I was recently having dinner with a mobile developer who swore that Nintendo had really screwed up Super Mario Run. "It was so arrogant of them to put up a $10 paywall," he asserted.
I wasn't really sure what the anger was all about, save for the fact that $10 seemed a bit high. But in the mobile space, where free-to-play is the norm, it's jarring, nevermind the game's relative merits. Free-to-play, on the other hands has become so culturally ingrained that everyone has just kind of come to accept it, regardless of the fact that it frequently entices people to spend much more money on much worse experiences.
Nintendo appears to have internalized that lesson with Fire Emblem Heroes—the new mobile game released yesterday. It is their most conventional mobile effort to date, embracing many of the space's conventional tropes. All of the familiar mechanics are there: random hero acquisition, various currencies, and worst of all, stamina. Fricking stamina.
It was the time-based stamina bar that really made me narrow my eyes. There's nothing I hate more than when a game I'm enjoying arbitrarily tells me to insert a coin to continue. It brings to mind the old excesses of the arcade scene, when developers would specifically design their games around ensuring that players spent a certain amount of money per session, invariably tightening the noose when you got to a certain point in the game. It was cheap and irritating then, and even more annoying now.
On the face of it, it doesn't seem too bad. An hour of play was enough to drain about 35 stamina points out of 50, which was about when I wanted to stop anyway. But given time, stamina will almost certainly become an issue, not the least because it costs 5 stamina just to unlock a new skill.
Beyond the stamina costs, the developer's intentions are made clear by the fact that the entire game is built around unlocking new heroes by spending orbs—in-game currency that can be earned (slowly) by completing missions or purchased in bulk in the store. Seventy-five dollars will net you 140 orbs and all the heroes your heart desires... though not necessarily the ones you want (the randomization is meant to keep you plugging orbs so that you get your preferred hero). The message of Fire Emblem Heroes is obvious: "Come hither whales!"
That Intelligent Systems and Nintendo have opted to go in this direction is disappointing, but hardly surprising. The siren song of microtransactions is a powerful one in this industry, and plenty of developers have happily sacrificed their integrity en route to vast riches. Talk to any GTA fan and watch them foam at the month at Rockstar's decision to ignore story-based DLC In face of the heavily microtransaction-driven GTA Online.
But it's always disappointing when they infect a classic franchise like Fire Emblem, compromising the design to the point that it's unrecognizable. Fire Emblem might have fit nicely on mobile as a fairly traditional tactics game at a set price; instead, it comes off as a bit of grind-heavy fluff. Worse, it can't be played offline, meaning that playing it on, say, a plane, is completely out of the question.
Granted, it's still a turn-based tactics game, and it still uses elements like the rock-paper-scissors weapons triangle. The maps even have some variety to them, forcing you to take into account the terrain in how you deploy your party. But compared to the more traditional entries, the maps are tiny, being only big enough to accomodate four characters per side. This is so Fire Emblem is better-suited to mobile screens, but also so that the maps can be completed quickly, which helps an addiction loop to set in. And it works! I was pulled in despite myself, mindlessly grinding through maps so that I could get orbs and plug them into the gashapon machine.
Fire Emblem Heroes cleverly deploys a cute art style; small but addictive maps, and tons of fan service in a way that is bound to ensnare even hardened fans. It's even grabbed me to some extent. It's staying on my phone in part because it is fairly relaxing to play, and because I've been able to ignore the microtransactions to this point. The second that Fire Emblem Heroes starts pressing me for money, though, its gone. I reckon that will be the first time that I exhaust the stamina gauge.
I imagine plenty of people will tell me, "Relax, Kat. It's not that bad. You can totally enjoy Fire Emblem Heroes without spending money," and maybe that's true. But microtransactions have a way of compromising a game's fundamental mechanics, and you can see it in the way that Fire Emblem Heroes does things like force you to use stamina to improve your characters. The worst games, like Candy Crush, are mere cash machines in which any control over your destiny is an illusion. Fire Emblem Heroes isn't nearly that bad, but its cheerful embrace of the traditional free-to-play model makes me shake my head.
If this is where Nintendo intends to go with their mobile games, then it's a shame. Fire Emblem Heroes is fun in its own way, but it's not much more than a sugar rush—a mostly mindless bit of fanservice. A part of me had hoped that they would ignore the temptation of microtransaction-based models and just focus on putting out really good games. But as it stands, it seems they are content to go with the crowd. Nintendo may make a lot money by using their IPs in this way; but in the long run, they risk losing what made them so beloved in the first place.