Feature Article

Ace Combat: From AAA to Free-to-Play in 20 Years

Midair management.

by

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?"

Kono's 1997 Ace Combat debut.

"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.

Discussion

80 comments
shadowydark
shadowydark

6 minutes a mission, two reserve fuel tanks..four hour recharge per tank. 12 minutes of gameplay per four hours. What mouthbreathing buttwhistler at namco greenlighted this nonsense?! F2P and asians. God damnit. Game ruined.

CaptainBlaze
CaptainBlaze

Ace Combat: Squadron Leader is by far one of my fav games of all time. Just an awesome story and fantastic game play from start to finish. Wasn't a fan of Assault Horizon at all. I just missed the characters and plot and world from 5 i guess. Osea and Yuktobania FTW.

TesseractE
TesseractE

I'm fine with this entry being F2P if it means that more people get exposed to the series and clamor for a new entry with a normal price.


Maybe we can finally get re-releases of AC 4, 5 and 0 out of this...

ziproy
ziproy

Free to play is bad okay kids?? It's not that bad now, but if we show them we are dumb enough to pay for a game long after it's been released, then we'll have to buy every character, every gun, every character skin, all of it. That doesn't sound fun or a value to me

mikees1
mikees1

Ace combat isn't for me. If it were real nations then fair enough, but it's not. It's these bullshit Japanese animi worlds that put me off. Real jets in fantasy land.

TORCEDOR
TORCEDOR

"Full-priced games: Pay up front and play forever. Free-to-play games: Pay nothing up front, but pay forever." - well put.


Gazz_mann
Gazz_mann

Your destroying my favorite franchise, I have played the Beta, the Multiplayer is shit because NO one has a decent connection for aerial combat games. Im not paying for a game that keeps dropping out half way because the hosting is shite.

Ace combat for me is all about the story (Well the Games before and including AC6)

The 2 missions that you get at the start of the beta are really interesting, going back to the story writing of old. Now why could that have been put into a single player game?


Dont even get me started on MircoTransactions, this method of milking their fan base pisses me off so much!

 

cynicalundead
cynicalundead

I want to be able to go back in time and snuff out those who invented F2P and microtransactions. They are ruining games that used to be worth playing. I'd rather start paying $100 for a decent game, than nothing for something that's just a cash grab scheme.

If they took their time and made a great game, a lot more people would buy it. They wouldn't have to resort to such underhanded means to make money.

GOGOHeadray
GOGOHeadray

Last game I missed with was fire of liberation on the 360 which I thought was pretty good.

PlatinumPaladin
PlatinumPaladin

*sigh*

Kono seems like a good guy in a bad place, but I'm glad he's there. He genuinely seems to care about the series, and it could be a lot worse without him.

Please don't dismiss what follows as another internet troll having an angry rant. Look through any of my other comments on topics and (while I can be an asshole) I like to think what I contribute often comes from a clear, level-headed and open way of thinking. So the fact that I'm angry about this is an exceptional personal frame-of-mind.

I've been utterly addicted to this series ever since I got Air Combat for Christmas alongside my first PlayStation. I've played every game that's been released on a Sony or Microsoft machine, and I can't imagine any other IP in my collection has had as much of my time given to it as this one. But I haven't enjoyed any of them since Ace Combat Zero. Fires of Liberation and Skies of Deception were shadows of the series' former greatness, and Joint Assault and Assault Horizon saw Namco fuck with the formula to see if they could make it appeal to new audiences. It didn't fly with newcomers (no pun intended), and while I can't speak for every ageing fan of the series it certainly didn't fly with this one.

So now they've taken it back to the roots of the series. It looks and feels like Ace Combat again. Finally. Perfection.

Only not quite. I am so MONUMENTALLY FUCKED OFF about this F2P model. Obviously we don't know the details of how exactly it'll all play out, but having played the beta I think it's safe to start making assumptions. Bottom line; Namco has failed in pulling new fans to the series, so now they're going to make the veterans pay more to compensate. Free to play through the campaign you say? That's cool, but if I want to replay it in a single sitting then I'm going to have to start coughing up the dough??? Well FUCK YOU, NAMCO! I've noticed that getting a good mission rank in the single player so far seems to be based on the time it takes you to complete it. Complete the mission quickly, earn a high rank, and move quickly on to deciding whether or not to pay for one more go.

"Mounting pressure to capture the attention of a budget-conscious demographic is forcing studios to experiment with new forms of monetization,...."

You're damn right I'm budget-conscious, and this way of gaming is not something I will financially support. I would happily give Namco £60 (US$100) just to have unlimited and unhindered access to the single player campaign. The online co-op, while very cool, is something I could live without, but I am not on board with this.

Thank you Peter for giving me an appropriate opportunity for me to voice my opinion on the matter. Guess I should go tell it to Namco now. :-/

yeah_28
yeah_28

Your new F2P AC can be the best F2P game ever, but will it provide the best thing the franchise had to offer? a campaign with likeable characters which you can at least minimally interact with, a gripping story in a fictional world, and a arcade but still fun gameplay with tons of different missions and jets? I doubt it honestly.

I understand though, that sometimes a genre like that, might not provide the money you need to keep going, and that's pretty sad, because its the only thing that made AC memorable and unique.

deadpeasant
deadpeasant

I'm playing it at the moment and thankfully they haven't stuck with the same gameplay features that destroyed the last game in the series. I just hope they do the Microtransactions in the right way unlike most companies because this series is excellent and I wouldn't want it to die.

ux107
ux107

what free to play really is, for most the ones out there; if people want to keep having fun, they need to pay the money for that fun, or wait for the timer to count down, because people might overdose on too much fun and miss work or something, right?


The recently release dungeon keeper on iOS is one horrible example of this type of game, if Namco can avoid putting up a pay wall for core game play and do the microtransactions like league of legends, then I will give it a shot, otherwise, pass.

swantn5
swantn5

the thing with free to play is they need to make via mircotransaction just like dlc if you think about so depends if the "dlc" is worth it 

cboye18
cboye18

I would rather play Assault Horizon than this crap. RIP AC :( 

the_real_luigi
the_real_luigi

NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! Not Ace Combat too! We are doomed to deal with Micro Transactions… :( 

Kiaininja
Kiaininja

Many rushed bugged games with the cut down on content(compared to games full of unlockables back then) plus sell it back to you as DLCs they are essentially F2P where you payed up front. So these F2P games popping out on consoles is just the next evolution when companies hit their limit milking DLC. I'll definitely still in support for paying full price on great quality games but their are in the minority and I feel that most of the games that you pay now were already as crappy as F2P games so they might as well make the price tag reflect it. Maybe Madden is next in line to evolve into F2P.

thefinalzapkeet
thefinalzapkeet

I love the ace combat series (including assault horizon, although i did like 5 and belkan war batter, AH was the third best in the series in my opinion) and how they do this is the key.


if they do it like with killer instinct where you can play for free, or just put down 60 dollars to unlock the full game like a "normal" purchase, then that would be perfectly ok for me.  I just don't want it to turn into a mobile game played on a console

Melchior111
Melchior111

RIP Ace Combat.


They killed the franchise when they tried to callofdutyfied it

jayd02
jayd02

He needs to leave and take Ace Combat with him to another team.  I loved Ace Combat on the PS2.  Unsung war and then especially Belkin Wars were by far the best games in the series.

playstationzone
playstationzone

the problem is that xbox1 free to play are not free to go online and for ps4 you don't need ps plus to play free to play games so really Microsoft is rip people off.

LoganDaDestroya
LoganDaDestroya

They really need to make an option to buy unlimited acess to missions for £20 - £30, the current pricing model of constantly paying is dumb as hell.

Oz0n3_holepunch
Oz0n3_holepunch

The only F2P game I've really played is Tribes Ascend. I'd played it for about 1 month before I decided that I was enjoying it enough to spend some cash on it, so I bought a $30 pack of gold which enabled me to unlock some of the upgrades for various classes quicker and an XP booster.


Since then I've played the game pretty consistently over the past year or two, I've now racked up almost 1000 hours of game time. For a game I spent $30 on I think that is outstanding. Sure it's not a perfect game, I often think it is both the most frustrating and rewarding game I've ever played. The satisfaction from getting a long distance mid air kill shot (called a "blue plate") on someone while travelling at over 300 km/h is simply...exhilarating. 


My point is, I don't think the free to play model is inherently bad. Sure some games do it horribly, others do it quite well. 1000 hours is more than I have played any other single game in the past, by quite a lot. I doubt I would have tried Tribes Ascend if it wasn't F2P, but I sure am glad I did.

sakaixx
sakaixx

the only bad move for air combat franchise is to release it on 360, because of that now the series was relegated to f2p :(

TesseractE
TesseractE

@ziproy  I plan to stay as free as possible.  I don't care about my plane's paint job or emblems enough to dump real money into them.  The 'Sortie Fuel' that limits how much you can play might be annoying, but if I can progress in rank and earn cash through the campaign mode, I should be fine there.

TesseractE
TesseractE

@mikees1  Actually, Infinity takes place in an alternate Real World, not 'Strangereal'.

pduke7
pduke7

@PlatinumPaladin  although i am 100% at your side, lets see it from another angle, just to make the devils advocate...
We are talking about planes here.Flight, ahhh....
In real life only a bunch of people are actually flying(i don't). it is difficult, expensive, admirable. This game has 17 years on its back. do you remember games back then? they were difficult... you had to try and try more. through these 17 years we came in a new era of gaming. easy for the mind, difficult for the fingers!! Nowdays most people like to fly with rear camera and standard mode controls cause "when i press left.... it goes left!!"
But flight is flight, and of course AC although totally arcade, it always gave you the pseudo-feeling that you are actually doing something with air, turbines and physics(and 450 missiles...), that you are flying (except AH that gave you a shit and a fan to use them as you like...)
And they are still here after 17 years, that's great if you ask me
and we are here after 17 years. so they did something

so let them do what they think best again this time, lets see it how it works and if they are going to take their hand from our hearts and put it in our pockets...well we have passed through years of waiting, even more through AH!it is so easy to close it down again and join a conversation like this expressing my feelings along with all of you, trying to show them what it should be, or just passing time cause we are not flying....

oh and there is always beer....:P

cheers!


Gazz_mann
Gazz_mann

@PlatinumPaladin  I'm right with you my Mobius,Razgriz and Demon lord of the Round table loving brother. This move has pissed me off totally.

MasterTheHero
MasterTheHero

@PlatinumPaladin Have to agree, though Ace Combat Zero was still a great game, but it hinted at the change in direction the game was going to take.


For instance, I can watch that Ace Combat Zero trailer and still get goosebumps on my skin from listening to the music, the voice acting, and the awesome visuals that were cut to it.


But when I played it, I felt myself missing the banter between Edge, Archer, and Chopper. It felt like there were less characters for Galm 1 to interact with, despite having all those awesome ace interviews.


The SOLDIER, KNIGHT, and MERCENARY gameplay mechanics were interesting, but the missions weren't as cool as Ace Combat 5 which I still consider to be the best in the series.


Ironically, Ace Combat 4 was similar to Zero, but the missions felt more interesting. Possibly because the story was more interesting. You were the underdog that was inspiring a nation to fight back. Where as in Zero, you're just another pilot in a sea of pilots.


Ace Combat Liberation was a piece of sh**. I was so pissed with the direction they took that game in. If I had to hear, "Go dance with the Angels" one more time, I was likely to throw the game disc out the window. The story was terrible, the voice acting was worse, and the missions all turned into "kill as many enemies as you can."


Where were the stealth missions? The escort missions?


Assault Horizon was even more offensive because now, you LOSE control of your plane so that you could play through a scripted cinematic where it looks like your plane is dodging debris. But what happens when you put that mechanic into multiplayer? You crash your plane because the system doesn't take into account what a human player will do in combat.


Now they're going free 2 play? Which essentially means that the huge library of jets are all going to be PURCHASED for unlocked? No, no, no, f---ing no!


They tried to do the same thing with Generals 2 and that game got shut down. The only thing we can do as gamers to save Ace Combat from this F2P bull sh**, is to let them know that this isn't the game we want.

xolivierx
xolivierx

@yeah_28  I can understand a genre might not provide the maximum income, but if genres died, we would be left with COD clones and DLC ridden games. It is OK for a game to be different and not to please to everybody.

Chatch09
Chatch09

@yeah_28 Ace Combat 5: Unsung War was the last great one in my opinion, the first one for 360/ps3 was pretty good as well. I hope they still include a monstrous flying battleship to rip apart in the final mission (that was always my favorite part in the AC series).

Coren_Larken
Coren_Larken

@thefinalzapkeet  "if they do it like with killer instinct where you can play for free, or just put down 60 dollars to unlock the full game like a "normal" purchase, then that would be perfectly ok for me.  I just don't want it to turn into a mobile game played on a console"

Exactly. Just give the option to buy it outright. I still pay extra for the skins...I might have bought every single one for AC5. Some of it is an obsession, then some of it is wanting to support the devs as much as I can.


Peter, thanks for covering this. This is probably my favorite game series.

Coren_Larken
Coren_Larken

@Melchior111  That was one game. They were experimenting. It didn't work, they've reverted the formula to the old. It'll be fine.

PlatinumPaladin
PlatinumPaladin

@Oz0n3_holepunch  Are you saying that that initial $30 got you 1,000 hours of gaming, or it just led to that? 'Cause that may be an acceptable value.

PlatinumPaladin
PlatinumPaladin

@sakaixx  Come on, let's not go there. I'm a Sony fanboy and frankly I don't give a shit what console it is or has been on. This is beyond console wars.

thefinalzapkeet
thefinalzapkeet

@sakaixx Looks like sony ponies have made it into this article


which makes no sense as the consoles weren't even mentioned.  I'm guessing you think FF13 sucks because it was also on the 360 and that's the ONLY reason why it sucks right?

PlatinumPaladin
PlatinumPaladin

@pduke7 @PlatinumPaladin  So you're suggesting that we should have faith that Namco know what they're doing because they've managed to keep the series running for what is actually 19 to 22 years?

I could maybe agree with you if it weren't for the fact that the series had survived for about 18 years while consistently offering the same basic experience. Infinity and Assault Horizon just make me think they want more money and don't care what they have to do to get it.

PlatinumPaladin
PlatinumPaladin

@MasterTheHero @PlatinumPaladin  I totally agree that every Ace Combat has been different from the others as far as presentation goes. The story of Air Combat and Ace Combat 2 were told solely through mission briefings and debriefings. Ace Combat 3 had an anime style to it, if only in the Japanese version. AC04 had those beautiful artworks to carry the story of a group of people who's lives were influenced by your actions. Ace Combat 5 was the full cinematic experience that really pulled me in. I agree it was the best of the bunch, but Zero was still a great game. I found the ace interviews really interesting. It wasn't quite as involving as 5, but I still felt fecked off when Pixy appeared as an enemy.

My point is that each game in the series has had it's own style of presentation, and that's fine with me at least as the gameplay has always followed the same formula but gradually improved, not to mention it made each game quite unique. Fires of Liberation, and the two X games were still the same games at the core but they felt like they hadn't had the same level of attention as the series usually displays. And yeah, the less said about Assault Horizon the better.

My apologies to anyone who thinks I'm coming across as very self-opinionated on the matter. Ace Combat has been my favourite game for the longest time and it's hard not to get frustrated when you feel like your years of loyalty to something means nothing. Especially when we're now being asked to pay as you play.

yeah_28
yeah_28

@xolivierx @yeah_28Of course it is, but this is about bussiness, AC5 because of also having to count on modern audiovisual action, has some particular costs, that might be really hard to argument, and its Namco the one that has to allow AC to survive or not.

In a perfect world, the developers of the game could make their publisher sustain them while also making a niche game that remains original, but that is very hard sometimes, like now.

TesseractE
TesseractE

@Chatch09 @yeah_28  The Trench Runs were always my favorite.


Leave the canyon, you're instantly shot down.  Go too slow, the choppers tear you up.  You have to go full tilt through a narrow ravine...  Man, that was the first adrenaline rush I'd ever gotten from a video game.

yeah_28
yeah_28

@Chatch09 @yeah_28AC5 achieved a unique combination of arcade flight sim with JRPG tones that made it the long loved game it still is today. Its not strange that by far the most common preference I've heard from the fans is AC5.

The devs need to either pursue the originality and value of this or otherwise just..yeah, go F2P or whatever model that gets them enough money to even keep working.

As i said in my previous comment, a genre like that might not be profitable enough, but I'd take my chances if I were them honestly, just one last time.

xolivierx
xolivierx

@Chatch09 @yeah_28  AIr combat on Ps1 was AMAZING.
And then Ace Combat 2 was pretty good too.
One of my faw was the xbox 360 exclusive...I even got the joystick that came with it.

I personally don't believe in F2P

PlatinumPaladin
PlatinumPaladin

@pduke7 @PlatinumPaladin  Haven't a clue. It was certainly a radical departure from the traditional Ace Combat formula, and given how quickly they've ditched it can't bode well. They do seem to have kept Assault Horizon's damage models though, so I'm kinda happy about that.

I think I see what you mean though. If Namco don't want to give us a new Ace Combat like the old, then I suppose we'll always have the old. :o)

pduke7
pduke7

@PlatinumPaladin @pduke7  don't get me wrong, all i say is, you shout loud and right.  i am with you all the way. if that fails, if the experienced namco doesn't want to understand then we must not forget to .... forget them! them and their product if the latter doesn't respect our passion. 
i haven't made any search but i guess AH was a failure, in best case scenario a great excuse to return to their standard recipe. and i don;t see any of AH's ridiculous features showing up again in Infinity. so did they actually made any money out of it?