When Spring 2014 blossoms, we\’ll finally get our hands on another first for Nintendo – the company’s first free-to-play title, set in the shimmering waters of the Steel Diver series. This is the Big N’s initial testing of the waters in the free-to-play market, a game format that has seen notable success thanks to titles, such as League of Legends, and accessible platforms, like Steam – yet, at the same time, one that Nintendo has been hesitant to engage.

The premise is a bit confusing, to say the least, with Nintendo utilizing one of its least popular franchises in its first attempt at capturing an audience with this model. Will anybody care that Nintendo is releasing a free-to-play title if it doesn\’t star Mario or any other of its classic franchises? For such a major maneuver, it seems odd that Nintendo instead has gone the route of a free-to-play title without including a flagship character.

The evident character loyalty to a majority of Nintendo’s familiar faces would undoubtedly attract players. It’s safe to say that, with players still buying major Nintendo titles like Pokemon X and Y and even remakes like The Wind Waker HD, the price tag will likely never be a problem for Nintendo software. Therefore, it’s also safe to say that a game without a price tag at all would generate just as much attention, if not more.

Although he was primarily discussing the relationship between digital and physical releases of the same game, Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata notes the strength of a franchise alone perpetuates a certainly higher standard of value that Nintendo wants to maintain for its games.

\”Prospective consumers can easily anticipate that games from established franchises such as Super Mario and Pokémon are worth the price, even before they start playing them. In fact, “Animal Crossing: New Leaf,” which we released last year in Japan, and “Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon,” Capcom’s “Monster Hunter 4” and Nintendo’s “Pokémon X” and “Pokémon Y” released this year, have shown both strong digital download and packaged software sales, which shows that there are a number of people who believe that digital content holds the same value as its packaged counterpart.\”

Could this also be said of free-to-play titles featuring major franchises? Would players also contend that free-to-play games hold the same value as packaged and other digital content?

Remember that Nintendo has begun a substantial focus on digital content, utilizing new ways to get games into the hands of new and old players. Wii Fit U is a recent example of this, with people being able to download a trial demo of the game that, with the purchase of an additional Fit Meter, can unlock its entirety without paying the standard price of a full copy.

\”On the other hand, I feel that digital content that is offered through brand-new sales methods has greater potential to turn into massive hits than digitally offered packaged software.\”

With the digital marketplace an essential part of Nintendo’s forecast, the potential for new sources of revenue (think League of Legends\’ store full of champions, skins, etc.), and the addition of Nintendo’s biggest franchises, it seems a perfect pairing waiting to happen. How, then, could Nintendo approach additional free-to-play games with the intent of incorporating more familiar franchises?

Reintroduction of Older or Less Frequent Franchises

While Nintendo has an extensive library of fantastic franchises, triple-A development naturally focuses on its heavy-hitters – Mario, Pokemon, The Legend of Zelda, etc. – which ultimately reduces the number of appearances on shelves that can be made by other franchises. Kid Icarus was recently revived by an effort from Smash Bros. designer Masahiro Sakurai, but the likelihood of seeing Pit show up in a game other than Smash Bros. anytime in the near future is slim. Yet, in the next year or so, we\’ll continue to get new Mario releases with Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D World.

Could free-to-play titles instead be used for franchises outside Nintendo’s major releases? Beyond a new Kid Icarus game – which could be just as likely, given the success of Uprising on the 3DS – we could see new installments of other classic series, such as Ice Climbers, or more frequent releases for F-Zero (last release: 2004), Custom Robo (2006), or Advance Wars (2008). These releases could subsidize Nintendo’s steady flow of blockbuster titles heading into the next couple of years of the Wii U’s and 3DS’s lifespans.

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However, I don\’t want to imply that free-to-play automatically means less than triple-A development; that is to say that these free-to-play games should be treated as less than full game experiences with less resources, budget, and the like. Likewise, I don\’t think Iwata wants things to appear this way, thus why Nintendo may be ever cautious of going this route. There’s no reason, Iwata would likely agree, that Nintendo should release subpar games just to release free-to-play games and to satisfy fans of minor franchises.

Still, with Nintendo evidently focusing on equipping its physical and digital shelves with full-priced editions of its best games, there may never be a Pokemon adventure or Zelda dungeon crawl going without a price tag. Thus, other franchises may be the better alternative in the long run.

Accessibility

Alternatively, Nintendo may look to the approachability of kid-friendly franchises, such as Yoshi and Kirby, to develop a chemistry with the accessible free-to-play game model. Already we\’ve seen Nintendo approach the development of both of these franchises in ways to appeal to the youngest of age groups (see: Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Yarn Yoshi) but, even so, both of these series have had a child-worthy appeal from their humble beginnings to modern installments. They naturally seem like obvious choices for this.

With both the 3DS and Wii U home to multitudes of game choices ranging for all age groups, it could be a boon for Nintendo to differentiate certain releases within these franchises with the free-to-play moniker – an invitation of sorts to gameplay experiences guaranteed to be favorable for any kind of player. Parents may be wary of holiday investments of full-priced titles or getting their children into overly violent multi-player romps, but Yoshi and Kirby games would always provide a clean excursion worth paying some mind.

At the very least, both of these franchises have produced stellar titles, so it isn\’t out of the question that that trend would continue into the free-to-play world.

The Problem with Supplementing Bigger Franchises

Nintendo, of course, could apply the free-to-play model to its biggest brands, but not by simply creating full game experiences without adding a cost. Rather, could we see supplementary materials and applications applying the model instead?

We see this somewhat with Pokemon applications, such as Dream Radar and the various Pokedex iterations, available via download on the Nintendo eShop. However, these are never considered actual games of their own, let alone free-to-play ones.

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In fact, we do want to distinguish the line between something that is necessarily free and a free-to-play game. It’s a model that not only consists of the general gameplay experience as being free, but also secondary sources of revenue that the developer uses to make up for the fact that the game itself doesn\’t cost anything (in seemingly all cases, free downloads off the eShop do not fit this bill). The same goes for free DLC for an already-released game, as opposed to a free-to-play game standing independent of other releases within the same franchise.

That being said, considering the trend established by Pokemon apps and the recent movement by Nintendo to incorporate DLC into its releases, it seems more likely that major franchises will see less full free-to-play titles incorporating their name. They instead might see additional content in the vein of New Super Mario Bros. U and Pikmin 3. Nintendo seems keen, logically, on using the majority of its resources on major titles with a standard pricing model.

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With Steel Diver being the only series known to have a non-priced future, Nintendo’s free-to-play forecast looks bare. Steel Diver also may not fully clarify whether free-to-play is the right table for Nintendo to play at yet; a familiar Nintendo face in a later game may instead be a better option than a bunch of submarines.

Should Nintendo continue into the free-to-play market with its best names in tow? Or should Nintendo alternatively make the best of other franchises with a new sales method? One day, will there be a Mario or Zelda game free-to-play with characters and skins on sale?

Or maybe I\’m mistaken and some people just really want to play with submarines for free.

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