useless activity. There is no leaderboard or competitive combat in Genshin Impact. Nor is there a lot of social capital in clearing bosses quickly.

In the early days of KQM, theorycrafting was gruelling. Almost everything about the game’s damage formula was in a black box. Genshin Impact has dozens of variables – elemental resonance, character synergies, artifact sets, and weapons – all of which can interact in an infinite number of ways. And those are just the variables theorycrafters can control on a spreadsheet.

“There is a certain amount of luck attached to your damage due to the game’s systems,” said Artesians, the group’s head of theorycrafting. “Even holding these equal, you can say this character can do this amount of damage under these perfect conditions, but it might turn out that this character’s attacks just miss all the time.”

genshin impact

Credit: KQM.

This means theorycrafters couldn’t rely on mathematical analysis alone. Instead, they had to playtest every single theory. Theorycrafters would spend days, sometimes weeks, hitting the same low-ranking enemy to determine how a specific mechanic works. Those early months were also some of KQM’s most influential. The group never advertised itself, but word spread: If you want to know how to optimise your character, wait for the KQM guide.

“It’s kind of amazing to see how ubiquitous it is in Genshin Impact to see people saying, “Just wait for KQM to do it,” said Artesians, looking back on the group’s trajectory. “For [Honkai] Star Rail, for example, a lot of people say, “Oh, we use such and such right now, but I’m actually just waiting for KQM to post something. And it’s nice to see our reputation precedes us at this point.”

It is a well-earned reputation. Artesians was one of the players who cracked the game’s core mechanics, including the internal cooldown system. The hidden timer is essential to understanding which characters work best with each other and what roles they can fill. Put another way: it’s the foundation of all Genshin Impact knowledge.

“It was painful,” Artesians said. It took a week of analysing frames of footage to solve the system. An earlier foundational mechanic, the elemental gauge, took months for Doug and others to solve.

“They couldn’t figure out more advanced systems like how the internal cooldown for application of these elements worked,” Artesians said. “It was very monotonous – like recordings of people hitting a hilichurl for hours and hours and counting when the text pops out and then finding out later, you can’t actually trust the in-game numbers because they sometimes just don’t show up.”

Credit: HoYoverse.

Their work paid off. KQM’s findings spread like wildfire through the larger Genshin Impact community thanks to a loosely affiliated group of content creators, including TenTen, Zajef77, and Braxophone. At first glance, their theories spread the same way any other strategy spreads. A top group of players learned how the game works, which then trickled down to less exceptional players. It’s the same principle that undergirds both traditional sports and esports.

But unlike competitive-based theorycrafting, KQM was motivated less by exploiting a game’s mechanics and inefficiencies and more so by their wallets. In theory, players can obtain every character for free. But in practice, that’s impossible.

“That’s kinda the point of theorycrafting – it’s to show you that you can hit these huge numbers, you can do what you’re seeing in these TikTok videos without having to spend all this money,” said Eko, who was originally brought on as a stand-in for casual players.

Ironically, those videos depend on theorycrafting. It takes a large amount of obscure in-game knowledge to reach those numbers.

Today, players seek out KQM for much more varied reasons. “Theorycrafting does evolve and change as a game matures and Genshin can kinda be considered a mostly solved game now,” Eko said. “So now people are trying to search for more specific things.”

For some, the focus is finding ways to make more complex or niche characters shine. For many, Artesians jokingly noted, it’s simply about selecting a team that is least likely to lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. No moment sums this up more than KQM’s first guide for Kokomi. KQM gave Kokomi a low rating but wrote a note stating Kokomi is one of the best defensive characters in the game.

It was a controversial decision at the time, partially due to what Doug calls feelscrafting – making a conclusion “based on anecdotal evidence and emotions.” Today, Kokomi is one of Genshin Impact’s most popular characters, in part because of the group’s rigorous testing but also because of changing sentiments.

Credit: HoYoverse.

“At the beginning of the game … the constraints at the time were different, so the meta gave a different answer,” Artesians said. “As time has gone on, we have moved a little further away from doing max damage because it turns out that if you have enough of your relics and units sorted out, you do enough damage. So what is the next best thing to kinda focus on? Living, surviving.”

What exactly it means to be a part of the community has also changed. Theorycrafting is the group’s guiding principle, but people stay for the community. KQM is not a single community, but rather a group of subcommunities. Eko, for example, now manages the day-to-day aspects of the community, including partnerships with other Discord servers and developer HoYoverse. He also helps plan events. These events are often small – such as a karaoke night – but have been known to reach half a million players.

“If someone told me back in 2020 that KQM would grow to be Genshin Impact’s largest [English-speaking] theorycrafting community and have published guides viewed by players all over the world, I’d probably have laughed at them,” Doug said. “I like to believe that the magical transformation originated from our focused, yet welcoming atmosphere, which attracted many talented people into KQM.”

KQM is also now an official HoYoverse partner, perhaps signalling a new chapter. In the past, the two had a tense relationship. Today, the developers often refer to the group’s findings and the KQM Discord bot is part of one of the official Discord servers. The group views the partnership as a significant milestone and hopes to work with HoYoverse more closely in the future.

As Olson notes in his video, following the meta is often in tension with the idea of fun. For multiplayer games in particular, players are often keen to optimise the fun out of the game or even use the meta as a means of social gatekeeping. For KQM, that approach is wrong-headed. The meta isn’t about using mathematical analysis to maximise the best possible outcomes. It’s using mathematical analysis to maximise the best possible outcomes for yourself.

Brian Lee-Mounger Hendershot is a writer whose work focuses on art, politics, and video games – sometimes all at once. You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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