Starting Screen is our weekly column featuring news, commentary, and music to help you get over your case of the Mondays.
It usually begins with a deep sense of frustration and impatience.
I almost never go into a free-to-play game with the intention of spending money, least of all a free-to-play mobile game. But if I spend enough time with it, I usually hit a roadblock. And that's when they get me.
It happened to me over the weekend with Fire Emblem Heroes. I had an okay team fronted by Marth, but two of the slots felt like liabilities. I swapped around characters, growing increasingly frustrated with my limited pool of options and the pace at which I earned orbs-the currency necessary for earning new characters. I was still completing the story stages at a reasonable pace, but I felt like I had hit a bottleneck.
Finally, I took a deep breath and purchased 23 orbs for $12.99. And I immediately felt like a hypocrite.
You may recall me railing against Nintendo's embrace of microtransactions in an editorial last week. For the record, I still feel that way. After the article went up, I had a long conversation on Twitter about the ways in which microtransactions tend to compromise game mechanics, particularly slot machine games like Fire Emblem Heroes. But despite all of that, Fire Emblem Heroes still managed to get its hooks in me over the weekend, leading to the scenario above. Happens to the best of us.
Obviously, this isn't the first time I've spent money on a free-to-play game. At times, I've even spent far more money than intended. The cycle tends to go like this:
1. I hit a roadblock: My team is taking too long to improve. There's a keystone card that I need for my lineup. A special variant of my favorite player is available in Ultimate Team.
2. I finally break and spend money: I buy a pack. Or maybe a bundle.
3. I hit the slot machine: I start ripping packs, or I start drawing from the slot machine, convinced that I'm about to get a major boost. Usually I get a lot of crap and maybe one or two cards worth using. If I'm extraordinarily lucky, I get something really rare. Most of the time, though, all I get is a lot of regret.
4. Regret: I feel a deep sense of irritation and regret at spending a bunch of money on digital characters, even if I get lucky and manage to draw something really great. I look at my shiny new character and think, "I spent $15 on this?
I actually might be the exception on this front. Many people are happy to not only spend money on free-to-play games, but spend lots of it. An entire culture has grown up around simply sitting on Youtube and ripping packs for new cards in Ultimate Team, or plugging the slot machine in Fire Emblem. From time to time I ask developers what they think of this culture. Their response is usually to shrug and say, "They've having fun!" Then they go back to counting their money.
Compared to a lot of the games I've played (I've spent an unholy amount of money on Hearthstone), Fire Emblem Heroes is admittedly a lesser offender. My quick infusion of cash gave me the characters I needed to round out my team, and I've since been plugging through the story missions on Hard to level up my new characters and unlock more orbs. I'm still at it because there's just enough there in terms of depth to feel like I'm not completely wasting my time, and because I suppose I like Fire Emblem and desperately wish I had Takumi or Lyndis god damnit.
But despite being relatively benign, Fire Emblem has left me the same vague sense of regret over spending money that I feel when playing other free-to-play games. It's interesting the psychology involved, because in a way I haven't spent anymore money than I might have if FE Heroes were a premium game with an upfront cost. I suppose the difference is that free-to-play games are generally money pits by design, and that by spending cash I'm just feeding the beast.
This isn't the first time I've spent money on a free-to-play game, though, and it's unlikely to be the last. Free-to-play is already pretty much impossible to avoid, and that will increasingly mean taking the good with the bad in games like Hearthstone, Fire Emblem Heroes, and FIFA. In other words, the cycle continues.
This Week's Best Game(s)
Nioh: After years in the proverbial wilderness, the outfit best-known for Ninja Gaiden returns to its hardcore roots with Nioh-a Soulsborne dungeon crawler that swaps knights for samurai. I wound up handing Nioh off to Soulsborne expert John Learned, who managed to knock it out in less than a week and offer up a detailed review. I am both impressed and terrified. Nioh will be out February 7th.
Game Music to Get You Through Monday
It's bleak and rainy here in San Francisco, so music from Super Castlevania 4 feels appropriate this week. Super Castlevania 4 was one of the Super Nintendo's earliest games, which makes its use of the SNES sound chip particularly impressive. Along with Final Fantasy IV and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, it's a great early example of the amazing tunes the SNES would push out throughout its life. As usual, Nadia has a more in-depth look here.
- Another Fire Emblem Heroes though: Someone mentioned to me on Twitter that it needs much more robust Arena Dueling support. I wholeheartedly agree. At present, you only fight CPU-controlled parties, making it easy to abuse the fairly limited AI. It's a shame that it doesn't support PvP, as that would give the game's community and its overall longevity a nice little boost. Then again, it would mostly just be pay-to-win as everyone dumped money into getting five-star characters. Sigh. See what I mean when I say that microtransactions ruin everything?
- For those who are tired of hearing about free-to-play, Jaz has this list of the best walking simulators in his weekly Digital Gems column. Walking simulators tend to be controversial in the way they emphasize story over anything resembling traditional gameplay; but when done well, they feel like the ultimate realization of what we were trying to accomplish with FMV games way back in the mid '90s. Personally, I tend to prefer interesting systems to interesting narrative, so I tend to avoid walking simulators, but there are some interesting games on this list. What do you think?
- In case you missed it, Mike took a look at indie development on the Switch, which I've maintained will be a good indicator of the system's ultimate success. From the looks of it, the Switch may have an image problem. The familiar faces like Yacht Club are in place, but more than one indie developer has told me that they don't think that the Switch is a good fit for their game. This may be the kind of issue that only strong initial sales can fix.
- Polygon got a bunch of crap from "hardcore gamers" for not being able to finish Nioh in time for the review embargo last week. My response? Give them a break. Hitting a review embargo is an insanely stressful thing at the best of times, and Nioh is harder than your average Soulsborne game. I ended up freelancing it out in part because there was no way in hell I was going to be able to finish it up myself, and I've spent my fair share of time with the Souls games. There's worse shame than struggling to finish a game that's deliberately designed to kick your ass in the space of six days.
- Hearthstone's next expansion really can't come fast enough. I'm about done with Pirate Warriors and Aggro Shamans.
- Over in the Guardian, Eurogamer alum Simon Parkin reflects on the shame and self-doubt that comes with being a videogame critics in times like these. It's actually more positive about games criticism than it seems at the outset.
- Kotaku has this story of GameStop employees dealing with the "Circle of Life" program, which establishes even stricter individual quotas for pre-orders, rewards cards, trade-ins, and used games. Anyone who's followed GameStop over the years will know that this is nothing new; but as digital delivery becomes more and more important, it seems that GameStop is doubling down. The lesson, as always, is to avoid GameStop when you can.
- Axe of the Blood God: In this week's episode of the RPG podcast, Nadia and I wondered what the heck is going on with Final Fantasy VII Remake. It's a fair question. When all Square has to offer is a new piece of key art, you have to wonder when exactly we'll see the first episode of the much-anticipated remake. Right now it's look like next year might be the earliest we get it.
- Off-topic: I was in a car driving home from Tahoe on Sunday, so I missed a large chunk of the Super Bowl. But I did manage to catch the part that mattered: the final drive in New England's mindblowing comeback over Atlanta. Suffice it to say, it's one of the all-time great sports moments I've ever seen, and I can't believe that this stuff keeps happening to Boston fans. If we're all lucky, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will see this as their moment to hang it up and go out on top. But if the past couple years are any indication, Brady will probably keep playing until he's 50.