Fire Emblem Heroes: Compromised Design of Free-to-Play and Player Subversion

February 7, 2017

Casey Moore, Host

 

Complaining about mobiles games is nothing new but by golly am I going to do it anyway.

Boy oh boy am I a sucker for Fire Emblem.  I started playing it when I was 13 and for the last 8 years, I don’t think there’s been a point at which I wasn’t playing a Fire Emblem game in some capacity, be it my hours of grinding in Awakening for minimal payoff or my 11th consecutive playthrough of Rekka no Ken.  I’ve disliked, even flat out hated some of the entries, but I just can’t keep myself from coming back time and again.

February 2nd saw the release of Nintendo’s latest mobile venture in Fire Emblem Heroes.  On the surface it’s a hyper-simplified take on turn-based strategy franchise, allowing the player just four characters in any party.  The pool of characters begins with some starting throwaways like Awakening’s Virion and Rekka no Ken’s Matthew (what did they do to my child?!), all of whom should be replaced as soon as possible by characters gained by spending such and such currency that you can buy with actual, real-life currency.

It’s a Gacha game.  You have missions that you take characters on, where the characters are earned through an arbitrary slot machine in which you don’t pay money to earn the character you want but rather for a chance to get a character you want, but likely several you won’t in the process – for me, this was almost the entire Fire Emblem Fates cast before I got Fir, a character I did like.  It was an exercise in patience and frustration but the second I saw my favored character appear on my screen, it was simply thrilling.  And that’s the trap.

300px-fir

Fir is one of my favorite characters.  Too bad the game she’s in,
Fuuin no Tsurugi, never came out in the US.

It’s nothing new, and it’s what one should have come to expect of a mobile game that doesn’t charge you upfront by now.  You save up a material for a while and then you spend it to roll some dice and hope that they come up in a permutation that results in a character you want, or at least can get any value from – getting both might be asking too much.  I rolled about 25 times before I got one particular character I liked, Florina, only to find out that without also spending materials to level her up and gain abilities rapidly, she was useless.  Of course, the alternative was to level her up the good old fashioned way, but even that consumes stamina, this game’s version of the Zynga energy system.  If you run out of stamina, you also have the option of fighting in the arena to earn some points to promote your characters and get some experience along the way, but taking a first level character in is a death sentence and you risk losing your win streak, and thus, more of yet another currency – and yes, you have to spend another currency just to participate in arena battles.

Much like any Free-to-Play mobile game worth its salt, when you begin Fire Emblem Heroes you’re given a generous supply of material to keep you playing for a bit and get you hooked.  You’re given plenty of orbs to roll your starting team with (your influence being limited to choosing which of two batches of high-level characters you want to have a 3% chance of rolling) and the early missions cost such a minimal amount of stamina that you’ll just about regain it in the time it takes to finish a battle, all in an elaborate-but-not-subtle means to an end to give the player a high on virtual gambling in hopes that it’ll persuade them to drop some of their hard-earned cash.

To a point, that’s fine – products cost money.  Nintendo needs money to pay the developers, publishing costs, server costs, and the wide variety of artists and voice actors and still make a couple bucks after all is said and done.  Servers are why monthly charges for online games exist – they need to keep those servers maintained and running, and still make enough money to justify the added and continuing expense.

The difference is that in most games, there’s an interplay between consumer and merchant in which a price is understood and a price is paid.  The responsibility of the trade lies with the merchant.  You can live without their product, but they don’t have such a luxury – every person is a possible consumer to buy their product to make them money, and if people are turned away by some attribute of this interplay, the only one who truly loses anything is the merchant.  The merchant loses theoretical money, as well as an opportunity to capture a larger audience should they create new products.

Let’s say there’s a person who has never downloaded a mobile game and doesn’t know anything about the mobile game climate.  They just bought a smartphone today because they’re a huge fan of Fire Emblem and simply must play Heroes.  A reasonable consumer would see the nonexistent price tag and be skeptical, as well they should, because Fire Emblem Heroes is, like much of the mobile market, a “free” game in which you’re halted from play by either a timer or a paywall at a pace that would get under any traditional gamer’s skin.

Now, let’s talk money.  I firmly believe that every creator should be paid for their work and Fire Emblem Heroes is no different, but in dissecting the issues with money in the free-to-play market we need to draw comparisons.  Your run-of-the-mill console release tends to run the consumer $60 in the US, but Fire Emblem Heroes isn’t nor does it pretend to be of the same scale as your Witchers and Mass Effects.  It’s not quite up to par with the current portable gaming console games, either, which run $40 on average.

The question is, since Fire Emblem Heroes is a game that is “free” but, for all intents and purposes, demands the player use real money to reasonably enjoy the game after a certain   amount of progress has been made, how much money is reasonable to spend on it?  Games aren’t priced based on quality, of course, so this isn’t a perfect point of reference, but bear with me.  For $40 you can buy the newest Fire Emblem game on 3DS and be done with it – there’s DLC, sure, but the game is complete in package and doesn’t halt you from playing it after an arbitrary amount of time.  Even if not Fire Emblem, there’s no short supply of good, complete, reasonably priced games to buy as alternatives.

That’s where the draw of free-to-play is.  It’s a no-commitment product that very, very firmly requests that the player pay to use it, but in order to get the same amount of game time from Fire Emblem Heroes as one would get from a brand new 3DS game, the consumer would have to ultimately pay much, much more or wait much, much longer in between sessions of play.  The idea is that players will drop $5 here and there and maybe have paid $50 over the course of a year or so, but by the time I’m even considering spending any money at all, I’ve usually realized that what I’m playing simply isn’t a valuable product in comparison to alternatives.  Consumers will start to realize this and instead of only spending a few dollars to keep playing for a bit, they’ll look at the long term and decide it’s not even worth the initial investment if it’s only going to lead to more paywalls.

It’s a vicious cycle of not demanding much, or anything, be paid for a product, but compromising on the quality of the product to avoid overreaching with development costs, which simultaneously causes a cognitive dissonance in which most players, if the fact that only 1% of mobile gamers spend any money at all on games after downloading them is telling, won’t even bother with the initial payments.  I fall into that category – I played Fire Emblem Heroes and completed the 9 story chapters, but after seeing the high level cap, knowing that I have to achieve it again after promoting my characters (using an exorbitant amount of two different currencies), which will cost stamina which I’ll also have to buy if I want to play for more than 10 minutes at a time and so on and so forth, I start to think my time is best used elsewhere.

fireemblem7

Such as my 14th playthrough of Fire Emblem 7.

It’s subversive.  There are too many currencies that all cost money, all of which I need just to play the damned thing.  I spend more time trying to think about how I can get the most out of my free experience because spending money on the game will not cease the necessity of continuing to spend money in the future, than I do even playing.  Because of this model, players will be more inclined to simply find the best way around paying because there’s no absolute necessity that they have to pay – and once they do, they’ll simply stop.

Which shouldn’t come as a surprise because at the endgame, you can only do at most three consecutive battles before you have to set your phone aside and let that stamina recharge, if you’ve gone through your IV drip of stamina recharge potions already.

Ethically, I don’t think monthly premiums are that bad, especially when server maintenance is a constant expense of the developer.  However, games like Fire Emblem Heroes do not charge the player that way.  They don’t insist that you pay $15 a month to continue playing like traditional MMOs do.  Instead, you’re expected to nickel and dime here and there just for a shot at some good characters, as well as the dozen currencies needed to maintain your characters.  MMO premiums are the closest comparison to the payment model, but then when you compare quality, Fire Emblem Heroes is no Final Fantasy XIV.

No matter how you look at it, Fire Emblem Heroes is not the quality of game that would be sold like a full priced 3DS title, nor does it provide enough meaningful content for its costs to compare to an MMO, yet the ultimate costs it would entail simply to continue playing the game in any meaningful way would be far greater than either of those options necessitate.  It’s a fun little game that’s worth a few hours of your time, and maybe a few of your dollars, but if you plan to spend much money on a game you’re better off not looking in the App Stores in the first place.

One other problem I’ve encountered is that the ratio of content to opportunities to get new team members is frustratingly mismatched.  Including the daily bonuses and the 25 or so free orbs you get for starting and linking your account, I still only finished with under 100.  Using them optimally, 100 orbs only equals 25 chances to draw (doing them in groups of 5 for 20 orbs makes them cost less each time, but you also have less control over the types of characters you draw).  I finally drew a character I liked near the end, but at that point it wasn’t worth the trouble to catch them up to the rest of my team.  Now that the story is finished, I have the option to play it on harder difficulties to get more orbs, but then I hit a level wall because of the radically diminished returns on experience gains as well as increased experience requirements to gain levels.  Honestly, it’s a better use of my time to erase my save and go for lucky draws with the starting set of orbs again and reset until I get something worthwhile.

16558422_1545913488771517_403777501_n.png

And I did, because I’m a big ol’ hypocrite.

Though I’m being harsh on Fire Emblem Heroes, it’s not uniquely so.  Again, it’s a Gacha game and it’s by no means the first of its ilk.  These short-bursts of cost games, these slot machines games with a coat of paint that just happens to look like another game you like, they’re everywhere on the mobile market, and if I’m being completely honest, I think they suck.  I think it’s an unsustainable business model that actively compromises the quality of the very games these creators are trying to sell in favor of a couple bucks from a percent of their install base.

That said, I’m empathetic.  I know the consumer market of mobile games are the people who don’t want to spend money on their products.  I know that the “freemium” model is a reaction to the state of the mobile market.  I also think it’s self-fulfilling.

There are complete, good games on the mobile marketplaces that are charged a flat rate.  There are Chrono Triggers and Dragon Quests that can be bought for a relatively small amount of money, and they’re full, quality games.  The issue is that the “freemium” market is working, at least right now.  Pokémon Go was and is immensely profitable despite not charging upfront – though I have my thoughts on that game’s quality as well.

I suppose if mobile games continue to be profitable, then there’s no reason developers should model them any differently.  I’ve said in the past that games are a consumer product before they’re an art form, and as they remain profitable, business sense lends to continuing the trend, but I wish they were more than an onslaught of comparatively low-quality games that are more expensive to enjoy the same amount as traditional ones.

If we’re comparing Fire Emblem Heroes to any other Fire Emblem game, it’s not good, but relative to the expectations of the mobile market, I think my verdict is closer to it being “fine.”  The new artwork is at worst good and at best excellent, and the variety of characters available on day one is giant, lending to the huge variety of team compositions I’ve fought in the arena.  I recommend it insofar that the story is completable using only what you’re given for free, and it’s worth seeing that out if you’re interested.  I’m not going to tell anyone not to pay for a product they use, but I will suggest that if you’re looking to spend money on a game that you want to enjoy long term, Fire Emblem Heroes isn’t the best nor the most financially sensible place to look.

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I’m still a hypocrite, though.

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