Puzzle & Dragons Z
So this is what it looks like when Nintendo tries to preserve the value of software. Satoru Iwata’s infamous GDC 2011 jibe at free-to-play games felt naïve at the time and sounds even sillier four years on. Now Nintendo makes free-to-play games for 3DS and is taking its IP to mobiles. Yet here is the most popular smartphone game in Japan, tweaked and presented as a full-price release with nary a microtransaction in sight.
Those changes are illuminating, saying much about Nintendo’s sweetly old-fashioned view of games, but also what makes a free-to-play game successful. Gone are the F2P hooks: there’s no stamina bar to restrict freeloaders’ playtimes; just the one currency, acquired entirely in-game; and no premium Egg Machine holding the game’s best monsters. The incentive to return on a regular basis is drastically reduced, too, with no rotating daily dungeons or fluctuating monster drop rates. PAD has been turned from a theoretically endless dungeon crawler into a traditional linear story-driven RPG.
These changes are logical, expected consequences of turning a free-to-play game into a paid one, but they have other knock-on effects. It’s terribly slow, for one thing – on mobile, GungHo wants you to burn through that stamina bar quickly, but here lavish animations
stock RPG story – young unknown saves the world from peril – is livened up by Syrup, an ever-so-British dragon that celebrates victories with “Back of the net!” and reacts to the unexpected with “Blimey!” mean battles lack pace and framerates plummet. Death means a warp back to the hub town, the action a short trek and too many dialogue boxes away.
The Super Mario Bros Edition – released separately in Japan but bundled here – takes a slightly different tack, borrowing the Mario assets and placing restrictions on how you construct teams by separating out leaders, helpers and regular team members. It feels a good deal less flexible as a result, and doesn’t help itself by giving you the strongest leader and helper at the end of World 3, discouraging experimentation thereafter.
That, in fact, is the biggest problem for both PAD Z and its spinoff: the vastly reduced monster pools, which erode the thrill of assembling the perfect team. On mobile, Puzzle & Dragons’ peaks lie in outputting damage in the millions with a deliciously overpowered, hardwon squad. Here, you just scrape through fights with a so-so set of monsters with humdrum abilities.
Satoru Iwata wants to preserve the value of software, and by bundling two games for a generously discounted price, PAD Z makes a fair case for paying up front. But it also shows that there’s far more to well-done F2P than a price tag; that mechanics have to work in concert with the monetisation. It’s a fine lesson for Nintendo, but that’s no help to a game which is potentially a good deal cheaper, and certainly a whole lot better, on phones than it is on 3DS.