Talking Point: Steel Diver: Sub Wars Proves That Nintendo Can Make Free-To-Play Work
Posted by Damien McFerran
Nintendo's first freemium game scores a direct hit
Let's all be brutally honest here — when Nintendo announced that its first foray into the wild and wacky world of free-to-play gaming was going to be an update of 3DS launch title Steel Diver, it was hardly the most heart-stopping news ever. Steel Diver was — and still is — a nice enough game, but it felt more like a tech demo than a fully-fledged release, and has since been forgotten by all but the most dedicated early-adopters. However, you could argue that this made it the ideal IP to retrofit with new-fangled freemium mechanics — if the experiment fails, then it's no massive loss.
Thankfully — as you'll know if you've consulted our Steel Diver: Sub Wars review — the gamble has paid off. The game is a surprisingly engaging take on the team-based FPS genre, with muscle-bound space marines being replaced by sluggish, delicate submarines. Nintendo has called it a "contemplative first person shooter", and that's not actually a bad stab at summing up this unique title; with no respawns and a generally methodical approach, it's a game which rewards carefully-planned strategy as much as it does quick reactions.
However, what's possibly more interesting is the way in which Nintendo has tackled the thorny issue of free-to-play gaming. The free edition of the game features only two single-player missions but grants full access to the online side of the game. While you can unlock more submarines and solo missions by investing in the premium version, it's perfectly possible to enjoy the gratis edition without having to reach for your (virtual) wallet.
This is where the genius of Nintendo's take on free-to-play becomes apparent; Steel Diver: Sub Wars sucks you in with its addictive gameplay, encouraging you to keep playing so you can boost that winning streak, increase your in-game rank and prove your dominance over players from every corner of the globe. Even if you enter this underwater battle with the mindset that you're not going to spend any real cash, after the first few hours only the staunchest of individuals will be able to say that they weren't even the slightest bit tempted to "go premium". Steel Diver: Sub Wars is much more than just a demo, but stops short of giving players so much content that they don't feel compelled to spend any money. And even if they don't decide to pony up the dough, Nintendo still benefits because more people will be glued to their 3DS consoles and locked in captivating submarine warfare, putting their smartphones and tablets aside for a brief moment. Who knows, Steel Diver: Sub Wars could even be the game which reminds lapsed owners exactly why they bought a dedicated handheld console in the first place, thanks to the fact that it's entirely free to download and enjoy.
Infamous titles like EA's recent Dungeon Keeper reboot have given free-to-play gaming a bad name, but Nintendo has been in the game long enough to know what does and doesn't work. There are no paywalls, no gameplay-limiting stamina gauges and certainly no "pay to win" elements in Steel Diver: Sub Wars. The premium subs are nice, but in the hands of a master player the default subs which come with the free version of the game can be just as deadly. Likewise, the "shop" option in the premium version — which allows you to purchase a limited selection of historical subs via in-app purchases — is a neat bonus rather than a challenge-killing shortcut to victory.
You can tell that Nintendo is still trying to figure out what works with this kind of venture; no doubt the feedback gained (how many users have gone premium, how many bothered to download the historical subs, and so on) will be used in future free-to-play offerings on both the 3DS and Wii U. This is a company which is moving into hitherto uncharted territory, but it's reassuring to see that Nintendo's first steps are the right ones. Steel Diver: Sub Wars isn't just a fine video game with a surprising amount of depth (pun intended), it's also one of the most convincing freemium efforts we've seen on any system to date.
If you've downloaded Steel Diver: Sub Wars, have you also purchased the premium content? (224 votes)
Not yet, but I intend to at some point in the future
Please login to vote in this poll.
Would you like to see Nintendo adopt the same approach in future eShop titles? (232 votes)
Yes, I think it's a good way of hooking in buyers without the pressure
No, I prefer to buy my games outright and get everything from day one
I think it's too early to say if this approach will work on Nintendo consoles
Please login to vote in this poll.