Mounting pressure to capture the attention of a budget-conscious demographic is forcing studios to experiment with new forms of monetization, and Namco Bandai is no exception. It's converting its legacy franchises into free-to-play, microtransaction-fueled doppelgangers, and it's doing so faster than any other AAA console developer out there. By the end of 2014, Namco will have no fewer than five of its major franchises represented in free-to-play form: Tekken Revolution, Soul Calibur: Lost Swords, Ridge Racer Driftopia, Tales of Phantasia on iOS, and Ace Combat Infinity.
There's nothing inherently "wrong" about free-to-play games, and there's no reason to believe that existing franchises turned free-to-play can't find an audience. However, all of the games listed above come from franchises that have existed for 20 years, free from microtransactions. Although it might be weird to think that the way you pay for a game defines it, that's exactly the case.
Full-priced games: Pay up front and play forever. Free-to-play games: Pay nothing up front, but pay forever.
I recently had the chance to discuss Ace Combat's transformation into a free-to-play game with Kazutoki Kono, who has been involved with the series since 1997. There aren't many people who can say they've worked on the same series for nearly 17 years, and though that might sound like a privilege, or perhaps a dream come true, Kono regards it as a difficult position to be in. It's not that he doesn't love Ace Combat, but he's forced to bend to the will of the market, rather than personal preference.
"Next year is the series' 20th anniversary. In working on the series for such a long time, what I believe is most difficult is still continuing the game even though the overall environment of gaming has changed. For instance, especially in Japan, more than packaged console games, games on smartphones and mobile games are becoming larger, and we're going free-to-play right now. Adjusting to that kind of change and still continuing the series is the most difficult."
Still, Kono remains optimistic. He believes that the free-to-play model may help his team shape Ace Combat into a series that resonates with everyone.
"An easy-to-understand advantage of Ace Combat Infinity's free-to-play model is that anyone who does not have the ability to try the full-price game would be able to get their hands on it. We've made it an Ace Combat title that the fans will really like, and we're trying to make, on top of that, a very clear pathway so that newcomers will automatically be immersed within the series as well."
To that end, Kono faces a dilemma. Ace Combat has evolved to serve a fan base that has grown with the series. If newcomers latch onto Ace Combat Infinity as Namco Bandai hopes, because it's free up front, they'll inevitably introduce a new set of standards that will conflict with the desires of existing fans. The result: Ace Combat Infinity may remain in a state of never-ending flux.
"We just finished the Japanese beta in December, and we've received a lot of feedback that we're currently adjusting the game to. Now, we're seeing how the overseas beta users will react, and we're going to adjust based on that before actually releasing the game. That's what's very good about the free-to-play model."
"That also means that maybe we have to continue the game for a long period of time and never end," he adds with a laugh.
I tried to get Kono to go into detail about Ace Combat Infinity's monetization systems, but he was quick to avoid talking specifics because things are still changing based on beta-test feedback. There has been talk in the past of cosmetic add-ons for planes, and a fuel system where users can purchase mission resources with real money or allow it to accumulate over a set period of time, basically keeping in line with what we've seen in Tekken Revolution and other free-to-play games.
At this point in the interview, it was clear that there wasn't much more to say about Ace Combat Infinity. It's a free-to-play Ace Combat game that's designed to attract fans and newcomers alike, and it's going to evolve over time based on player feedback.
I wanted to know more about Kono. Ace Combat has been a part of his life for so long. What keeps it interesting after so many years? I asked him what his favorite part of working on the series is, and he looked mildly surprised. He pointed to himself as if to ask, "You want to know what I like?"
"Back when I was young, what was fun about the Ace Combat series was that I could portray what I believed was a cool pilot, and I could make one full title out of this image. When I became older, after a few games, I felt that working as a team and the joy of the team within, and the joy of the customers, needs to be equal. So, at the end of the day, when the users are happy is when I'm the most happy, because that's equal to the team's happiness. That was a really gentlemanly way of answering."
Acknowledging the politeness of his own response indicated to me that he was covering for something, so I asked Kono if he ever reverts back to his old ways.
"I used to be a designer, so by just looking at the character or game, I wanted people to feel that this is a cool AAA title. I wanted to emphasize that part the most. So, I was working really hard to have the Ace Combat series taken in by the users as high-quality.
When I was young, I was just working for what I thought was cool. If I thought it was cool, I thought everyone will think it's cool. Right now, since I'm more mature, I'm more round in my thinking. But even now, I blurt things out within the dev team, and they are like, 'What are you talking about?' Just yesterday, I sent an email to one of the designers saying, 'You know what? I don't really like the face of the character.'"
Apparently, his team doesn't exude the same passion.
"Recently, the dev team staff members are very calm, and don't speak up much. Whenever someone doesn't listen to criticism, I design the thing I'm pointing out and tell them, 'See, I can do better, so you just listen to me.'"
Kono has a lot on his plate. He's taking care of a series that's clearly special to him, yet he's forced to sidestep his own instincts in the name of broad consumer satisfaction. I believe him when he says that he's most happy when players and Namco Bandai are mutually satisfied, but I get the sense that, deep down, he's still driven to follow his personal vision. If his team is as tranquil as it sounds, then it's a good thing he's there. He may not be able to skirt the demands of Namco Bandai, but it sounds like he'll be damned if he's going to let Ace Combat out of his sights.