Fire Emblem

You Down With DLC?

“I wish Nintendo would just MODERNIZE already!” This has been a common lament amongst gamers since perhaps the GameCube or even N64 era, and usually when uttered, it is meant to suggest that Nintendo should build more powerful consoles, or court more “Triple A” third-party software makers, or play to a more “mature” audience of gamer, or build a more robust online experience, etc., etc.

Well, in recent years, Nintendo has certainly begun to modernize… although not, perhaps, in the ways their detractors have been asking for. There are two trends that define the “modernization” of gaming in the 21st century, and to the surprise of absolutely nobody, in this case “modernization” is equatable to “monetization.” After all, for-profit companies most often evolve when there is obvious money to be made.

The two trends are closely related; both involve paying more money to add extra content to a game you already own. Micro-transactions define the mobile gaming market, and as Nintendo learned recently, micro-transactions are the sort of model that market demands. Super Mario Run, priced at a single-pay premium price tag of $9.99, has not made anywhere near the same amount of profit for the company as Fire Emblem Warriors, a free-to-play game that features micro-transactions, and this is in spite of Super Mario Run being the more popular download, ten times over.

The other trend, more associated with the console and PC gaming markets, is downloadable content, or DLC. DLC refers to additional content that is made available for popular (or unpopular) full-priced games… although unlike micro-transactions, which often charge small amounts for items necessary for gameplay, DLC is sold as “extra” material: it costs more than the standard micro-transaction, but is a luxury item that isn’t “required” to enjoy what was intended to be the full game.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Game companies are often criticized for including amongst DLC the sort of content that, ten or fifteen years ago, would have been released as part of the game proper. A good recent example is Star Wars: Battlefront, an online multi-player Star Wars-themed arena shooter that, while widely well-reviewed, hid half of its content behind DLC paywalls that cost almost as much as the primary game did on its own. Gamers are a prickly sort, but one can hardly fault them for being annoyed when they drop $60 on a game only to find that what they’ve purchased is arguably half a product.

Still, when done right (i.e. as bonus content to expand and extend an all-in-the-box experience) DLC can be remarkably satisfying. The Wii U/3DS generation marked the first time Nintendo really dove head-first into the world of DLC, and results have ranged from incredibly well-executed to… not as well-executed. Let’s take a look:

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – We’ll start here, because where else is there to start? BotW‘s $20 season pass is coming in three individual portions: a Purchase Bonus, and Packs 1 and 2. The Purchase Bonus, already released, causes three treasure chests to appear on the Great Plateau, one of which includes a red Nintendo Switch t-shirt for Link to wear. Pack 1, recently detailed, includes more than had initially been anticipated: two full sets of armor, two helmets, a mask to help locate the game’s 900 Korok Seeds, a map tracking add-on that allows the player to chart where they have been in Hyrule over 100 hours of gameplay, a new “Cave of Trials” style challenge, a new Hard Mode, and a Travel Medallion with which warp points can be laid down anywhere in Hyrule. Pack 2, details forthcoming, is the big one: it will include an entirely new dungeon, new story content, and “more”. But…

Is it worth it? Definitely. Seeing as how Breath of the Wild contains an easy 200 hours of gameplay out of the box, and for $20 you’ll get a new dungeon, more story, more challenge modes, and armor based on Tingle (TINGLE!)… this DLC is something most anyone who’s played Breath of the Wild will happily pay for.

Mario Kart 8Mario Kart 8 launched on Wii U with 30 playable characters, 8 full race circuits of 4 tracks apiece, online play, a (poorly received) battle mode, and a plethora of kart parts. Already, that’s as full an experience as the Mario Kart franchise has ever offered. The DLC for the game, available in two packs at $8 apiece (both packs can be purchased in a single season pass for $12) adds a total of 4 new cups (including tracks based on Animal Crossing, The Legend of Zelda, Excitebike, and F-Zero), 6 new racers, 8 new karts, and different color skins for Yoshi and Shy Guy. Again, though…

Is it worth it? Well, it was. At first glance, $16 – $12 for add-on content seems a little pricey, but the amount of content added on more than justified the price tag for most players. However, the release of the Nintendo Switch has seen a new version of the game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, hit shelves, and this Deluxe game includes all of the previous DLC rolled into the point-of-sale purchase price. If you laid money down for the MK8 Wii U DLC fairly recently, you may feel a little taken at this point. Still, judged on its own merits, MK8 provides a perfect how-to guide for any software company looking to add DLC content to their own games.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U & 3DS Smash Bros. launched with fifty-one characters in-the-box, a crap-ton of stages (official measurement), multiple modes, full-roster amiibo support, two online modes, and a partridge in a pear tree. The DLC that followed was certainly adding on to a full and robust experience… but the pricing was a bit more suspect than that for, say, MK8. First of all, the Smash Bros. DLC releases are haphazardly structured, with no consistent pricing models, separate prices for Wii U, 3DS, and Wii U + 3DS packs, and a bunch of content that nobody really wanted, i.e. Mii Fighter Costumes. Overall, seven new fighters were released as Smash 4 DLC, three of which were repackaged from old entries in the series and 4 of which were completely new entrants into the Smash franchise. Of the seven, Cloud Strife, Bayonetta, and Ryu were clearly the must-buys, and each came packaged with a brand new stage. Five standalone stages were also made available, but of the five only one, based on Super Mario Maker, was original and the rest were retro (and one of those retro stages wasn’t available for the 3DS version of the game.) All of these characters and stages and costumes were released at random times, and the pricing was all over the place. For the sake of analysis, let’s look at the last two bundles released: the all-character bundle, priced at $35, and the all-stages bundle, priced at $11 on Wii U and $8.50 on 3DS (the 3DS bundle, remember, contains one fewer stage.)

Is it worth it? For the full set? Probably not. Cloud, Bayonetta, and Ryu, which admittedly are three badass additions to the franchise, are available individually for one console for a total of $18 and for both consoles at a total of $21, but I’m not sure the rest of the content is worth an extra $25 or so. Smash Bros. 4 is overloaded with stuff to begin with; paying almost the price of another whole game on Wii U and more than the price of a whole game on 3DS is pretty steep for a handful of new -ish characters and a couple of new stages.

Hyrule Warriors – This Legend of Zelda/Dynasty Warriors mash-up game was far more successful than it had any business being, honestly, but as I’ve often cited: it was my second favorite Wii U game, after Splatoon. The in-box release already has a ton of content, and the DLC packs add a bunch more… but similar to Smash Bros., the pricing and packaging can get confusing, particularly once you factor in what is and what isn’t available from Hyrule Warriors Legends, the 3DS port/spin-off version of the game. Of the initial three packs, each priced at $7.99, the Master Quest Pack might be the best value, as it includes five additional expansion chapters to the main story and unlocks Epona as a weapon for Link. The other two packs include combinations of new characters (Tingle, Young Link, and Midna) and new Adventure Maps, the grid-by-grid task-based mode of the game that you either love to grind or give up on early. There’s also a $2.99 Boss Challenge mode that provides costumes and a boss rush challenge, and (best of all) a “Play as Ganon” mode. Not Ganondorf. Ganon. Huge pig-monster Ganon. Later packs released allow players to purchase the added Hyrule Warriors Legends characters (Toon Link, Linkle, etc.) but not any of the added map content from that 3DS game… which has its OWN DLC, packaged and structured very similarly to the packages from the Wii U version.

Is it worth it? It depends. Character and costume skins for a button masher like Hyrule Warriors only go so far; the game is a blast, but to be fair, there isn’t a huge amount of difference in how each character plays. Personally, I bought all three of the initial packs but never did pull the trigger on the $12.99 package with all the Legends characters. What the packs really offered, content-wise, were the new Adventure Maps. If you dig Adventure Mode, then the packs are definitely worth the price. If you didn’t (I didn’t), selectivity is called for.

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright/Conquest Fire Emblem, more than any other franchise, seems to be Nintendo’s go-to for DLC. For the Fates trilogy, the companion games of Birthright and Conquest each offer access to Revelations, the 3rd game of the saga, at a price of $19.99. Additionally, two separate map packs can be purchased in either of the two introductory games. Map Pack 1 contains eleven new maps and costs $18; Map Pack 2 contains six new maps and costs $8.

Is it worth it? You should ask a Fire Emblem fan; try as I might, I just can’t get into the franchise. Let’s go pack by pack, though: Revelations is a full Fire Emblem game for half the price, so yeah, that’s worth it. Map Pack 1 offers eleven maps for $18, and Pack 2 offers six for $8. I’m not sure why the maps in Pack 1 are valued so much more highly than those in Pack 2, but Pack 2 is clearly an easier purchase to justify than Pack 1. But, look, if you love Fire Emblem, you’re probably laying out $40 for Birthright or Conquest, $20 apiece for the opening act you DIDN’T buy AND Revelations… geez, just how much Fire Emblem do you need? Whatever; you’ve already paid $80. May as well pay $26 more.

This isn’t all the DLC Nintendo has offered to date, but it is a fairly representative example. Their dabbling in modernization has been a mixed bag: Mario Kart 8 and Breath of the Wild are the two that in price and content are must-purchases, while the rest of the offerings have their hits and their misses. Up next? Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia for 3DS, which offers a full season pass of DLC that costs more than the actual game itself. That’s right: more than the game itself. Finally, a sign that Nintendo, for better or worse, is starting to catch up to the rest of the industry.

Be careful what you wish for.

The Cost of Heroism

Fire Emblem Heroes has landed on mobile devices, and I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news, console gaming fans: the mobile gamers have won.

They’ve won this particular battle, anyway, and let me explain what I mean by that (though some of you have already guessed). Fire Emblem Heroes is the second pure video game experience developed by Nintendo for mobile devices after Super Mario Run, and if the review trends on the iOS App Store are any indication (SMR has not yet hit Android devices) Fire Emblem Heroes is the bigger hit… for a very specific reason.

Super Mario Run, the tap-and-jump Super Mario auto-runner that puts a surprisingly deep spin on traditional Super Mario platforming, represented a line in the sand drawn by Nintendo. As has been well documented, Super Mario Run offered its first three levels for free. After completing those levels, users could then choose to pay a one-time “premium” price of $9.99 for the full game. That ten spot would be the only fee anyone would ever have to pay for a full (yet simplified) Super Mario experience on their mobile devices.

Customers hated it.

App Store users flooded the Super Mario Run page with negative reviews, and unscientifically speaking, about 200% of those reviews were some version of, “Ten dollars for an iPhone game? NO WAY JOSE!” In their most recent earnings report, Nintendo revealed that only 5% of people who downloaded Super Mario Run ended up paying the ten dollars to upgrade to the premium version, which is about half of what the Big N estimated, but still equals a cool $53 million in U.S. money. Not what they had hoped for, surely, but still: earning $53 million is certainly not anything to sneeze at. (Aside: if you’ve not yet paid the $10 for Super Mario Run, I highly recommend it. It’s my favorite 2D Mario game in quite some time.)

Fire Emblem Heroes has only been out for a few days now, and while raw numbers suggest that not as many users downloaded the app over its first few days as downloaded Pokemon Go! or Super Mario Run, that’s to be expected. Even though I recently declared (and so it has been written, and so it shall be done!) Fire Emblem has graduated to the A-List franchise level among Nintendo properties, let’s get real: Fire Emblem is not Pokemon, and it is not Super Mario. For that reason alone, it is likely to get a greater benefit of the doubt; nowhere near the same amount of hype or buzz comes alongside the first Fire Emblem mobile game as came with the first Super Mario mobile game or the “catch Pokemon in real life!” mobile game.

If the reviews are any indication, though, the REAL benefit of Fire Emblem mobile is that unlike Super Mario Run, Fire Emblem is a legitimate free-to-start experience (Super Mario Run is more of a free-to-sample experience.) I have played several hours of Fire Emblem Heroes by now, and I’ve yet to give Nintendo a single penny. It is a free download, and it is absolutely free to play the game for as long as you want.

So how is it that Fire Emblem Heroes has reportedly already grossed upwards of $3 million over its first few days?

One hyphenate sums it up: micro-transactions. Fire Emblem Heroes allows users to pay real cash for, among other things, “orbs” that can then be used to “summon” a random Fire Emblem hero (wait; do you think that’s where they got the title from?) to join your party of warriors on their quest to who really cares you’re just here to play Nintendo’s version of chess. If you don’t know the Fire Emblem franchise, you know there are dozens and dozens and dozens of potential warriors for you to summon, and you can summon duplicate versions of the same warrior at different power levels that you can then “merge” together (for the cost of more purchasable resources) to form an even MORE powerful version of the same character, and as you progress in the game it takes more “stamina” to participate in battles (fortunately, you can real-world buy a “potion” to “replenish” your “stamina”) and…

You get the point.

Okay, fine, here’s the TL;DR version: Super Mario Run asked players to pay ten dollars once, and mobile gamers lost their minds. Fire Emblem Heroes is one hundred percent designed to nickel-and-dime players well beyond ten dollars, and if the lack of negative reviews is any indication, mobile gamers are totally cool with it.

Super Mario Run and Fire Emblem Heroes are both the same thing, in a sense: they are really well-designed though streamlined versions of classic Nintendo franchises. One of them costs a lot of money (for a mobile game) up front, and the other could cost players a lot more money in the long run. It’s early yet, and Fire Emblem Heroes might still fall off a cliff in terms of user numbers, as many mobile games do… but the early consensus is loud and clear:

“Rip us off!” the mobile gamers shouted. “Make us pay forever!” And Nintendo looked at them in disbelief, the same way that the many mobile developers before them looked in disbelief at the howling masses, until finally they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Uh… if that’s what you really want.” The battle is over. The people have spoken. Get your nickels and dimes all lined up and ready to spend. We’ve asked for it.