Free-to-Play Games Quietly Got Good

Free-to-play games, particularly in the mobile gaming sector, have something of a… reputation, to put it politely. And it’s not altogether undeserved.

Mobile development has a cloning problem. And not just in the literal sense of developers stealing assets from competitors’ games to create bootleg versions: there’s also a major problem with free-to-play mobile game developers taking the “easy” option and simply reskinning tried-and-tested mechanics and systems rather than attempting to innovate with their gameplay.

It was ever thus in the games business, of course — that’s one of the ways in which genres of games developed over time — but in mobile gaming, it always seems particularly egregious, because in many cases those base mechanics and systems simply aren’t very much fun in the first place, focusing not on how to give the player an enjoyable experience, but rather on how to extract money out of them at every opportunity.

But gradually, quietly, we’ve started to see changes. While Western free-to-play game developers are still seemingly mostly content with FarmVille-style “tap and wait” gameplay, looking East to Asian teams from Korea, Singapore, Japan and numerous other territories reveals an altogether different picture: free-to-play games that actually make a bit of an effort with the “game” part. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Aurora

You may recall quite some time back I wrote about a mobile game called Valkyrie Crusadeoften jokingly referred to as “Oppai Crusade” by people who played it due to its collectible cards sporting some rather fetching pictures of nubile young maidens in varying degrees of undress and/or badassness (often at the same time). Valkyrie Crusade was a shallow but enjoyable game about collecting cards then sending them into battle against various opponents, of both computer-controlled and human varieties. There was also a citybuilding element where you could generate resources, and a cooperative battle mode where players would work together and use their decks of cards to attack powerful bosses.

Valkyrie Crusade was enjoyable enough for a while, but I gradually fell out of the habit of playing it. It wasn’t particularly due to the fact I disliked it; rather, I just moved on. And it would be quite some time before I picked up another mobile free-to-play title.

Brave FrontierThe first one I tried was a game called Brave Frontier, which I’d come across via a couple of people I follow on Twitter. The art style of the game looked appealing, so I was willing to give it a shot, but I was skeptical as to whether or not it would actually offer the compelling RPG gameplay its somewhat hyperbolic App Store/Google Play listings promised.

I was somewhat surprised to discover a game with quite a bit more depth and interactivity than many other games of its ilk. While it’s not quite an RPG in the traditional, console-style sense, it certainly has all the trappings: turn-based battles based around exploiting elemental weaknesses and status effects; characters that become more powerful over time; sidequests and “secret” dungeons; a lengthy, epic story; and lots and lots of things to discover and collect.

Screenshot_2015-05-26-15-21-10Brave Frontier, like most Eastern-developed mobile games, is based around the gacha model, a system based on capsule toy machines in which players can acquire something (in this case, playable characters) in exchange for money, play time or both. The units you acquire have varying degrees of rarity, represented by a star rating between one and seven; one-star units are the weakest, most common units, while seven-star units are extremely rare and generally only acquired through lucky gacha draws and subsequent hard work to level them up and evolve them.

This means of acquiring and collecting units is core to the Brave Frontier experience. Units can be collected in several ways: common ones can be acquired through battle and through “honor points” gained through playing the game normally, while rarer cards are occasionally given as special rewards for completing particular dungeons and events, or available through spending the game’s premium currency of “gems”. Gems, in turn, can either be acquired gradually through playing the game and completing quests, or paid for using real money. Aside from acquiring rare units, gems can also be used for a variety of in-game benefits such as increasing inventory limits, restoring energy (thereby extending a play session) or continuing a battle in which the player’s party is defeated.

Screenshot_2015-05-18-22-03-17-1Crucially, despite the ability to pay real money for these gems, Brave Frontier’s real-money aspect does not take the form of pay-to-win mechanics. Sure, you can probably brute-force your way through battles your party is too weak for by expending gems to repeatedly continue like an arcade game you’re pumping quarters into, but that’s not efficient or enjoyable. Likewise, the energy bar — often a very restrictive mechanic in Western-developed free-to-play games in particular — is used more as a means of gating content and encouraging players to indulge in “riskier” adventures in exchange for the promise of more significant rewards rather than throttling play sessions and holding further “fun” to ransom.

In other words, the game feels like it’s respecting the player, offering them the option to spend money to enhance their experience in various ways, but it emphatically does not make the mistake many previous free-to-play games make, which is providing the player the opportunity to pay not to play the game. Instead, Brave Frontier keeps players engaged with predictable daily dungeons, regular special events and bundle offers, gradually expanding content and mechanics — and, most importantly, the fact that the gameplay of building a party and then seeing how it stacks up to increasingly tough foes is actually pretty fun, distilling the essential core of the RPG experience down to something that is friendly to quick play sessions while simultaneously offering enough depth to keep people interested in the long term.

School Idol Festival

Next up on my journey of exploration was Love Live! School Idol Festival. While this game is built around the same gacha-style core as Brave Frontier, everything else about the game is significantly different — different enough to make it feel like a completely different game rather than a simple reskin of the collectible card mechanics.

School Idol Festival is, as its full title suggests, based on the Love Live! anime, in which a group of girls come together and form an idol group in an attempt to save their school from closure. Sporting unusually high production values for a mobile game, School Idol Festival features visual novel-style story sequences starring the characters from the show (including full voice acting from the original cast and some lovely high-resolution artwork) coupled with challenging rhythm action gameplay and the “collect, fuse, evolve” mechanics usually seen in other gacha-style games.

IMG_20150524_025853It’s the rhythm game aspect that is a real highlight of School Idol Festival. Featuring challenging stages based on songs heard in the show and related merchandise, the game offers four difficulty levels ranging from sedate and manageable to utterly frantic. At the higher difficulty levels, you’re effectively playing a rhythmic instrument accompanying the various tracks, with the note patterns not simply following the beat of the music but rather challenging you to tap out complex counter-rhythms and “dance” your thumbs around the screen in an attempt to keep up. Much like other modern rhythm games such as the Project Diva series, it’s extremely daunting to take on these difficult challenges, but incredibly satisfying when you eventually pull them off.

The collectible card game aspect is well integrated into the overall package. Cards have three statistics — “Smile”, “Pure” and “Cool” — and each song falls into one of those three categories. The cards you add to your team become the tappable icons in the rhythm game, and the number of points you earn for tapping on one correctly is determined by the stat the song is based on. You can clear a song with any cards, but in order to attain high scores, higher rankings and better rewards, you’ll need to use appropriate cards, level them up and “idolise” them to increase their rarity.

Screenshot_2015-05-26-17-54-59School Idol Festival also has an interesting system that rewards you for using even low-rarity, basic units — cards that are generally relegated to “fodder” status in many games of this type, used for nothing more than levelling up other cards. By using any card, it earns “bond” points, and maxing out a card’s bond when it is idolised unlocks a short side-story based on the character depicted on the card. Not only that, but viewing one of these side-stories rewards you with the game’s premium currency of “love gems” which, like Brave Frontier’s gems, can be used to either acquire more rare cards, or to confer numerous benefits.

School Idol Festival doesn’t feel quite as well-balanced as Brave Frontier does with regard to the free-to-play mechanics — in the early levels, it’s very easy to run out of energy and be unable to play any more, for example — but it’s also a more intense, active game that demands concentration, so you could probably argue that it’s not necessarily a bad thing it forces you to take a break every so often! Despite this, though, it’s a great rhythm game, the card artwork is beautiful and the overall experience is a wonderful piece of fanservice for fans of Love Live! and its memorable characters.

screenshot3The final game I want to talk about today isn’t actually a mobile game, being a web-based title, but nonetheless follows the pattern of combining gacha mechanics with another game style to create something that is both easily understandable to someone who plays a lot of this kind of game and distinct enough to be played alongside other titles. The game in question is Millennium War Aigis, and is a tower defense game — with, oddly enough, occasional (uncensored) hentai scenes.

The gacha mechanics are once again nicely integrated into the game experience, with your “cards” this time around becoming the units that you are able to place on the maps to defend against the incoming hordes of enemies. Rarer units tend to be more powerful and more effective but also cost considerably more to put down on the map, so relying exclusively on them may leave you vulnerable if you’re not careful.

Rather than elemental affinities, as seen in both Brave Frontier and School Idol Festival, the different types of card in Millennium War Aigis instead represent different character classes, with each having their own benefits and drawbacks. Soldiers, for example, are able to “tank” two enemies at once, but their attack power isn’t great. Valkyries, meanwhile, have strong attack power but are poor at defending themselves and blocking enemies. Archers can attack enemies at range as well as flying enemies, but have tighter restrictions on where they can be placed. Heavy infantry can block three enemies at once, but tend to be expensive and aren’t particularly strong attackers. Mages have area-effect attacks but are very expensive. Healers can restore units’ hit points, but can’t attack at all. And Witches don’t do much damage but instead have a ranged attack that slows incoming enemies.

screenshot2

All of the classes are useful in various situations, and when combined with unique special skills for named characters (i.e. higher rarity cards) make for an enjoyable amount of flexibility in building your party. Some solid map design encourages you to think creatively and tactically, and an excellent series of “drill” missions explicitly introduce you to the units’ special characteristics one by one rather than expecting you to figure everything out for yourself.

So where does the hentai aspect come in? Well, alongside the standard levelling/evolution system found in this kind of game, there’s also a relationship mechanics whereby you can give gifts to female characters and booze to male characters, and in exchange their relationship value affects their effectiveness in combat. At various points in your relationship with the female characters, you’ll get an erotic scene, and the game unashamedly introduces you to this aspect during its tutorial by telling you to give a present to one of your starting units and then, suddenly, there is fucking.

It’s arguably a little tonally jarring when compared to the seriousness of the main plot, but, assuming you’re into sex scenes (and, it has to be said, although they’re unvoiced, they’re pretty hot and feature some great artwork), this aspect of the game encourages you to concentrate on and develop individual characters to their full potential rather than constantly swapping units out for your newest, latest and greatest acquisitions. For those who aren’t into sex scenes, meanwhile, after you are surprised by the one in the initial tutorial, you can freely ignore this part of the game altogether if you so desire.

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 18.02.06

So there you have it. All three of these games are genuinely well worth your time — and they represent just a fraction of the genuinely excellent Asian free-to-play titles out there; we haven’t even touched on other great examples like Puzzle and Dragons and Chain Chronicle, but be sure to check those out, too.

What I’ve found most interesting about these games is how they are all based on the same basic mechanic — gacha draws — but simultaneously manage to make themselves into completely unique experiences around that. Compare and contrast, if you will, with the Western approach to free-to-play titles, particularly in the mobile and web-based sectors, in which developers seem to be satisfied with the same old interactivity-lite click-and-wait mechanics of FarmVille; the difference in approach is that something like, say, The Simpsons Tapped Out doesn’t add anything to that formula, whereas all three of the games we’ve talked about today — and many others besides — take the same core mechanic as simply a starting point and then build a unique game on top of that.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t copycat developers in the Asian market, of course — Puzzle and Dragons in particular has spawned almost as many clones as Flappy Bird — but, generally speaking, the games that tend to become popular tend to be the ones that either innovate in some way — perhaps in a drastic manner — or do something significantly better than their rivals.

Either way, it’s encouraging to see games like the ones we’ve talked about today for several reasons: firstly, to see developers acknowledge that players actually need gameplay to remain engaged with games, full-stop, regardless of whether they’re paid or free-to-play titles; and secondly, to see the free-to-play market developing in its own distinctive directions rather than attempting to shoehorn a business model into types of game that it doesn’t really fit.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some girls to idolise, an ice goddess to evolve and, um, a healer to bang.


Want to try the games we’ve talked about today and a few others besides? Here are some links for iOS and Android owners.

Brave Frontier iOS Android
Love Live! School Idol Festival iOS Android
Millennium War Aigis Web (Windows/OSX; Firefox browser recommended; emphatically not safe for work!)
Valkyrie Crusade iOS Android
Puzzle and Dragons iOS Android (Not officially available in Europe; manually install the APK from here to play on EU Android devices.)
Chain Chronicle iOS Android

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7 thoughts on “Free-to-Play Games Quietly Got Good”

  1. I’ll have to check out Love Live and also MWA. The only FTP game that I’m currently playing is Final Fantasy Record Keeper. But it has that hated Energy limit component in most FTP games. Which totally breaks the gameplay loop to have to wait for your energy to replenish. If it wasn’t Final Fantasy, I would have deleted it from my iPad and possibly burned it with fire. I hate that version of Free To Play.

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    1. I’m not a big fan of energy bars either, and it tends to be a core part of the monetisation of free-to-play games, particularly on mobile. What I’ve noticed, though, is that in most cases it’s implemented somewhat less obtrusively in Eastern games than in Western offerings. Of the three I mentioned in detail above, Brave Frontier has by far the least obtrusive energy bar, since it expands in size rapidly as you level up and seems to largely be used as a means of saying “you can’t do this until you have [x] amount of energy as a minimum” — an effective means of content gating so people don’t jump into things they’re perhaps not ready for.

      What I’ve also noticed is that you get more “game” for your energy in an Eastern-developed free-to-play game. In a Zynga game, a unit of energy tends to be one “click” on something to receive experience, money and so forth, and it’s gone quickly — the games are designed to be checked in on for bursts of a couple of minutes tops. Meanwhile, in all of the games I’ve mentioned above, a unit of energy is a whole level/dungeon/song: several minutes of gameplay, and added up between a complete energy bar (and all the energy bar restorations from level-ups) you can actually sit and play these games for quite a while before they artificially stop you.

      It sucks that that mechanic has to be in there in the first place, but I guess they have to make their money somehow, and seemingly this is a means of doing so that works, more’s the pity!

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      1. I totally agree that you seem to get a lot more game in the Eastern ones. But also that the artwork and music assets seem to also receive a lot more attention. Some Eastern developers seem to be a bit allergic to putting out something that they would be embarrassed to have their name attached to, even if it is truly shovelware.

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      2. It seems to be a recurring theme, that, and not just in free-to-play — look at nukige, too. Although nukige are straight-up porn (as opposed to eroge where the emphasis is story, or games that just have ecchi scenes) I haven’t come across (no pun intended) a single one where I’d say effort hadn’t been spent on story and characterisation. Pride in your work and all that, even if said work largely involves explicit sex scenes 🙂

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  2. I came here looking for new Gacha games because, quite frankly, Im addicted to them. I tried Aegis and was slightly disappointed with the tower defense aspect. I just started Valkyrie Chronicle and might try Brave Frontier. But Im disappointed that I cant access Chain Chronicle because Ive heard a lot of people recommend it. For anyone that is looking for MORE Gacha games, I recommend: Flower Knight Girl, Moe CAN Change, Dream Girlfriend, Animal Boyfriend, Ishtaria, and Dragon Providence. I WOULD NOT recommend ‘Ultra Adventure! Go Go Osawari Island!’ unless you like crappy art. Literally most of the common cards have weird and bad art like a 10 year old coloring over an anime screenshot. The game idea isnt bad, but beware the common cards. So Id suggest you avoid it or be prepared to dish out some cash if you dont like bad (ugly) cards.

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