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Talking Point: Early Flirtations With Wii U "Free to Play" Are Just the Start

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

Blasting away some kinks

While Europeans have endured a rather frustrating trend of late, waiting for various games to arrive that have already graced North America, the region has enjoyed first dibs on the Wii U eShop's dalliances with free-to-play download models. We're referring to Zen Pinball 2 and today's arrival, a downloadable tweaked version of Tank! Tank! Tank!. Both are distinctive offerings, with benefits and flaws unique to themselves, but perhaps point to a concept that will become increasingly important to the download store.

For starters, this model of a free download with paid-content was always on the table, as Satoru Iwata acknowledged in an E3 Q&A session last year.

With respect to the Wii U system, when we began working on it, one of our goals was to have a variety of purchase options and additional e-commerce options available at its launch. And because of that, we have prepared a Digital Rights Management system. We have designed the system from a technical standpoint to allow developers to freely take advantage of things like free to play and micro transactions...

As we’ve shared with you previously, for the Wii U hardware system, from the beginning, we’ve planned to make it possible for people to release their games as either an optical disc or as digital content. So publishers would be able to choose from both of those options.

Currently, we are in discussions with the publishers by sharing with them our offer in this area. Through that process, if publishers accept it as reasonable, games in the digital format will be available from the launch time. There are no technical restrictions...

Perhaps not surprisingly, it's taken a little time for the free to play market to actually arrive, with Zen Pinball 2's delay from an expected December release linked to the process of setting up the infrastructure to make it work. Tank! Tank! Tank! has arrived hot on its heels, with a similar approach distinguished by key differences, and considering this was actually a launch day retail release across the world we can also safely assume that its infrastructure took time. Both involve an initial free download and then additional paid add-on content, but let's look at the early results and their processes.

To start with Zen Pinball 2, we made clear in our review that the process of buying content for play is fiddly for those who know what they're doing, and arguably baffling and frustrating to anyone less familiar with the Wii U eShop and the system's operating system. After enjoying integrated DLC services in a number of 3DS releases, it's a surprise that this title doesn't link to the eShop directly, but simply brings up a text box telling you to get yourself over to the store yourself (via the Home button). That's a negative, as is the tedious process of downloading trial versions of tables alongside the unlock product — with just five transactions allowed at a time — just to get them to work. If you miss the one-line message in the eShop telling you that the trial table is needed alongside the unlock equivalent, it's possible that the process is even more confusing.

Unfortunately, after a fairly meaty initial download, these extra tables can take a fair amount of time to download, while only four of 26 trials are there right away. On the positive side, however, those trial tables do provide a valuable glimpse of what's on offer, with no limit to how many times you can play them. Once you get past the clumsy process and get your trials in the app, it's an excellent chance to try before you buy.

So how does Tank! Tank! Tank! vary? It has the same issue in that it fails to link directly to the eShop from within the game, simply displaying a text box in the same way as Zen Studio's title; this suggests that the issue lies with Nintendo's infrastructure, as two developers have had to resort to the same tactic. As a free-to-play model being applied to a retail release, there does seem to be a greater sense of convenience; it does, however, limit you to three play sessions a day until you spend some money. The initial download is just under 1.5GB, but this seemingly represents virtually all of the content. Though not exhaustive testing, we purchased the MY KONG mode and were pleased to see that the download was barely 1MB in size. As a result the download and installation of the product — you have to launch the game fresh to apply the installation — is over within a minute or two; the purchased product simply unlocks content that you've already downloaded.

Once the game was loaded up a golden padlock over the game mode stylishly disappeared before our eyes, so it's an efficient method. The downside with Tank! Tank! Tank! is that it ropes you along in Story Mode, for example, to the point of starting a mission before telling you to visit the eShop; there's also no way to take a trial of the paid content, that we can see. That's a business decision due to it being a different kind of game, perhaps, but counts as a bonus for the Zen Pinball 2 setup.

So, how's the free to play model worked so far on the Wii U eShop? There are growing pains with integration, we'd suggest, as Wii U is surprisingly lagging behind the 3DS DLC-equivalents in terms of infrastructure, and it's clunky to ask a user to leave a game to go to the eShop rather than link directly. That aside, both titles have strengths in their approach, highlighting two different ways that the model can be used. Some have said Zen Pinball is "like a demo with DLC", which is arguably a little harsh in light of the benefit of trialling all tables before buying, whereas Tank! Tank! Tank! features three modes within one map to give gamers a solid hour or so of content with which to experiment. We'd suggest that Namco Bandai's offering is slightly more user-friendly and intuitive overall, but Zen Studio's approach certainly did some things right.

It seems to us that Nintendo can improve the platform's flexibility for developers. The eShop area where you can select multiple products is neat, but the processes would benefit if those screens and functionality were integrated into the titles themselves. We can't reasonably expect perfection right from the start, of course, but these two titles have shown that Satoru Iwata was good for his word — Nintendo is supporting business models that, in the not so distant past, would have probably been dismissed out of hand.

While this model isn't necessarily to everyone's tastes, it could be an important extra tool to attract developers and titles to the download platform. With such competition in the current-day gaming industry, an optimised and improved process from that seen in Zen Pinball 2 and Tank! Tank! Tank! could open the door for a greater, and valuable, variety of software on Wii U.

What do you Europeans think of the free to play offerings so far? For those yet to try it we'd also be interested to know your thoughts on the broader concept in the comments below.

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User Comments (33)



zane said:

cool I was thinking of buying discversion of tank3 (it's much cheaper) Now I Can try it out for free, weeeee.



WesCash said:

The idea of paying more and more money to get the most out of a game is really unappealing to me. I'd sooner drop a decent sum of money to begin with and never have to pay anything again. The only free-to-play type game that I've ever supported was TF2 and that's because a player that chooses to spend money is never at an advantage over a player who chooses not to. Everything available to buy is entirely for cosmetic or convenience sake.



Sephariel said:

I never wanted to buy Tank! Tank! Tank! but i tryed it and now i downloaded My Kong mode and the Story missions and i may download some more things later.



aaronsullivan said:

Like Just Dance 4, the DLC and now the free to play model is needlessly complicated. I hope Nintendo makes strides in this area over the next two system updates.

From a software perspective it makes sense to keep the security portion all in one location (the eShop) but from a user perspective it's just tedious and fights against the desires of the player to buy some more content.

It's a tricky business, too. People are very finicky. My favorite kind of "free to play" is the kind that treats the free version as a sort of demo and you can unlock the whole thing with a single purchase. The micropayment stuff I just stay away from. It's usually a waste of money playing on people's instant gratification weakness.



Sean_Aaron said:

I have yet to try TankX3, but with this model I will. It is clunkier than the Wii was, however that might be because of the Wii shop's requirement to have credit and no storage of credit card details. In that light what is being done offers the user flexibility and security. I have to think there's a better way to strike a balance, but if preventing direct purchases means less exposure to some of the high profile snafus of the past with electronic shop purchases a little pain in the beginning will be worthwhile.



Bankai said:

It's good that Nintendo is supporting developers with F2P. It's bad that the F2P structure is currently inferior to every other console, as well as iPhone and iPad.

There's opportunity there, but Nintendo needs to stop with the 'we're getting better at this' excuse and just fix the problems.



Everly said:

@Bankai I agree. I really like Nintendo but they seem to be way behind the curve on some things. I wish they would recognize that something they didn't come up with works and implement it.



Bass_X0 said:

I'd sooner drop a decent sum of money to begin with and never have to pay anything again.

What if you don't like the game? Or perhaps you're content with only one or two DLC packs and spending more would be pointless? Everyone is different.

With My Life as a Darklord, you can make the game very easy if you are willing to pay extra cash for it. Such DLC packs would be unnecessary for some people.




I wasn't fussed about Tank Tank Tank but when I saw it was going free to play with low cost DLC I had to try it! I bought the Story Mode and Kong mode, although I've only dabbled with the story so far.

I have to say I hated the way the DLC is run on Zen Pinball 2 (I found it quite confusing at first) however I quit the game before launching the e-shop for that one. Today for Tank Tank Tank I pressed the home button and launched the e-shop without actually quitting the game and it took me straight to the DLC section for TTT on the e-shop, which I thought was cool.

I'm not sure whether ZP2 does the same or not but It may be worth pointing out to users that this can be done. The only downside is having to restart the game to apply the DLC, but thats pretty standard anyway!

I do usually prefer just to buy my games and I hate paying up to £10 for additional content, however I could get used the TTT model of buying the modes you want! It may prove annoying though for any online modes in future games.



Bass_X0 said:

I hate paying up to £10 for additional content

Why? It takes a few moments to do. Its more beneficial in only paying for content that interests you. A full game may include content that you have no use for yet you're still paying for.



GiftedGimp said:

Q. Is All the Dlc content for TTT on the retail disc already or is there any extra dlc?




@Bass_X0 sorry perhaps I worded it poorly. I dislike buying a game at retail(for around £40-50), then paying another £10 soon after for an extra few multiplayer maps. (I'm looking at you COD! Even though I love the game, the 4 DLC packs practically double the price of the game to £80!)

For TTT I prefer the model where you only buy the modes you like, and don't have to actually pay for the game itself! I've spent around £9.48 or something like that on TTT so far and I'm loving it!



Sean_Aaron said:

I think being able to buy only the modes you want is brilliant. Like you could buy Call of Duty and skip the online multiplayer, how awesome would that be?



WesCash said:

I personally do a lot of research on a game that I'm interested in so that I can be completely confident I will enjoy myself even before I've played it. I can honestly say I have never purchased a full price game that I regretted or was disappointed with. I always know exactly what I'm getting into. That's why I prefer to just pay upfront once for something. Of course everyone has different ways of saving and spending their money though.



Henmii said:

Personally I have my doubts about free to play! Free to play should be a complete experience FOR FREE, with maybe the option to buy some extra content (like levels or certain items).

But the way it is on Wii u so far isn't very attractive: They are just glorified demo's where you have to dump quite some money to get the full experience! It's the same way with Thearhytm on ios! I think it's a scam!



Bankai said:

@Henmii So, in your opinion, Free To Play should equal the developers making no money.

It's not a scam. It's developers giving you something to play for free, and then expecting you to pay up if you enjoyed it.



DaveC said:


Nothing is "free". It is a trick to get you hooked so then they can nickel and dime you to death. They prey on compulsive types and a little here and there dosn't seem much but it really adds up.

What you refer to "giving you something to play for free, and then expecting you to pay up if you enjoyed it" is also known as a "demo". I like the demo approach much better. I download demos all of the time on my 3DS and then buy the COMPLETE and physical copy if I like it. F2P is a hustle (that is why they like doing it so much).



Highlar said:

It appears to me that these two games over in Europe are trying to adapt a regular disc/downloadable game to the MMO F2P style. Of these games, I have quite a bit of experience, as all I play on PC's these days (separate from consoles, which I prefer for gaming) are F2P MMO games. Yes, they prey upon the compulsive buyer, but for the best of them you can actually download and play the whole game, beginning to end, low level to high, albeit with some restrictions. Personally, I prefer Sony's and a couple of companies methods for F2P. You get the whole game...totally free...with some pretty heavy restrictions on chat modes or what your character can carry in inventory. But for a one-time fee (generally about $5), you reach a middle-tier of the F2P game, where the restrictions are greatly reduced, but there are still some advantages for those that would pay a full monthly fee for an account. Basically, you get the basic games for free...and then pay for any additional content you'd like...any extra particular races/classes you'd want...expansion/extra areas to play in...etc. For me, I personally love this F2P model. It lets me try out a game...and if I like it...I can invest in it. I never feel like I"m investing too much at a time in something I wind up not being interested in. To my mind, this also makes me wonder if these type of MMO F2P games could find their way onto the Wii U, as the infrastructure for them is starting to come into place. I'd love to see that!!



nomeacuerdo said:

F2P model is a good idea, for example, tapped out on iOS has taken serious amounts of money from my pocket



tddct89 said:

I don't see the problem with having to boot up the eShop to download extra content. It's not like everyone that has the F2P games don't already know how to do it considering they had to go there to get the game in the first place. I know it's not as simple as on iOS and Android but honestly if you can't take 2 minutes to go to the eShop and purchase the content you are either lazy or you don't want it that bad. I mean, it's not like the Wii U can't multitask you don't even have to close the game to check the eShop.

Edit: I remember Zen pinball 2 on Vita, you didn't have to enter the PS Store to download tables but it seems like its barely any more tedious now than it was then.



DrSlump said:

I don't like the free to play aproach. I feel to loose the control on the money i spend. When it's possible, i like to buy the special edition of a game, becouse i like a lot the bells and whistles it gives to me I'm definitely an old style gamer.



Tsuchiya said:

Zen Pinball 2 is a complete mess. As for TTT!, that should have DLC to remove that stupid narrator and bolt on some online. Taking a picture of your face when those that you know around you, can actually see you is strange to me. Or are we pandering again to sprogs?



Sean_Aaron said:

Tx3 and Zen are offering demos with a buy-in option as opposed to a gimped game that asks you to pay to play for real. That is fine with me. What I don't like is when a game is offered that's basically crippled and you then have to buy components like upgrades that you would normally earn in-game through better play.

Selling complete game modes seems reasonable to me. In a first-person action game I'm not that fussed about online so if I could pay half the price for just the single-player campaign that would be great. As long as Nintendo blocks the silly stuff like "buy 1 million magic coins for £99.99 to equip your character!" BS I don't see a problem.




@Sean_Aaron I'm completely with you on this. Selling the game mode to those who want them helps reduce the total cost for the consumer by eliminating modes they either don't want or don't like.



Sean_Aaron said:

@Norm, it's also better for the publisher because they can sell parts of the game for less to people who might otherwise have balked at buying the title at all for full price. It's also a nice way to answer complaints from people who feel digital versions of physical media should be cheaper.

The Game Overthinker had a piece on this in his most recent Overbytes vid as well so it's topical.

Oh and cheers to NL for giving Wii U owners stuff to read that's not just about how the platform is "struggling."



Jukilum said:

@nomeacuerdo Although based on reviews it's one of the worst examples of F2P/Freemium there is. It's only profitable because of the license.

And Zen Pinball 2 is NOT F2P. It's more like the shareware business model from the 90s if you aren't willing to call it what it is; a demo.



jayblue said:

got pinball 2 tables pvsz and the space one both are great just downloaded tank and going to give it a try.



Henmii said:

"Free To Play should equal the developers making no money"

That's why it's called Free to Play! I didn't ask for it! By the way: I said they could make money by selling additional content like items and levels! And ever heard of advertising?! You could dump your game full with advertisements, not something I encourage, but it's possible!



TreesenHauser said:

I'll play free-to-play titles as long as they make their way to the USA... namely Tank Tank Tank because it seems like an okay concept but I refuse to purchase a game with such awful review scores.



SethNintendo said:

I don't mind demos being offered as part of a F2P model.

What I don't like is making a game that moves slow (ask for money to speed the game along), making it almost impossible to progress (unless you spend money to upgrade weapon or whatever), etc... The abuse of F2P is pretty bad for some Android games and I am pretty sure most console gamers would never want to see the bad F2P take root in console gaming. If the game is good then charge 2-10 dollars and make money off it. Don't try to give me a gimped game and nickel and dime me to death. Just like DLC there are good uses of F2P and there are bad uses. Shame that most are bad.

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