Free-to-play is a rather dirty phrase for video games right now. Mention it and you either think of really crappy games which hold back lots of content and items behind a paywall or games which basically force you to pony up to proceed. Some can work (Team Fortress 2, some MMORPGs) but most don’t and the latest series to go free-to-play is the rather fondly remembered Ace Combat Series from Bandai-Namco
The new game is called Ace Combat infinity and the worldwide Beta was just released on PS3 yesterday to give us a taste of how it will play. In terms of gameplay, it’s a throwback to the older style of ace combat games. The last game in the series, Assault horizon, tried to spice things up with the introduction of “dogfight mode” and helicopter stages, neither of which were well received so after that, they went back to the simple jet action which has served the series so well.
There is a basic single player option in the game but the meat of it is in the multiplayer. In a little twist to the formula, rather than having you dogfight other players, you’re all sent as a large squad to complete a certain mission. You’re then split into 2 teams and you compete with eachother for the high score. The winning team gets bonus points but you don’t compete with other players directly.
After each stage, you get experience points which goes towards researching additional powerups for your jets as well as new fighters. However, the game doesn’t really tell you how the experience is distributed so if you want a specific jet, you just need to keep playing, and playing… and playing… But at least upgrades are free!
For the beta, everything is free (which is good) but when it fully comes out, we’re in for a bit of pain when the paywall comes out. As reminded by Q, the economy of Ace Combat Infinity is geared towards restricting the amount of play. It was first tried out with the Japan only game Gundam Battle Operation but will go worldwide with Infinity. Basically, each mission played costs fuel, which is a separate commodity in this game. Fuel refills automatically given enough time but the rate at which it refills basically means you’re limited to one mission every 2 hours or so. How do you play more? You guessed it, you pay for it with real money! In a way, it’s basically the old arcade style of economy where you’d just pump a machine full of coins to play a game except you don’t have any cool game specific setup to mess around with and that one of the reasons the arcades died out was exactly because people didn’t want to pump machines full of coins anymore…
You can also spend money on cosmetic changes but the majority of the money will be made on people paying to play the game more. It’s a pretty cynical ploy but it’s not the worst example of free-to-play I’ve seen. And it’s proven to work since gundam battle operation was a moderate hit in Japan. I can kinda see it working for a quick game here and there like the old arcades but it depends on how much they charge for fuel. If it’s similar to the old arcade economy per game then it might work but it’s very easy to overcharge…
As far as mechanics and gameplay, Ace Combat Infinity is familiar and fun but that won’t mean anything if the paywall is raised too high. There’s also the matter of the game potentially becoming pay-to-win as those who pay for more playtime will get access to the better equipment much faster than others but at least it’s not as bad as selling the individual fighter jets for increasing prices or something similar… We’ll just have to see how things go once we know the cost of everything in the game. Still, I’ll likely play at least long enough to unlock the F-14 Tomcat, maybe deck it out with shark decals and play some missions while blaring out “Highway to the Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins on my sound system. a.k.a the Top Gun effect!!