A few weeks ago Nintendo announced they were partnering with mobile gaming titan DeNA, who owns one of the most successful mobile gaming businesses in the world. A lot of people immediately went out and bought bread, milk, eggs, and every Mario game on the shelf in preparation for their defiant stance against the incoming free-to-play (F2P) storm.
Nintendo does a lot of odd things. But for every odd step they may take they usually take 2 really good steps in a totally new direction. Remember how poorly received the first DS and 3DS systems were for their strange new approaches? What!? Two screens?! And now one is 3D!? Now, look at how they grew the hand-held and mobile gaming market we know today. Sure, they may be a few years behind the iPhone and Android platforms, but here is why in not too worried. There are certain things Nintendo always seems to bring to the table.
Nintendo makes quality games. Period. If they are involved, than you can bet your hind quarters it's going to be of good quality. Perhaps you may not dig the genre or tone of a particular game but there are things they just always nail. For example...
Nintendo knows how to take a simple concept and work it into a fully realized fun user experience. I mean, The fist Mario game was essentially just "walk right", and look what they did with that. Puzzle games like Tetris and Pushmo will stand the tests of time because of their simple concepts and ease of accessibility. But it's more than that, it's also...
These guys have been doing this a long time and they can pull from there knowledge of successful titles as proof of what it takes to design a good game level. I believe that level designer Koichi Hayashida, who worked on titles like Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 (Wii), Mario Sunshine (Game Cube), and both Super Mario 3D Land (3DS) and World (WiiU), has the key to Nintendo's successful level design. He says the four steps are like a 4 panel Japanese comic strip and goes something like this:
First, introduce the idea in a safe environment. Then, offer a more complicated version with risk or danger. Next, add an unexpected crazy twist to the concept. Lastly, show the final mastery of the concept. Go play any stage in the more recent Mario titles and you will see why this is such a successful and fun way to design a game. But sometimes it's just the surface level stuff too, like...
Music and User Interface
Nintendo's uncredited team of diddy composers is some of the best in the business. From basic menu music to level themes, the importance of simple but catchy and high quality music cannot be ignored. If you mix that with Nintendo's amazingly simple but intuitive menu designs and button layouts you have something Nintendo NintenDOES right. I can't stress how easy it is to ignore these two things, but how crucial it is to how often or how long you play a game.
Now, the question is, will these Nintendo norms translate into what Nintendo has coined (get it?) the "Free-to-start" model? Well let's take a look at a few of the F2P games Nintendo has already produced on their 3DS handheld as well as one of DeNA's mobile games. Follow the "+" and "-" symbols to see what works and what doesn't, respectively. The goal being how much fun I can have spending as little money as possible.
Pokémon Shuffle (by Nintendo on the 3DS eShop)
A simple puzzler where you gotta catch all of those Pokémon by matching sets of Pokémon.
+ Great Music. Cute, catchy, and changes every 10 levels or so.
+ Nice user interface. Menus and maps are very appealing. The menus themsleves aren't over loaded. The text fonts and button layouts work perfectly for an all touch interface.
+ I've not once paid any real world money. I play once or twice a day for around 30 mins each session. The game-play is solid for a puzzler and simple enough for anybody to get into. And, I actually enjoy being forced try and catch certain Pokémon within the 5 hearts limit. I've never been one to spend hours with puzzle games anyway. The enforced time limit for heart regenerations matches my game playing schedule perfectly while riding on the trains to and from work.
- Pokémon are disembodied illustrated heads of the Poké friends you know and love.
- The catching never seems to stop. It's also tied to an element of luck which is beyond your control. You may be able to catch a Pokémon at a 20% chance no problem, but then randomly fail a catch at MAX% (Notice it's not 100% because then it can screw you over without technically lying to you. )
Pokémon Rumble World (by Nintendo on the 3DS eShop)
A simple action brawler where you use Pokémon toys to, surprise, catch them all!
+ Simple game-play that's fun in short bursts and there's even a (sort of) story.
+ Again, zero real world money paid. In fact, the game has a cap on how much real world money you can actually spend. Roughly $30 (¥3000). So you can essentially just pay for a full game. The diamonds you buy can be used to access stages, but are more for cosmetic changes to your in game Mii or your impatience.
+ Character models for the Pokémon are simple but look good as well as the level backgrounds.
- Menus, music, and user interface are weak sauce. Ugly colors and font. The same music plays every time you come back to your kingdom.
- Another non-Pokémon Pokémon game. Because the best thing about a Pokémon game is when it's not a Pokémon game.
Sub Wars (by Nintendo on the 3DS eShop)
A Free-to-Start FPS online multi-player submarine battler.
+ For zero real world money you can battle others online in tactical submarine shooting action just like the real thing with a limited sub and skill selection. If you want, you can buy the full game for $10 (¥1000) to unlock more subs and features. I opted to spend nothing to see what I could do.
+ The music, graphics, and game-play are all top notch in quality and accuracy. This feels like a real full online game, until you realize...
- Battling in a submarine just really isn't that fun. In fact it's difficult. You can chat with your teammates, but only through actual Morse Code.
- Your opponents far outmatch you with the paid content version. And, no matter how hard you work in the free version, you will never get what they have.
- I would have defended this game more but at one point in the second big patch they altered the free version to having to use "play coins" for the free users just to enter a match. Essentially forcing users to walk around with their 3DS to earn coins to play an essentially online only game. This went against the game's initial appeal and it was down right dumb. They've since changed it back. But, it turned me off to the game forever.
Rusty's Real Deal Baseball (by Nintendo on the 3DS eShop)
A collection of baseball themed mini games ranging from batting, fielding, umpire calling, to bat-making. Sounds like it would only appeal to baseball enthusiasts, right? The unique part is these are mini games within the actual game for a fictional game system, the Nontendo 4DS, that you can bargain for and buy from retired baseball player Rusty. (This review was done in US$)
+ Surprisingly accessible to those not very interested in baseball. The games are more about timing, muscle memory, and eye and hand coordination.
+ The music, sound effects, graphics are all top notch. The river side, baseball stadiums, and batting cage backgrounds all look good. User interface is also simple and snappy. Nintendo in top form on this one.
+ Real world money was spent on this game. I think I spent roughly $16. But, this is not a bad thing. The framework structure of this game is you get one free trial game. You can then buy each other full mini game from Rusty with real world money. But, you can bargain with him and bring down the prices. Depending on items earned and tickets collected prices of games can go from $4 down to $1.50. The story and bargaining feature were enough to convince me to give it a try. The $16 was very well spent. Considering it could have cost over $40 without bargaining.
- I really enjoyed the bargaining part of it. It was really fun thinking I just saved real money. But part of me would have rather just paid a solid $16 for the game and had other types of rewards instead. I don't think this is a $40 game value-wise
- Some of the challenges are really really hard. Like make you want to through your system out the window hard.
Final Fantasy: Record Keepers (by DeNA for iOS and Android)
A Final Fantasy themed F2P game where you play as a librarian who must recollect the scattered stories of Final Fantasy games of the past 25 years. My dream of going into combat as a librarian has finally come true.
+ Thankfully, the game play is actually similar to the turn based FF games. Unlike the other Pokémon themed games from Nintendo listed above. The core FF battle mechanic is mostly intact minus the story and world exploration.
+ Music from the various FF games is all there. As well as classic characters and weapons. It's cool to see sprite versions of famous FF characters and sprites from older games kept intact.
- Typical DeNA style, there are WAY to many menus. And believe it or not it's actually hard to find the places where you spend actual money. That being said I haven't spent any real money on this and probably never will because....
- The game is actually pretty boring. In fact there is an auto battle button which will help you sit through a battle instead of having to tap the handful of time times you would actually have too. If the game can play itself then why am I even bothering? Also, without the world exploration and story segments, it essentially boils FF down to endless grinding with no reward of a climatic final boss of story closing.
- There a lot of characters to unlock. Unfortunately they all start at level 0 and finding equipment is a chore and the thing that costs actual real world money if short on gems. So, when you finally get a character you like, your main party is at 20 and Cloud comes in at level 0. You then have the choices of leveling him up, boost his levels with items, or just turning off the game due to boredom. I chose the latter.
So where does this leave us? Well, Nintendo has made pretty good attempts at grasping the free-to-play model fairly well. In fact they've already used some cool tricks to get me interested like Rusty's Real Deal Baseball. And, they've stayed true to a large portion of those Nintendo qualities I spoke of earlier with only a few missteps. DeNA on the other hand doesn't have me convinced yet. But, part of that may be that I'm not part of the core audience that they have built their billion dollar industry off of. I'm personally not that into gambling, but if the presentation and reward are worth it I'm not ashamed to throw some money toward something that I think deserves it.
What does the future hold for the Nintendo x DeNA dream team? I'm sure there will be Pokémons and Marios and Zeldas and all of that well trotted stuff. But, part of me, maybe stupidly, has faith Nintendo legends will help keep the polish and charm strong on these future free-to-start games. And just remember, you don't ever really have to pay any real world money if you don't want to. Feel free to play any free-to-play game and not pay. Say that 3 times fast. Or, buy an in game diamond to have Nintendo and DeNA say it for you!