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

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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