This blog post details my design process for a beginner-friendly reverse-engineering challenge that I authored this year for SekaiCTF 2023——a fully functional, hackable replica of Project Sekai's "gacha" system. Here is a snippet of the challenge, featured in the CTF's first teaser:
Dubbed "Azusawa's Gacha World", this challenge took heavy theming inspiration from a team friend with the handle @stypr, who singlehandedly spent around USD$20,000 on Project Sekai (the mobile rhythm game). He also runs a website called azusawa.world, which features his experiences with a character named Kohane Azsuawa (小豆沢こはね)——this challenge is part of the recurring meme with the character.
However, before we get into the challenge itself, let's talk first about the game and genre that inspired it.
The "Gacha Game" Model
In the context of video games, a gacha game is a model which implements a "random vending machine" mechanic as a method of obtaining rare characters, cards, or other collectible items (collectively referred to as "drops" for the rest of this blog post, for brevity). The name originates from the Japanese word gashapon (ガチャポン), an onomatopoeia for the act of cranking the vending machine's handle (and Bandai's trademark name). The term is also used as a verb to describe the act of "rolling" or "pulling" for a desired drop (e.g. "I'm going to gacha for this character").
The gacha mechanic is most commonly found in free-to-play mobile games, and is often implemented as a monetization strategy. Players are incentivized to exchange their in-game currency to "pull", "spin", "roll", etc. on specific "banners" which feature a particular pool of drops. In most cases, drops are assigned various tiers of arbitrary rarity, with the highest tier rarities having the lowest percentage drop rates. This creates opportunity for players to spend money on in-game currency for the highest chance of obtaining the rarest items.
Gacha pools often look something like this, with similar semantic colors representing each of the rarities:
Rolling on this banner provides a chance to receive a drop from each of the rarity tiers:
This transformation from a simple toy capsule game catered towards younger children into a fully fledged business model has been subject to countless scrutiny and controversy, mainly due to its predatory monetization system and potential to develop gambling addictions within its playerbase. Many legal jurisdictions require gacha games to disclose the probability of obtaining each rarity tier (which will be important later in the challenge).
Let's also explain an important aspect of my challenge that's a common pattern in gacha games: "pity".
In a multitude of different gacha games, a "guaranteed drop" mechanic, colloquially referred to as a "pity", exists for unlucky players who have rolled a certain amount of times without obtaining their desired drop. There are three types of pity systems that are typically used in gacha games: soft pity, hard pity, and soft/hard pity. In soft pity, the chance to obtain a drop of the highest rarity increases with each pull. In hard pity, the player is guaranteed to obtain a drop of the highest rarity once the pull counter reaches a certain threshold. Soft/hard pity is a hybrid of both of these mechanics.
Let's take the gacha system of a popular gacha game as of writing, Genshin Impact, as an example. As banners in this game utilize the soft/hard pity system, the player is guaranteed to obtain a 5-star character after 90 pulls (hard pity), and the chance to obtain a 5-star character increases with each pull after 74 pulls (soft pity):
By increasing the chance to obtain a 5-star character with each pull, the player is more likely to obtain a 5-star character before the hard pity threshold is reached.
However, Project Sekai doesn't utilize this system. It uses the simple "hard pity" system, with a small change: your pulls add to a "gacha bonus points" counter, which guarantees a 4-star and "pick-up" (featured character) 4-star at 50 and 100 pulls, respectively. You get 0.5 points for a pull using free currency, and 1 point for a pull using paid currency, illustrated as such in this diagram:
For the sake of simplicity within the challenge, I decided to implement a pure hard pity system, where the rate of rolling characters is static, and a 4-star character is guaranteed after a certain amount of pulls.
Considering Challenge Difficulty
Learning from feedback in our survey last year, we (Project SEKAI CTF) discovered that a lot of our players were actually beginners——over half of the playerbase that took the survey had less than 5 CTFs worth of experience under their belt:
Combined with the fact we occasionally attract players from the Project Sekai community (a community which has absolutely nothing to do with cybersecurity), we decided that it would be best to design a beginner-friendly, eye-candy challenge that would attract a newer playerbase to register for our CTF and try the introductory challenges. This was a perfect opportunity for us to clone an aspect of the game that inspired our entire CTF theme, and to implement it in a way that would be engaging and educational for newer players. A Unity reverse engineering challenge would be the perfect fit, as plenty of Unity game-hacking resources exist online, and compiled Unity bundles are trivial to reverse-engineer and modify.
Designing the Challenge: Brainstorming
Although "cloning" the game and its functionality might not be too brain-rotting of a process, we still have to design the challenge to be reverse-engineerable. Me and @sahuang ended up creating a design document which overviewed the challenge's functionality, and the general path needed to take in order to solve it; here's a TL;DR of the key points with some visuals.
The challenge will provide users with a Unity game bundle. The game will be a Project Sekai gacha emulator, and the goal is to pull a special 4* card (
Happy Birthday！！2023 - こはね 小豆沢) to receive the flag.
Here are some basic details:
- When starting the gacha, the player will have 100 crystals. There are two options available for the player to pick, but only one is available to them: the one-pull and the ten-pull (the available one being the former).
- All of the characters available in the gacha pool will be the 2* and 3* variations of Kohane Azusawa.
- The player can "hack" the game by modifying the crystal amount to continue rolling. However, the desired drop (
Happy Birthday！！2023 - こはね 小豆沢) is rigged to be 0%. The only way to get the character is to pull 1,000,000 (one million) times to guarantee a drop through the "hard pity" system. Since this is evidently a time-inefficient process, they will need to find a way to change their pity counter.
There will be a secret endpoint IP (obfuscated through simple base64) in one of the C# scripts. Each gacha 10-pull will actually send a
POSTrequest to the server with a payload. The players will need to both recognize this obfuscation and realize that a
POSTrequest is being made through reading the code. The generic structure of the request includes:
- A custom agent
- The following JSON data:
The endpoint will return:
- A key-value pair
characterscontaining an array of ten characters
- If the character is the four-star rate-up character, an additional
flag: "[FLAG_IMAGE_HERE]"key-value pair will be sent, containing a base64 encoding of an image containing the flag
Here's a verbose
curl which demonstrates the request and response (of course, made after the challenge was deployed for the sake of demonstration):
We will hint in the description that a million pulls is needed to achieve the goal through a "pity" system. To complete the challenge, the player can do either of these strategies:
- Change the client-side value of either
crystalsto hit the 1,000,000 pity counter on the server
- Send a
POSTrequest themselves to the obfuscated endpoint with the appropriate structure
The flag will be printed on the screen after a million pulls, regardless of whether or not the user modified the JSON or actually pulled a million times. If the user sends a
POSTrequest on their own, they will need to decode the image themselves.
This was all of the planning and designing that went into the actual challenge structure itself. It's purposefully simple to make the reverse-engineering process as straightforward as possible, and to make the challenge more beginner-friendly. We can now go over how I created the backend server for the challenge.
Implementing the Challenge: Backend
Since I'm really comfortable with vanilla TypeScript, I decided that it'd be best to use it to write the backend server (contrary to the typical Python Flask server in CTFs).
I created a
gacha.json, which contains the entire pool of characters that we used. Since the entire challenge is themed around Kohane Azusawa, I utilized the pool from her 2023 birthday banner——the drop rates and characters are fully available on sekai.best's entry of the banner:
Manually going through every entry listed in the database, I created the following JSON file:
The new TypeScript project I made utilized the
jsynowiec/node-typescript-boilerplate repository, which (after some of my own additions and removals) resulted in this project structure:
src/main.ts, the main entrypoint of the server and the place where the pity system, gacha pool, and endpoint are implemented:
We can see that at exactly the one millionth pull sent to the server, the flag is sent back to the client in the form of a key-value pair (containing an image encoded with base64) within the special rate-up character's object.
Testing this endpoint was made buttery smooth with the help of Jest; I made a test suite in
__tests__/main.test.ts which sent a variety of different inputs, and made sure that a correct response was being outputted:
These tests were a godsend after breaking changes to ensure code functionality was as expected:
Beautiful! We finished off the backend by deploying to Cloudzy (our captain had an egregious sum of free credits), which gave us a suspicious raw IP that surely would draw attention while looking through the challenge files.
Let's talk about the Unity graphics next.
Replicating UI Elements with Figma
I wanted to make the game look as polished and as similar to the real product as possible, so I began by recreating and grabbing all of the assets that the game used in the gacha page. I found a bunch of YouTube videos which provided a nice overview of what the in-game screen looked like:
Unfortunately, there weren't any datamines/rips of Project Sekai that I could find which contained my desired UI elements, and I had to remake them from scratch in graphic design software——I used Figma throughout this entire process.
Since this project was meant to replicate, not innovate, a lot of the design process was just me eyeballing the elements and trying to recreate them as accurately as possible——the hardest part, honestly, was finding the fonts which were used in-game. I scoured the internet for any available resources regarding this to no avail, and used various font detection/scanning software on in-game screenshots (which, of course, yielded incorrect results).
Luckily, @blueset, my team's co-founder, happens to be a massive typography enjoyer, and quickly directed me to one of his old tweets:
Translation: I checked out the fonts available for the new Custom Profile feature added in the 1.9.0 update of #Proseka. There are 10 typefaces in total, all from Fontworks.
The first font on this list, ロダン NTLG DB (Rodin New Type Labo Gothic), was the font used for nearly all UI-based text elements in-game:
Of course, the Internet Archive has a directory listing of almost every Fontworks font, which I used to grab Rodin's
.otf. With this knowledge in-hand, I was able to recreate the UI elements with ease:
All elements that I were unable to recreate due to complexity (like the character attribute icons, star rarities, banner logos, etc.) I grabbed from online wikis (e.g. Fandom, Sekaipedia) of the game. With this undoubtedly important step out of the way, let's talk about the Unity game itself.
Implementing the Challenge: Unity
Of course, I'm no professional Unity game developer——I've only ever made a few major 2D projects in the past, and I've only touched the engine's 3D components before once (my Unity challenge from last year, reverse/Perfect Match X-treme). However, I was confident that I would be able to emulate the appearance and functionality of the gacha system with a bit of graphic design knowledge and some janky code.
My Unity 2D (2021.3.29f1) project was honestly just a bunch of Canvas elements layered on top of each other. Of course, there's a million better ways to do this (e.g. the new Unity UI Toolkit with dynamic modals/buttons), but since this challenge was never meant to be long-term/scalable I didn't want to overcomplexify. Here is the hierarchy structure from within the editor:
You can easily observe which GameObjects become visible/invisible throughout play; I created a GIF to demonstrate this in action:
For this section of the blog post, I'll be going over each individual script located within
Assets/Scripts——conveniently, structuring the post in this manner actually fleshes out a lot of my challenge's functionality, and places the various scripts in context for later when we talk about reverse-engineering. Each script will have its own dedicated section, ordered by how important I believe they are. Let's get started!
Of course, in order for the entire gacha system to function, we needed a script which would facilitate interacting with the backend server. This script is responsible for crafting and sending the proper
POST request to the server, and delegating the parsed response to the
UIManager.cs script for display. We first define a
RequestClasses namespace, which defines the structure of the JSON payloads that we will be sending/receiving:
We can utilize these in the main script to create a new
GachaRequest object, which will be converted into a
UnityWebRequest and properly handled:
Notice this extremely suspicious string near the bottom of the script:
This obvious base64 obfuscation is the endpoint IP that we talked about earlier, which is decoded before being passed into the
new UnityWebRequest. This is particularly catered towards newer players——it's honestly like a sore thumb sticking out of the script, meant to be noticed and questioned.
Other than this, the script is pretty straightforward——if the request fails (due to bad internet, downed server, malformed payload, etc.),
uiManager.GenericModalHandler() is called and displays
接続エラー： サーバーに接続できませんでした (または不正なペイロー ドが送信されました!) 通貨は使われていません。
Connection Error: could not connect to the server (or an invalid payload was sent)! No currency was spent.
Otherwise, if the request succeeds, responsibility for the data is delegated to the
Although bite-sized in comparison to the other scripts, this script is responsible for maintaining the state of the game——the amount of crystals the player has and the amount of pulls they've made in the current session:
Think about it: how will the player be able to manipulate the in-game pity counter? More to come.
It is with honor I introduce to you this 549-line BEHEMOTH of a script!
I know this looks intensely overwhelming, but it's just because all of these different, uncorrelated methods are all thrown into single file because they all have to do with UI; it's not actually that bad if you chunk it up to make it more digestible. I'll attempt to briefly explain each of these methods with a table (which is just... sheer ridiculousness 🤣):
|We can totally ignore |
|Genuinely just a one-liner. The only reason why it's its own public method is because |
|Used in the volume sliders in |
|Same thing as |
|Also a one-liner: |
Plays the default zoom-in/zoom-out animations, sound effects, and enables darkened background whenever a modal is opened via button:
Whenever you pull for characters in Project Sekai, a "carousel" of "splash art" representing each character appears one-by-one on your screen until you've cycled through everything you've pulled. This method handles the entire process by cycling through the
Handles the animations and sound effects for a two-star splash art. Since I chose to animate using the seriously outdated legacy Animation component (I was too lazy to learn the new Animator), I had to trigger the animations through code. It's seriously ugly, but for such a small use case like this I didn't find it necessary: The script replaces every pixel in the initial splash art with a static color representing the character (Kohane's is
Handles three-star splash art. Since splash art for this rarity takes up the entire screen instead of using a small silhouette, I had to give it different treatment (and therefore different animations):
Will be revealed when solving the challenge!
Just a simple utility method which is typically called when closing a modal. Since we want the closing animation to play (rather than disabling the modal immediately), we wait a little bit before setting it to inactive.
Changes the image after each iteration through the splash art carousel, called at the beginning of every splash art coroutine.
Replaces each pixel within a splash art to create a silhouette of solid color. Called in
Handles the instantiation/destruction of
Utility method exclusively for
|Disables and enables all the appropriate layers and plays the correct sound effects during the transition to the gacha overview page (the grid layout screen with avatars of all the characters you've pulled). Fades the looping music in the background into a different song.|
|Skips the splash art carousel (via |
|A one-liner which disables the gacha overview once the user is finished observing it.|
|Starts the entire backend request -> splash art carousel event chain once again, as long as the user has enough crystals. Is disabled/greyed out if otherwise.|
|Dedicated listener for the |
|Resets every animation at the start of each iteration (e.g. moving the mask back to its place, changing opacities/colors back to normal).|
An isolated part of the
And we're done! See, it wasn't too bad, right?
An extremely undervalued aspect of video games which give them that beautiful polish is sound design. Of course, I'm not the one creating the sound effects themselves; that's an entirely different universe. For sound effects in this challenge, I scoured through some online asset rips of the official game: sekai.best's asset viewer, and the pjsek.ai database:
Any SFX assets I weren't able to find I ended up taking from the game itself——I ended up taking a screen recording of me pulling the gacha and cutting out the various sound effects I heard (with the music volume at 0%). From this, alongside recordings of people fiddling with the gacha system on YouTube, I was able to deduce which sound effects needed to be triggered when. I finished off the recordings with a bit of post-processing in Audacity:
AudioController.cs itself first needs a class
Sound, which defines an
AudioClip with a name:
We can now define the audio controller to take an array of
Sounds and two floats for their respective volumes. The audio controller will have a plethora of useful methods to call throughout our other scripts:
With this, we can now freely drag audio clips into the audio controller, rename them, and call them on a whim from any of our other scripts, like our
This script is responsible for the diagonal movement in the background of the splash art carousel and the gacha overview screen. It's a simple script which moves the background
RawImage's UV Rect diagonally:
This only works if the image asset itself has a Wrap Mode of "Repeat" (instead of "Clamp").
The Prefab system was utilized to create a reusable component for every button, containing interactive transition colors and a script which handled the button's shrinking/expanding animations on-click:
This is the resulting behavior:
These two scripts were adopted from the
wmjoers/CameraScaler repository, which provided fixes to bad aspect ratios on standalone 2D unity bundles. Think of it as converting an image in CSS from
object-fit: cover to
object-fit: contain, so that the game camera itself preserves its aspect ratio even when the game window is altered:
Since we have a lot of context now on how the game is made and the various scripts that we need to exploit/manipulate, we can now trivially reverse-engineer the game and hack in the 4* character. Let's get started!
We're initially provided with a
dist/ folder with the following structure:
Opening up the executable in Windows will reveal a video game titled "Azusawa's Gacha World", which is revealed to be generated by Unity from the splash image that appears on-load:
It's... an entirely Japanese gacha game! We can totally pull on the gacha with our 100 crystals to start off with, but we quickly realize that this entire system is rigged from the second button on the bottom left (which reads ガチャ詳細 -> "Gacha Details"):
We can see that we were provided a list of percentages, which indicate the chance that each rarity of character will be dropped. The top rarity, the bow icon, indicates a "special" rarity of character that has a 0% chance of dropping from the pool.
Check out that emphasized text in pink, however. Although players are meant to OCR the text for translation (or just know Japanese), I'll skip the notion and just translate it:
注意: このキャラクターは、このピックアップで行う100 万回目の引き出しで保証されます。
NOTE: This character is guaranteed on the 1,000,000th withdrawal made in this pickup.
Of course, this means that we would need to pull a million times to get our desired character. That's no fun——so how are we going to manipulate this game to make it think that we've already pulled a million times?
Let's use dnSpy v6.1.8 to our advantage here to reverse engineer the game. Since all Unity-compiled C# code goes into an
Assembly-CSharp.dll within the
dist/Asusawa's Gacha World_Data/Managed directory, we should be analyzing this file first and foremost. Opening dnSpy and dragging the DLL into the program will reveal the following structure:
Sifting through the code, the most relevant script out of all seems to be a
GachaManager.cs, which creates
POST requests to a backend server of some kind. We find a suspicious string near the top of the
Deobfuscating this string with a simple base64 decoder reveals the following IP address, which is the endpoint that the game is sending requests to:
Let's figure out the structure that the game is sending to the server. Let's take a closer look at the
We can see that
SetRequestHeader() is being called to add some custom headers to the web request:
User-Agent: SekaiCTF and
Content-Type: application/json. The contents of the JSON payload itself can be reversed from the
We can see that a new
GachaRequest is being created with the parameters
numPulls. Since we can edit and recompile assemblies with dnSpy, let's change the parameters being sent to
GachaRequest to something static. We can change the
this.gameState.crystals parameter to something large, like 10,000,000, and the
this.gameState.pulls parameter to something close to 1,000,000——let's say 999,999. Right click the method and click "Edit Method (C#)..." to change the parameters:
After fixing some minor errors, we can recompile the DLL and save it over the original one, which will successfully modify our in-game parameters. Let's try pulling again:
That's about all there is left to cover in terms of the Unity project! Honestly, for a 1* (baby difficulty) reverse-engineering challenge which could probably be solved in less than 5 minutes by an experienced reverse player, a lot of sweat and tears were put into this entire process——a total of 29 hours (via WakaTime) over the course of 3 weeks were spent designing, programming, and polishing. I'm really proud of the final product that I've created; you can genuinely see the overall growth from last year's challenge. I hope you enjoyed reading about the process as much as I enjoyed making it!
Special thanks to:
- @sahuang for helping me design the challenge, testing, and deploying backend
- @blueset for helping me identify fonts and for assets from the Luna for CTFd theme
- @stypr for graciously allowing us to put the challenge description in his website
Here are the various databases, wikis, and websites I utilized during this challenge: