Here we go again. Another major video game company poo-pooing free-to-play as some passing fad and citing that it can’t possibly work for them because of vaguely specified monetary reasons, despite the fact that some of the biggest F2P games rake in millions…
Wait, it’s not quite like that? Well, I’ll be.
As reported by Kotaku, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata commented on the F2P space in his company’s recent investors’ call. And, unlike similar “We don’t like F2P” statements made by Square-Enix, Iwata offers rational and reasonable explanations for his stance.
On the other hand, the integrated hardware-software model has a significant handicap today, as the traditional way of explicitly telling consumers the investment they need to put in to buy hardware and software now comes across as being relatively more expensive due to changes in our environment… the hurdle we have to clear in order to encourage them to purchase dedicated game systems has comparatively become higher.
Iwata is saying what every maker of primarily non-F2P games knows: that with the gaming market as it is now, it’s hard to push games with a $60 price tag out there when players can get stuff for free. It doesn’t matter what your philosophical feelings are on the subject, whether you think it’s good or bad or whatever – that’s just how it is.
And he recognizes that his company needs to do more to encourage people to buy their full-price games (and consoles). This is at least a better, and more rational, stance than just saying, “You’ll buy our games because we’re an old, established company with well-known IPs, and gosh-darnit, we’re just better!” The times are changing, and those who don’t at least recognize that change and adapt to it will be left behind.
As with games that are free-to-play, or “free-to-start” as we like to call it, there is a tendency within the entertainment industry to make gaming as easy as possible to start playing. Because our hardware and software are integrated, we first need consumers to purchase our hardware to get our business off the ground, a challenge I outlined when I talked about changing the way we sell our products.
First off, “heh” on the “free-to-start” line. Consoles are typically a loss leader for their manufacturers, or at the very least, they hope to break even on their sales. So it makes sense that a console maker would be averse to offering up “free” games for their products when the only way they’ll make money is by selling the games themselves. This is an issue that a developer for mobile devices or PCs doesn’t have, since they’re just making the software and don’t care how well the platform sells.
However, only two years ago, many people urged Nintendo to follow other companies into what was then a very lucrative area, but no one says so any longer. In a similar vein, those who now claim that we should make games for smart devices might or might not be saying so in three years. It is our determination for our mid-term future to make efforts to devise our own solutions different from others.
With this, it seems that most of Iwata’s comments are directed at mobile games, which quite possibly have peaked. They’ll still remain profitable for a while, but they’re so far outside Nintendo’s sphere of influence that jumping on now would probably be a bad idea.
As for free-to-play in general, I think Nintendo’s in a difficult spot. As mentioned, console makers have a different set of needs than pure software developers, and, as difficult a time as devs have with getting their F2P offerings on Sony’s and Microsoft’s hardware, you’d have to imagine it’s a lot tougher with Nintendo, considering their relative lack of online infrastructure.
Also, most of the “big” free-to-play games (League of Legends, World of Tanks, Dota 2) are PvP-styled affairs. When you think “competitive PvP,” do you think Nintendo? Not so much. While not exactly e-sports-ready, F2P Smash Bros. or Mario Kart could be awesome, but they would require some kind of reworking, such as a progression system, in addition to the simple overcoming of Nintendo’s long-held beliefs and traditions.
Considering how the Wii U has tanked, they can’t really rule out any potential moneymaking avenue. It’s not like the other consoles are totally embracing the concept, so the ideal situation would be for Nintendo to figure out a way to make it work on consoles and provide innovation in the field the way they did with motion control devices for the Wii. The Wii made consoles more accessible to a wider range of people than ever before; free-to-play has that same potential.
But Nintendo moves slowly and doesn’t give in easily to what it perceives as short-lived trends. Even if they welcomed free-to-play games on the Wii U, it’s probably too late for that console. F2P is unlikely to be something they can ignore forever, but for now, you’d best look elsewhere.
By Jason Winter