JM: *Clears Throat*:
Pokémon Shuffle Mobile could
undermine Iwata's mobile plans
Posted by James at 12:25

The Pokémon Company has gone rogue again. Having released Pokémon Trading Card Game on iPad last year, it has announced that Pokémon Shuffle Mobile will available soon on iOS and Android devices.

Pokémon Shuffle, you may remember, is a Free-to-Play Pokémon game for 3DS. It's a fairly basic match-three puzzler wrapped in fairly charming presentation. So far, so generic. What's more interesting is how The Pokémon Company and developer Genius Sonority set out to monetise players of the game. After spending some time with it a few months ago, it's fairly conventional.

Pokémon Shuffle is set up to monetise 'whales', the most engaged players whose spending typically provides the majority of a game's revenue. Indeed, the majority of Pokémon Shuffle players likely won't find a reason to spend anything when they casually play through the game, but those who are dead-set on collecting all the Pokémon and completing the Pokédex, or getting through the late-game (1, 2, 3), will.

Show/hide video

So there's that. But The Pokémon Company's timing with this mobile port isn't ideal. It comes a month after Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata outlined more of his company's plans to release five mobile games by April 2017, the first landing later this year.

When asked about how Nintendo will monetise the games in an investor Q&A session, Iwata replied with the following:
My understanding of how to succeed in the Japanese market now is to find a limited number of generous consumers who are willing to spend a lot and analyze what encourages them to spend. However, if we did that, I don't think that we would be able to entertain hundreds of millions of consumers all around the world or to produce large and long-lasting achievements.

Iwata acknowledges the long-term consequences of whale hunting in pursuit of short-term profits, which is likely a reference to some companies have struggled to release a second or third hit on mobile.

It's particularly relevant for Nintendo, too. First of all, Iwata wants to protect the value of Nintendo's IP, some of which are still relevant after thirty years. Second, Nintendo is moving into mobile for the long-term.

Its aim is to build long term relationships with customers, many of which once owned a Wii, with the goal being to entice them back to Nintendo's dedicated hardware business. A global Nintendo account that spans mobile, PC and its upcoming NX hardware will be the centerpiece that links their mobile offerings with the rest of the puzzle.

It's therefore important that Nintendo gets the balance right as far as monetising its mobile games goes. Iwata wants Nintendo to go "wide and small" rather than "narrow and large"; it isn't interested isn't chasing a small percentage of super-engaged players to supply the majority of income for its games, rather it wants an even distribution of revenue from as wide a number of players as possible.

The issue with The Pokémon Company releasing Pokémon Shuffle on mobile is that for many, "Pokémon" is synonymous with "Nintendo". The Pokémon Company commissioning a mobile port of a game that already exists on a Nintendo platform (and has received Nintendo's backing) only serves to make that important distinction even more muddy.

Since Pokémon Shuffle goes "narrow and large" with its monetisation, there's a potential for it -- if consumers associate the game with Nintendo, which is likely -- to undermine Nintendo's plans to go "wide and small" in order to build a longer-lasting relationship with its customers.

How can Nintendo and DeNA avoid this? It'll depend on how tightly integrated their upcoming online platform will be with its mobile efforts, despite Nintendo and The Pokémon Company's games existing on the same digital distribution platforms. But it's clear that Nintendo also faces an uphill battle amidst the stigma from Free-to-Play games in general, too.
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JM: *Clears Throat*:
On Nintendo's new
flexible Amiibo pricing
Posted by James at 09:15

There was a Japan-only Nintendo Direct today, and it brought with it two interesting pieces of news surrounding Amiibo, the company's entry into the 'toys-to-life' and collectibles market.

Mr. Morimoto, Nintendo's PR representative, revealed a new wave of Yoshi Amiibo to tie in with upcoming Wii U title Yoshi's Woolly World. Like everything in that game, the Amiibo have this fuzzy, knitted, woollen feel to them, and certainly feel higher quality than some of the plastic Amiibo that came before them. The difference is reflected in price: they'll be 1800 yen, excluding tax.

This is big news. Previous Amiibo have all been 1200 yen, confirming our theory that Nintendo has finally budged from its fixed RRP. In a previous piece examining Nintendo's Amiibo supply woes, I noted that Nintendo's fixed RRP, combined with varying production costs for all Amiibo (Nintendo shoulders a loss on some Amiibo), were likely to be a large contributing factor to Nintendo's Amiibo supply woes:
Ramping up production of older, scarcer figures would be fine had their designs not been fixed in a way that means they aren't going to turn a profit. Nintendo, committed to keeping the price constant across the entire range in order to return an Amiibo profit overall, is now on the verge of angering fans. It faces a distinct trade-off between short term profits and retaining longer-term loyalty of its fan base.
Since we now have confirmation of a more flexible approach to Amiibo pricing going forward, the move should certainly be welcomed. It tells us that Nintendo is aiming to realign its goals as far as Amiibo production costs and supply go.

How far they will go in achieving this is less certain. New Amiibo from series under the old pricing structure, such as those in the Super Smash Bros. waves, remain in short supply. Individual retail stores typically receive half a dozen of the figures upon their release dates. Pre-orders tend to overload websites, losing stores custom.

It's a cost-benefit situation, and given the potentially razor-thin profit margins associated with Amiibo at their RRP, many retailers have begun marking up the figures simply to make stocking the things worthwhile, rather than an obligation. In the United Kingdom, two retailers (GAME and ShopTo) have decided to price all new Amiibo at Ł20 -- Ł9 above the RRP. It's hard to blame them for doing so.

While there isn't much hope that the supply situation for older Amiibo waves will improve, there are signs that new waves are indeed being stocked more plentifully. Speaking at Nintendo's investor relations event this month, CEO Satoru Iwata claimed that the company has "increased production for amiibo figures that have sold out very quickly after launch, that are indispensable to play a certain game".

The latest "Splatoon" Amiibo are a great example of what Iwata calls indispensable. They unlock a variety of unique arcade minigames and single player challenges in Nintendo's outrageously fun shooter, far from the throwaway extras previous Amiibo brought to the table. So it's a good thing that Nintendo has seemingly kept to its word, then, as the Splatoon Amiibo are still readily available here in the United Kingdom, even after the game launched to a marketing budget as big as Mario Kart 8's. Had these Amiibo faced supply shortages, Nintendo would end up excluding players of its latest game in addition to the die hard collectors who bought into the concept in the first place.

What about North America, which currently accounts for two thirds (66%) of global Amiibo shipments? The region is likely to be Nintendo's biggest struggle as far as sorting Amiibo supply issues out goes, but there are signs that Splatoon Amiibo are indeed more plentiful there too. At the time of writing, both the Inkling Boy and Inkling Girl Amiibo are readily available on Amazon for the RRP of $13. By comparison, a Greninja Amiibo which launched at the same time as an addition to the long-running Super Smash Bros. waves, has long been out of stock.

Amiibo pricing aside, the other interesting piece of Amiibo news surrounds Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer, Nintendo's first 3DS-focused Amiibo title. There were initial worries about its massmarket appeal, given only New 3DS supports Amiibo out of the box, and only 6% of 3DS hardware sold to date (52 million) are New Nintendo 3DS (3.3 million). Regular 3DS owners need to buy an optional, 2500 yen (Ł13/$20) Amiibo NFC reader/writer.

The good news is that Nintendo is offering a bundle with the game and Amiibo reader for 5000 yen, just 200 more than the typical price for Nintendo software on the platform, and 1000 yen more than the solus game. This should go some way towards improving the software's takeup, as will its use of "Amiibo cards": cards are much easier to manufacture and ship in bulk, and they take up far less space on store shelves, so Nintendo shouldn't run into any supply issues when the game launches globally (Japan accounts for just 10% of global Amiibo shipments).

It's an interesting time for the Amiibo platform, and Nintendo's ongoing and resposive experimentation ought to serve as useful lessons as the company inevitably moves from relying on Amiibo as a short-term revenue booster to something that will play a more defining role in the company's next platform, codenamed NX.

Find more Amiibo analysis here.
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JM: *Clears Throat*:
The videogame Kickstarter
and creative control
Posted by James at 06:27

It's fair to say that crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter have gone from strength to strength in allowing developers to attain the necessary funding as a first step toward realising their visions, visions which may not have a wide enough market for publishers to sign them up in the traditional sense.

Take Playtonic Games' Yooka-Laylee, a 3D platformer from many ex-Rare staff who are promising a revival of the games they made in the late-nineties during what many fans see as a golden era. It quickly became the fastest game on Kickstarter to reach $1m in funding, and at the time of writing has nearly surpassed Elite: Dangerous, a project which closed at just below Ł1.6m ($2.5m).

46,000 backers isn't quite enough to justify a traditional market for a game in a genre many have said has fallen out of fashion -- Yooka-Laylee's current average spend lies at around Ł32 ($50), so we're likely looking at a niche, highly focused group who are willing to put as much money as they want towards it.

But it will ensure that a start-up with low overhead and the right talent and exposure (remember, many of Playtonic Games' staffers were from Rare and hold a connection with those willing to pay for it) can make the right steps towards feasibly developing, marketing and eventually releasing their game.

This is undeniably great news. As the top-end of the industry shifts toward a hit-driven AAA space, it's understandable that big publishers find themselves in positions where they cannot take these projects under their wing. Games like Ubisoft's excellent Grow Home are exceptions rather than the rule -- part of their garage development scheme, it and Child of Light are used to nurture and prepare talent within the company.

Publishers get their fair share of criticism whenever they have their say on all sorts of aspects of a game's development process, whether they are creative (Timesplitters: Future Perfect's main lead, Cortez, was publisher EA's call) or financial. Sometimes developers don't end up making the games they strictly wanted to make. Publishers see this process as a means of minimising risk and maximising potential success.

Stripped of the shackles of the traditional publisher, the Kickstarter model should also allow developers to control more of the creative process. But does it?

Some of these problems also apply to Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms. As a developer pitching to backers before and throughout the development process, you're still trying to please the guy with the money, so to speak. But developers' attention has shifted from publishers to backers, both hopeful of seeing a return.

With the projects in question being primarily creative in nature, you can imagine all sorts of decisions in the development process dividing backers. This in theory can end up shaping a game's direction.

A recent case would be the backlash Playtonic and one of its composers received for including an orchestrated soundtrack as a stretch goal option for Yooka-Laylee. Veteran composer Grant Kirkhope recently felt disheartened, since it was evident that he might not be producing the music he wants to, given pressure from some backers who'd rather the game sounded a particular way.

It's conflicting. Viva Pińata and Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts proved that Kirkhope's compositions translate extremely well to the sounds of the bombastic orchestra and the measured big band. Not everyone saw it this way, though, with a vocal minority of backers challenging Kirkhope about the decision on social media.

The outcome is to be expected. Backers shoulder part of the risk, after all, and moral hazard is still a possibility. Developers see a need to gain trust with their backers, many welcoming community input as part of the development process.

This goes back to the narrative of answering to fans rather than publishers, and it's one of the creative dilemmas of the Kickstarter process. Still, it isn't necessarily a bad thing if the developer's primary aim is to involve the fans and satisfy them. While its quality is still arguably unproven, a high profile example would be Comcept's "Mighty No. 9", a not-so-subtle throwback to Mega Man.

Indeed, Playtonic's Kickstarter campaign does state the following:
Another challenge is to find the perfect balance between our own ideas for Yooka-Laylee and the expectations of the community. We're well aware that many fans are deeply, passionately attached to our past work and in some ways probably understand and adore its intricacies even better than we do. That's why over the coming months -- and during this very Kickstarter campaign -- we'll be consulting the community on some design issues and then ultimately making the final decision within our development team on the absolute direction.
While Yooka-Laylee's music isn't outlined as something the team will be consulting the community on, it's easy to see how this was misinterpreted. Callouts to the community across numerous Kickstarter campaigns are probably changing the expectations of backers -- it's likely this same scenario would have occurred even in the absence of the above paragraph.

In this case, backers shouldn't have the ability to guide parts of the development process that were never explicitly outlined. Orchestrated music is a clearly defined stretch goal, implying it is part of the developer's original vision. The terms of community input were also made clear, accounting for specific parts of the game's development cycle in the future.

Perhaps more clarity is needed. At the end of the day it's another story of trade-offs: Yooka-Laylee and its ilk likely wouldn't have been funded without crowdfunding, so like many other developers in a similar situation, Playtonic are right to work with what they have and make the most of it.

Backers should be reminded that they are only entitled to what is promised and described in the project's description. If they do not share the vision that the team has laid down for their project, then they shouldn't donate. Yesterday evening, the team at Playtonic surpassed their stretch goal for orchestrated music -- hopefully this will give Kirkhope enough confidence to produce the music he's always wanted.
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JM: *Clears Throat*:
Posted by James at 09:35
Nintendo's latest investor meeting brought with it some more news on its recently formed partnership with DeNA.

The alliance is sure to become a defining moment in Nintendo's history, as the company begins to utilise smart devices in an attempt to build a long-term relationship with its customers, the goal being to build a "bridge" between smart device users and its dedicated games business and entice players to hop between the two.

Meanwhile, DeNA naturally wishes for games that bring in large amounts of revenue. This is understandable given the company's negative growth post Bandai-Namco merger, but it also raised concerns about a potential conflict of objectives between the two companies.

Last week's news brings both companies' objectives back into focus. Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata stated that the company only plans to release five games by the end of the next fiscal year, March 2017. The reason for such a small number in two years, when Sega today announced several times as many? Nintendo wants each of its five games under the partnership to become big hits.

It believes that the quality of these games needs to be top-notch in order for them to make a lasting impression, with Iwata claiming that "the odds of success are quite low if consumers cannot appreciate the quality of a game". In order to show its commitment to ensuring it gets this right, not only has Nintendo secretly been experimenting beneath everyone's noses, it also appointed long-time Nintendo veteran Hideki Konno (currently producer of Mario Kart) to head up its mobile development division.

Indeed, Iwata's words certainly make it easier to see how both companies will achieve both of their goals in tandem, rather than in conflict.

The bridge between both Nintendo's new smartphone games business -- Iwata called it a "third pillar" of revenue, much like what Nintendo DS was to GBA and GameCube in 2004 -- and its dedicated games business will be handled by its new membership service, rather than explicitly by the smartphone games themselves.

This explains why Nintendo is happy to focus on getting five big hitters out the door with DeNA, rather than, say, the kind of companion apps that have become so commonplace with publishers of games on dedicated systems. Big hitters in the smartphone business tend to go hand-in-hand with big revenue and millions of users, too (think of the top grossing charts in regional App Stores).

If all goes well, Nintendo will have a captive audience of smart device users who don't necessarily play on their dedicated games platforms. DeNA's desires for games that bring in lots of income are certainly not infeasible either.

How Nintendo will tie it all together is a different story. While we now know it'll be via their all-encompassing membership platform, we're still left wondering how Nintendo will entice back the users they lost from the Wii and DS days, who didn't return for Wii U or 3DS. Pulling this off seems even more difficult given the company has essentially made a clear split between their two businesses going forward: premium games for NX going forward, and more experimental business models for smart device software.

There was also something to gather about how Nintendo's smartphone games might operate. Satoru Iwata also said the following last Friday:
Regarding the number of the titles, you may want to know that we will release approximately five titles by the end of the next fiscal year, which is the end of March 2017. You may think it is a small number, but when we aim to make each title a hit, and because we want to thoroughly operate every one of them for a significant amount of time after their releases, this is not a small number at all and should demonstrate our serious commitment to the smart device business.
Iwata said previously mention that his company was open to all sorts of business models for Nintendo-DeNA smartphone games, ranging from what he calls "Free-to-Start" (of which EA is also experimenting with its own interpretation) to premium.

But it's clear some of Nintendo's smartphone games will be run as services, perhaps with a dependency to online servers for metrics-based game design and other features that only the cloud can deliver. DeNA's specialism in this area is one of the reasons Nintendo decided to partner with the company in the first place, so in hindsight this approach isn't too surprising. But it is shocking, given Nintendo's previous approaches to software and the preservation of older works through its (admittedly waning) virtual console service.

We'll soon discover DeNA's update on the situation and their future plans with Nintendo in the company's earnings call tomorrow. Stay tuned for more analysis as developments unfold.

Read Nintendo's latest financial results briefing here.
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JM: *Clears Throat*:
Nintendo's Amiibo and
managing supply going forward
Posted by James at 11:53

If you've been following Nintendo lately then you probably already know that their Amiibo platform, a range of NFC-powered figures in the Toys to Life genre, have quickly proven themselves to be a viable new revenue stream.

Launching in late November last year, 5.7 million of the figures were shipped in the last two months of 2014 alone, with North American sales being enough to land Amiibo 36% market share at Best Buy, according to estimates from industry expert Bryan Cashman.

As such, Nintendo has comfortably been able to increase the (ARPPU) average revenue per paying user for any games they sell that support and complement the figures. A large roster of "Super Smash Bros." Amiibo launched alongside the complementing game, which is a favourite for Nintendo's most loyal and focused fans. This makes it evident that, for now at least, Amiibo play a key role in Nintendo's short-term strategy to keep the company in the black as it transitions to a new long-term platform.

It's safe to say that Nintendo has also begun to realise that Amiibo have been far successful than predicted. You could point to the last Nintendo Direct broadcast, where eagle-eyed viewers pointed out how it was keener to talk Amiibo than games. But the biggest news is that Nintendo is beginning to adapt the Amiibo line to changing circumstances.

At Nintendo's last investor meeting, CEO Satoru Iwata mentioned the following when speaking on the topic of Amiibo production costs:
I think you can easily tell just by looking at several Amiibo figures that production costs vary for each of them; some Amiibo have a more complex structure and a greater number of colours, which means they cost more to produce than others. Nevertheless, since setting different price points could be misinterpreted as the company valuing certain characters more than others, we came to the decision to set an MSRP (RRP) that would return a profit from the Amiibo platform as a whole.
Indeed, every Amiibo line to date has been sold in the ballpark of the same RRP: Ł10.99/€14.99 in the UK/Europe, $13.99 in North America and 1200 yen in Japan. But Iwata's words also go some way towards explaining why Nintendo hasn't been so keen to supply more Amiibo despite the high demand.

Simply put, Nintendo shoulders a loss on some of the Amiibo figures, while making a tidy profit off others. Any Amiibo in scarce supply tend to be either characters which are less popular or recognisable, or characters whose designs are more intricate, and therefore cost more to manufacture. The connection between the two is unlikely to be a coincidence.

Just compare the difference in quality between the best-selling Amiibo to date, Link, with Rosalina, an Amiibo that has been in scarce supply since it reached both store shelves and retailers' warehouses.

Like any rational company, Nintendo is handling its Amiibo supply situation based on production costs and consumer demand. But it's regularly underestimating this demand. New Amiibo pre-orders are events which habitually bring down retailers' websites (think Black Friday on a smaller scale), with new stock regularly selling out within seconds at worst. Retailers are beginning to question the benefits of stocking the low-margin figures as their patience grows thin. Many fans feel excluded as a result.

This is a distinct problem, and the way Amiibo have been set up to work from a pricing and production angle means Nintendo hasn't had the flexibility in the short term to deal with it responsively.

Ramping up production of the older, scarcer figures would be fine had their designs not been fixed in a way that means they eat into Nintendo's margins if manufactured more freely. Nintendo, committed to keeping the price constant across the entire range in order to return an Amiibo profit overall, is now on the verge of angering fans. It faces a distinct trade-off between short-term profits and retaining long-term loyalty of its fan base.

Worse still, Amiibo are now beginning to unlock extras in supported games which are far from the throwaway goodies were once were associated with. Upcoming "Splatoon" Amiibo unlock 45 challenge missions and 15 rare pieces of gear in the corresponding game, and they have already proven themselves difficult to find, a month before the game even launches.

It's encouraging then, that there are signs which indicate that Nintendo is beginning to loosen some of its rigid policies surrounding the figures, hopefully before it does more harm than good.

Another upcoming line of Amiibo figures, made to complement upcoming Wii U exclusive Yoshi's Woolly World, aren't being priced at the typical Amiibo RRP. At the time of writing, retailers across the United Kingdom are charging above and beyond it, with GAME and ShopTo offering the knitted Yoshis for Ł20, nine pounds more expensive than regular Amiibo.

If this is indicative of a more flexible approach to Amiibo figure pricing, then it should be welcomed. Of course, the higher price reflects the fact that these Amiibo are made from wool and stitching, rather than painted plastic. But it also tells us that Nintendo is aiming to realign its goals as far as Amiibo production costs and supply go, and diversify the platform as a result.

There are also Amiibo Cards in the pipeline, the first of which unlock furniture in an upcoming "Animal Crossing" game. They are cheaper and more consistent to manufacture and ship en masse, sidestepping previous supply issues. Retailers should also be able to pack in more of them into their display units.

A new form factor and more price points across Amiibo lines going forward will give Nintendo an extra degree of flexibility that they didn't have in the launch window. If Nintendo is smart they'll ensure that they don't leave money on the table for future Amiibo waves and releases, otherwise they risk losing some of the goodwill they've built-up with both their retail partners and their fan base.
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JM: *Clears Throat*:
Posted by James at 10:16
DeNA CEO Isao Moriyasu, in an interview with Reuters:
"We want to create games that will be played by hundreds of millions of people. We want to create multiple hit games rather than aiming to succeed with just one powerful IP element."

"We haven't talked to Nintendo about targets, but at DeNA, our best-selling game brought in 3 billion yen a month, and we want to surpass that."

This brings to light the differing interests both Nintendo and DeNA have as part of their recently formed alliance.

Nintendo sees the partnership as a long-term opportunity to utilise smart devices and engage a wider audience with bespoke content made for the platform. The endgame? To tempt them towards Nintendo's dedicated hardware business (or back, if you consider where Wii's audience went). Indeed, if you pore over what Satoru Iwata has had to say on the matter (1, 2), the company couldn't be more cautious.

DeNA, meanwhile, is focused on expanding its global reach, after a previous alliance with Bandai Namco proved to be unfruitful. But expansion in mobile tends to be correlated with an ability to consistently publish big hits.

Mr. Moriyasu's hopes -- that the Nintendo-DeNA alliance will lead to games that bring in over Ł17m a month -- seem to reflect this. With DeNA playing the role of 'platform holder' in this relationship, they could be bringing in a fair chunk (30-40%, by some analysts' estimates) of all income from Nintendo-DeNA published titles, in addition to that from the rest of their portfolio.

And that's where it all becomes a bit muddied. Nintendo doesn't need games that bring in record-breaking amounts of income in order to achieve its goals, it just needs to engage users with its upcoming all-encompassing online platform. DeNA's objectives, while perfectly justifiable, go a long way towards explaining why it formed the alliance in the first place.

The emerging concern is simple: Will Nintendo and DeNA both be able to handle things in a way that satisfies both companies' long-term objectives?
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JM: *Clears Throat*:
Free-to-Start and the
videogame demo done right
Posted by James at 13:55

It's been well documented that videogame demos have had the unintended effect of reducing sales, rather than increasing them. Research by analytics firm EEDAR found that demos cut sales in half, when comparing the sales of a bundle of Xbox 360 games with demos to a bundle without. All games in these two bundles launched with a trailer, while games without trailers also sold noticeably worse.

In hindsight, it's easy to see why this has been the case. While the idea of a videogame demo is to satiate one's curiosity about a particular game -- ideally resulting in a purchase -- what tends to happen is people hop from demo to demo, without actually buying anything. This is especially likely to happen with demos which give away a game's core experience, something you usually buy the game for in the first place. Demos also increase the information a potential customer has, putting them at odds with the late review embargoes which some publishers use to minimise information in the run-up to release day.

As a result, demos have become an exception rather than the rule. Over the past few years there's been a noticeable drop in the number of demos accompanying new game releases, whether they are from big publishers, or self-published by independent developers.

It's interesting, then, that EA is currently investigating a way to make demos work again. Or perhaps they already have made them work -- we'll get onto that in a moment -- but the company is currently investigating something they call 'Free-to-Start'.

Speaking with an analyst during their latest investor event (PDF), CEO Andrew Wilson drew parallels with free trials across film, television, music and books, stating that the company is "actively looking" at ways to offer something similar across upcoming videogames.

The idea is that a Free-to-Start game will be playable at no cost for a certain period of time, by which upon expiration a full game download can be purchased. Here the 'free' component would be more akin to a demo than a free-to-play game.

EA might be onto something too, since they have already incorporated Free-to-Start into one of their games last year. EA Access members could start Dragon Age: Inquisition for free and play for six hours. They were then offered the option to buy the full game at a 10% discount once the trial period expired.

This early foray into Free-to-Start must have exceeded EA's internal expectations if the company is now "actively exploring" it for future titles. Free-to-Start certainly has the potential to succeed where badly implemented demos failed, and EA will probably implement it on a case-by-case basis, depending on a number of factors surrounding the game. It also helps that despite generous helpings of free content, Free-to-Start's name is isolated from Free-to-Play, a term which currently has a lot of stigma attached to it.

Dragon Age: Inquisition fits the Free-to-Start concept well. It was critically acclaimed, giving people a reason to try it if they were still on the fence. But it's also a superbly crafted open-world RPG, and therefore a game that'll draw players in with its rich world, also giving them an opportunity to form close bonds with characters as they develop attributes and gain levels.

If you've invested six hours of your time into something that's seemingly decent, then you're certainly going to be more likely to buy the game afterward, once the trial is up. Think about all the progress you're just accumulated, progress which can be carried to the full game, and progress unique to your playthrough. Stepping away would mean losing all of that. Furthermore, the way Dragon Age: Inquisition handles its progression in the form of distinct chunks of quests keeps players wanting more.

With Dragon Age: Inquisition, Free-to-Start has certainly fulfilled one of the goals of the demo mentioned at the beginning of this piece, while ensuring the player has far less desire to hop to other demos. Getting 10% off the full game afterward sweetens the deal, and players are likely to remember EA's gesture of a free, uninterrupted six hours of game play.

While Free-to-Start can be great for both players and publishers, one worry is whether future games supporting it will be designed to encourage these purchases a few hours down the line. Since well implemented Free-to-Start needs to complement other factors such as game genre, marketing and reviews, it's unlikely, unless Free-to-Start becomes the sole delivery method for a particular game.

Publishers remain wary of the risks involved with increasing information about an unproven game before release date, but it's a different story altogether post-release. There's always going to be a subset of people who are still on the fence about whether they'll enjoy a title, regardless of how much critical acclaim it may end up receiving. Free-to-Start is probably the best way to convert these doubts into sales. If EA does indeed selectively choose which titles go Free-to-Start, it could also be an admission of quality -- signalling to consumers that the company is confident in their product. A fine balance is necessary.

Free-to-Start isn't going to bring back demos in a big way, but it is going to make the demo more viable in terms of selling a game to the right people. That might be good news for publishers used to sitting on critically acclaimed videogames which fail to meet sales expectations, and it'll be interesting to see what EA does with it later this year, and how it performs for them in the near future.
1 comment / permalink

JM: *Clears Throat*:
Amiibo, Whales, and
Nintendo's latest strategy
Posted by James at 06:28

Nintendo of America president Reggie-Fils-Aime was almost obsessed with the idea of "growing the Wii U install base" during interviews at last year's E3. Not that I blame him -- Nintendo's latest console is treading behind the company's lowest-selling home console to date -- but their lineup painted a very different story.

The hidden message was clear: Nintendo has dropped the 'Blue ocean' strategy that they'd been chasing since the early days of the format with the likes of Wii Fit U, Super Mario 3D Land and Wii Party U. Instead, they've been working on games that will primarily appeal to their core fans, followed by those who'd appreciate the fine qualities of a good, traditional videogame.

There was Smash Bros for Wii U, of course, but when Mario Kart 8 failed to lift Wii U sales in the way they should have (and not enough to bump Nintendo back into profitability at the time), what hope did Smash have? Historically speaking, Smash just hasn't reached out to the masses in the same way that Mario Kart or New Super Mario Bros. did, selling a fraction of the units of those two games on Wii.

But Smash Bros. for Wii U is actually a good indicator of where Nintendo is (re)focusing its efforts. Rather than grow the install base, Nintendo has shifted to feeding the install base. Their lineup of Amiibo figures -- heavily marketed and integrated alongside Smash Bros. at launch -- is a clear attempt to increase the average revenue per Smash player, who would traditionally have paid once and never again until the next generation.

Amiibo unlock all sorts of throwaway trinkets across Nintendo's upcoming lineup of titles too, a way to keep the figures relevant while the company expands into new collections of the figurines. And this slightly aimless approach to integration with the games appears to be working, as this was all enough to give the figures 36% of the Skylanders-Disney Infinity-Amiibo market (according to ConsulGamer estimates) in one of America's biggest retailers, with 5.7 million Amiibo sold worldwide by the end of 2014.

Why were Amiibo such a big success? Launching alongside Smash rather than a true Toys-to-Life is telling: if they aren't heavily integrated with the games themselves, they certainly are from a branding perspective. Smash Bros. is a celebration of all things Nintendo, with ties to nearly every Nintendo game/character/franchise you can think of. As good an excuse if any to release a plethora of Amiibo figures.

Current and upcoming Amiibo are also being tied in with future releases. A glance at the upcoming Super Mario Collection says a lot: Toad Amiibo will be bundled with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. The new Mario Amiibo? Bundled with Mario Party 10. Combine this heavy link to the company's biggest and best brands and the desire of superfans and collectors to collect all things and it's easy to see the appeal and the genius behind it all.

While some of us might only pick up a couple of Amiibo, they are cheap and novel enough to warrant an impulse buy, especially for the time-constrained of us who would happily buy a new game, but not necessarily have 20 odd hours spare to put into it. Meanwhile the big spenders (Whales) are buying every Amiibo they can get their hands on, fuelled by carefully orchestrated supply constraints and that urge to collect all things.

While Amiibo is the clear leader behind this new strategy, some of Nintendo's newer product lines also paint a similar picture: New 3DS's IP-adorned cover plates, 3DS home menu themes, New 3DS's built-in Amiibo support, this heavily integrated Collectible Badge Center customisation app, the company is well set up to pursue the Collectibles market and chase after the Whales for the rest of this generation.

I think that's fine, a necessary evil at a push. Nintendo needs to keep making a small but tidy profit until the next generation rolls around, and doing this offers them a tidy new revenue stream alongside their core hardware and software sales, while also keeping their marquee titles free of the sorts of things their core fans find unsavoury, like poorly implemented microtransactions and in-game-purchases.

It's also a good way for the company to spread their risk in the event that their venture into the health industry with QOL (Quality of Life, a device that analyses your sleeping pattern and provides helpful input) isn't a successful secondary business in the short run.

The big question is whether Amiibo success will tempt Nintendo towards pushing the things to the point of annoyance. Right now I think they've struck a good balance with them: you certainly don't need the things to play any of their games, and if you have bought into them, there's sprinklings of bonus content here and there to tap into that'll bring a smile to your face. Fire Emblem Amiibo let you play as series characters from the series in the upcoming Codename STEAM. This is neat for Fire Emblem fans, and something that wouldn't have made it in had Amiibo not existed (it'd be like having Fire Emblem units in Advance Wars), so non-buyers aren't feeling left out.

Nintendo's treading a fine line, then. If they do want to heavily integrate the things without losing the faith of the loyal fans who are buying them in droves, I'd like to see a killer game which is appropriately tied to the figures in ways which make sense to the player -- like Skylanders and Disney Infinity. Perhaps these Amiibo/NFC cards that Iwata keeps hinting at will do that, but they're also telling that Nintendo might be working on a more portable-friendly Amiibo title for the 3DS.

There is also uncertainty around whether Nintendo is only pursuing this strategy to weather the storm of lower-than-expected hardware and software sales this generation, or if it will continue on in the next generation. Here's hoping it strikes the right balance from here on out.
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