The Japanese game industry has been affected by the free-to-play movement just as much as the US business. Titles like Puzzle & Dragons and Kantai Collection are raking in cash, and console publishers are beginning to see the fruits of experimenting with F2P: Case in point: the producers of Tekken and Dead or Alive, both of whom released F2P versions of their respective titles on consoles this summer.
" In the case of Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate: Core Fighters, we had a retail game and an F2P game, so we had to announce the existence of the F2P version before accepting pre-orders or else it'd be a disservice to users," said DOA director Yosuke Hayashi. "So we announced it just before pre-orders began, and before the end of the day, Namco Bandai had contacted us to say 'Hey, you know what...'"
"We had finished work on Tekken Revolution a while ago, but we never talked about it," added Tekken director Katsuhiro Harada. "Unlike DOA5U, where they were focused on the retail release, this was download-only and if we announced it, users would say 'Let me play it now!' So we left it on the back burner and announced it at E3 since the timing worked out best there. We also wanted it to be the first F2P console fighting game, so we kept it a secret until just before the announcement."
But why go F2P in the first place? "There are several reasons," replied Harada. "One of them is that fighting games are now a pretty mature genre and one that's becoming difficult for people to approach. We figured that if it was cheaper to get into, more people would buy it and we'd have a bigger base of competitors. Then we figured we might as well go all the way and make it free. If we took fighters, this over-mature, very hardcore-oriented genre, and had it so a wider audience gave it another shot, we figured that'd connect to the next stage."
"For DOA, if you release something like Ultimate after DOA5, it's going to be real hard for it to sell more copies than the original," Hayashi said. "That means less online traffic. We went through the effort of expanding the online component, so we'd like lots of people to enjoy it. The idea was that people playing the F2P version could join with purchasers to become their opponents. Also, we get data every day from people who play DOA5 online, and the thing is that they're all really, really good. So good that it's becoming a game that even average players can't get into. Fighters are fun when you're playing against players on the same level as you, so releasing an F2P version lets both beginners and advanced players a way to get involved at the same time. That was our aim."
Both titles take different approaches to monetizing the gameplay experience. DOA Core Fighters offers the majority of the full game's modes for free, but gives you only four characters and offers the rest of the case individually for a fee. "For DOA5U, we just want players to use their favorite characters," Hayashi explained. "So we give them all the modes that focus on the characters so they can find the ones they like the most as they play. That's why we do things like 'test this character' campaigns. It's hard to see how these 3D models look in screenshots, so instead we let players see them on their own TVs. Maybe that's not a very fighting-game reason, but I think it's a very DOA-like approach to F2P."
Tekken Revolution, meanwhile, awards you points as you play, letting you power-up your stable and unlock new characters. Monetization is chiefly tied to shortening the wait the game puts upon you for playing arcade or competitive matches online. "Our main concept was that building more of a trial audience would help us build our future," Harada said. "The interesting thing here is that we figured free users would play for 30 or 60 minutes at a time, but instead they're all clocking around three hours. Tekken Revolution is kind of a trial effort to see what creating an arcade-like environment at home would be like, although it's a different experience and it's a lot cheaper than 100 yen per play."
The results so far? Encouraging: Harada noted that Revolution has clocked over two million downloads worldwide, and Hayashi, without going into detail, told Famitsu that he didn't see any negative to the Core Fighters launch. "We released the retail and free version simultaneously," he said, "so there was concern within the company on whether that'd eat into package sales. However, people are still buying the retail game, and in larger numbers than we expected. It proves that even if you have a free version, there's still an audience out there that wants to have the entire character set at their disposal."
That's not to say, though, that either publisher has plans to go entirely F2P for their flagship fighter releases. "It's hard to see a business model where retail didn't exist," Hayashi said. "We've made no decisions on what'll happen in the future, but we have no intention of saying anything like 'DOA6 won't have a package release'."
"I play a lot of PC games and I enjoy both retail and F2P titles," added Harada. "With F2P, the developer's trying to do what it can to get an audience together, but with most of those games, once they build a loyal audience, they're always seeking the next thing. That leads to more people thinking 'I want the retail release' or 'I want the limited edition'. It shows that there are things we can do for this audience."