Poor old Metroid Prime: Federation Force - following its bizarre and poorly received E3 2015 reveal it's been kept largely out of the spotlight, only emerging in the past week with Nintendo opening the doors for previews and, somewhat surprisingly, releasing Metroid Prime: Blast Ball for free. Essentially a bonus / training mode in the core game, this 3 vs. 3 shooter / sports minigame landed on the eShop recently as a first taste of sorts for the main game. With the download featuring the full suite of options - single player vs. bots, local and online multiplayer - it lets 3DS owners try out the core controls of Federation Force in a chaotic team-based setting.
As we began to argue in a recent poll article, the release of Blast Ball is a scenario from which Nintendo arguably can't lose. In terms of public perception and visible online feedback the game has faced consistent negativity, with even the most recent 'Mission Briefing' video earning almost as many dislikes as likes on YouTube.
Ultimately, for some Nintendo fans Federation Force is a game that will never earn acceptance - it adopts the much-loved Prime brand and utilises it in a team-based 3DS shooter, with a visual style that's not exactly universally loved. There's also the very obvious factor that Samus isn't front and centre as the protagonist, which seems like a risky move wherever you stand on the pros and cons of the game. Like with a handful of other releases of note in the past couple of years, including the likes of Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival, some dedicated fans of major franchises - not entirely without justification - are rebelling against the games they're being offered.
Whatever your thoughts on mass-dislikes and negative social media reception for games like Federation Force, sometimes those are circumstances that can't be escaped. The Blast Ball download - essentially a free gift in Europe and a limited time early access trial in North America - is a clever counterpoint, then. Some won't be convinced to download it, or will try it and be unmoved by its gameplay, but it's also possible that some will try it out and be swayed.
Certainly a decent percentage of those replying to our polls said they were enjoying the free demo to some degree, and a solid number stated that early access and free downloads can help sway opinions on upcoming releases. Blast Ball, a part of a release struggling for acceptance among vocal online fans, in particular, went straight for the sizeable 3DS userbase and said "here, try it out for yourself".
Another example we've cited before is the the Splatoon Global Testfire, a small series of time-limited online sessions in which fans got rather excited and eagerly joined in, while giving Nintendo useful stress tests for its servers. After a couple of wobbles the servers found their footing, and this writer recalls a lot of positivity around the promotion. Splatoon already had a positive pre-release reputation, but as a new IP it no doubt helped to get the free online demo onto the systems of as many Wii U owners as possible. Those unsure of spending out on an unfamiliar franchise could get drawn in by its charms ahead of time, tempting them to buy into the full experience.
Free and early access downloads certainly have value, then, though certainly that's only applicable in certain circumstances. New IPs or titles that need a boost in public perception are perfect for the approach, as it's all about growing the audience with newcomers that otherwise may not have even been close to a purchase. There's less value for small experiences or established franchises, which explains why demos and freebies are rare with Nintendo's biggest hits in particular. There's also the perspective that demos don't help sales if they give too much away - small download-only games, for example, are in danger of showing their hand too fully in free downloads, taking away the incentive to buy the full offering. With big-name franchises like Mario, on the flipside, there's no need to give anything away, as Nintendo can rely on brand power and conventional marketing hype to do the job.
These free downloads are also only worth delivering if the product is good enough. Lost Reavers - which is free-to-play anyway - had an early access download, but that wasn't particularly well received courtesy of issues with controls, lag and general design. Those negative impressions can be enough to put potentially buyers - including this writer in this case - from bothering with the final product. If a game is of sketchy quality, freebies aren't a good idea.
Sometimes opportunities are missed, too. Star Fox Zero is a title which had a continual debate around its controls follow it up to release and beyond. Yet long after it arrived Nintendo released a demo that included the Training Missions and the 'Battle Begins' animated short. The animation was well received before the game, so if it had been distributed with that demo prior to the game's full release, even right after it was broadcast in a special online event, that may have been useful in tackling perceptions around controls. The way Zero plays is divisive, but at least this demo would have allowed those on the fence to decide for themselves one way or the other; hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course.
In any case, it wouldn't surprise us if free downloads like Blast Ball and the former Splatoon Global Testfire become increasingly common from Nintendo, especially for new IPs or games that need a boost of profile. More people are now talking about Metroid Prime: Federation Force courtesy of Blast Ball landing, and at this stage and with current perceptions around the game that's only a good thing.
With the exceptional amount of content and competition in gaming nowadays, some titles need help to make any kind of impact. Freebies aren't always the answer, nor will the strategy always pay off, but it's another useful weapon in this increasingly download-centric gaming age. As we've seen with various and similar approaches across PC and other consoles, generating buzz and word of mouth through trials, partial releases and limited early access downloads can be hugely effective in getting games into the gaming public's conversation.
It all boils down to one simple fact - people like free stuff. Sometimes you have to offer a freebie to loosen a gamer's purse-strings.