It was a little less than a year ago that I picked up Fire Emblem Heroes for want of anything better to play on mobile. Looking for something casual, I soon found myself grinding for orbs just so I could try and get an alternate version of Lyndis in a wedding dress. Even during the dry periods, of which there have been a few, I find myself logging in everyday for my orbs, keen to tinker with my teams and character builds. It's a habit I can't quite kick.
Fire Emblem Heroes' formula for success isn't terribly complex. My ongoing affinity for it is mostly down to its attractive sprite art; my love of picking squads from pools of characters, and its tactics. As someone who isn't inclined to spend money on characters, I'm also drawn in by its ferocious, if occasionally unfair challenge maps, which demand a strong degree of character optimization. Put simply, I know what I want out of a game, and Fire Emblem Heroes provides it, as it does for thousands of others.
Now in its third year, Fire Emblem Heroes has proven to be one of Nintendo's most successful mobile ventures to date. Unlike other mobile games based on Nintendo properties, many of which have fizzled out, Fire Emblem Heroes sticks closely to the tried and true gashapon template. Every week, Intelligent Systems releases new characters, which players can try to acquire by spending orbs. With its massive stable of popular heroes and relatively interesting RPG mechanics, Fire Emblem Heroes enticed players to spend some $17.4 million in October 2018.
Fire Emblem Heroes has evolved quite a bit since first launching in February 2017. On top of special challenge maps featuring various heroes, Intelligent Systems has released more than 150 story missions. Fire Emblem Heroes has also seen refinements to character growth; the addition of mechanics like weapon refinery to partly head off power creep, and a new mode called Aether Raids—a variant of Arena in which character parties attack and defend customized bases.
Fire Emblem Heroes' last two updates have brought with them several new features, including the much-requested beast units featured in games like Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance. Intelligent Systems also recently introduced Dragonflowers—a new currency that can be used to upgrade character stats. This is on top of Book 3 of the story mode, which features a battle against Death's armies of the underworld.
But it hasn't all been good. Compared to other mobile games, Fire Emblem Heroes is fairly stingy with its free orbs. Fans have complained about the Arena Mode, which features a scoring system that some think puts too much emphasis on using bonus units. And when it comes down to it, many of the worst challenge maps are unfair slogs against waves of enemies with unreasonably high stats, making their rewards inaccessible to all but the highest spending whales.
Intelligent Systems: "It's Very Important to Provide New Experiences to Players"
In an email interview with the developers of Fire Emblem Heroes, Nintendo director Shingo Matsushita said it's very important to provide new experiences to players as Year 3 gets underway in earnest. "This applies not only to the content, but also the characters. Which means that we would also like to start providing content and characters that are a little different from before for the game's third year (even though this will not happen right away). At this point, there are a lot of things that are uncertain as they are all either under development or consideration, so please look forward to updates from us in the future."
In terms of what to expect next, Intelligent Systems and Nintendo are naturally keeping their plans close to the vest. It's never easy interviewing gashapon developers, as the unspoken response is nearly always, "We do it this way because it makes money, obviously." Why does Fire Emblem Heroes have a half-dozen Camilla alts and barely any characters from Genealogy of the Holy War? Because fans will spend money on Camilla. Why isn't Intelligent Systems doing enough to address power creep? Because power creep is a feature in gashapon games, not a bug. The more powerful the character, the more likely players are to spend. Hence ludicrous characters like Legendary Tiki, who can practically solo maps by herself.
Consider Intelligent Systems director Kouhei Maeda's response to a question about the preponderance of armor units in Fire Emblem Heroes, which many players consider overpowered owing to their huge stats. "We see and hear a variety of opinions from players and appreciate the feedback that fans provide, as this is what helps us improve the game. Even when players talk about the most powerful movement types, the opinions vary significantly. Some might say one type is strongest in Grand Hero Battle, others might say they are strongest in Arena. A certain type might be best in offensive or defensive Aether Raids, etc. Opinions also change frequently depending on a variety of factors, such as newly introduced characters, skills, Weapon Refinery, Sacred Seals, and more. In terms of game balance, we look forward to continuing to update the game based on player feedback and create content that fans will be happy with."
As for the complaints about Arena, Matsushita says, "The main purpose of the current Arena scoring rules is to have an element in addition to user skill, and to get users to adjust their battle styles by switching Bonus Heroes. For these purposes, I think it is fulfilling its role."
To put it more simply, Maeda is basically saying that the character classes are functionally even, and that it's really down to the opinion of the players. The Arena is not changing anytime soon. But it's no coincidence that all but two of the characters at the top of Gamepress' Arena Tier List are armor units. Teams based around cavalary or flying units can do well, but Surtr, Fallen Robin, and Duma pretty much own every single competitive mode in Fire Emblem Heroes. And when players complain, Arena scoring is invariably one of the subjects at the top of the list.
Still, there are signs that Intelligent Systems wants to keep growing Fire Emblem Heroes. Asked what lessons can be taken from Dragalia Lost, Nintendo's other successful gashapon game, Matsushita says, "Since the nature of the two games are different, I would say that it is difficult to directly apply learnings from Dragalia Lost to Fire Emblem Heroes. However, my personal opinion is that it would be interesting if we could in some way deliver features such as co-op play, where players can collaborate with each other and defeat strong enemies together, to Fire Emblem Heroes."
Intelligent Systems is also releasing a new Fire Emblem for Switch in July, which should afford more opportunities to get new players in the door. Matsushita says, "While I cannot confirm anything at this time, I can tell you that we are potentially considering different ways to get more fans interested in Fire Emblem: Three Houses through Fire Emblem Heroes."
Whatever direction Intelligent Systems decides to take, Year 3 will be critical for Fire Emblem Heroes. With the majority of the most popular heroes now available, and the regular events having long since become stale, Intelligent Systems will need to freshen things up to keep long-term fans interested. Beast units have been well-received, but Aether Raids have thus far been afforded a mixed reception, the intense grind of climbing the ladder turning off many players.
In the short-term, Fire Emblem: Three Houses should bring with it a wave of fresh interest in the mobile game. Those who pick up Fire Emblem Heroes will find many hours of solo content and dozens of characters to recruit—more than enough to capture their interest for a couple months at least. But to keep them playing, Intelligent Systems will need to rely on fresh character banners. And that's where Fire Emblem Heroes will need to transcend its gashapon roots and become something more interesting.