My dear sister recently moved into a new job out of the country, and bequeathed unto me her iPhone. Up until that point, I’d been using Android phones, and while I still prefer the Android OS as a whole, one of the big things that iOS offers is ease of switching between music/app store territories. Just make a new Apple ID account, throw in a random overseas address, and BAM! You have a new account in whatever country you please, and can download pretty much anything from their stores. Actually paying for said apps and music is another story, since you’ll need someone to buy you iTunes cards from that territory, but there’s still ample free apps for you to grab if you don’t want to go through the trouble.
As we’re well aware, Japan’s mobile gaming industry has eagerly embraced the free-to-play model, and being the brave soul that I am, I’m trying to wade through that muck in the iOS app store and see if any free-to-play spinoffs of beloved franchises getting are actually worth a damn. Yes, a lot of free-to-play games are garbage, and I say that having defended the model as not completely terrible: It’s all about implementing it correctly, in a way that makes the player feel satisfied, not strongarmed, to spend money on a service. Taito’s shown that they can do that well with Groove Coaster Zero, a fantastic free-to-play music game that offers numerous tracks as paid expansions. I’d recently seen a few of their upcoming mobile game announcements: a Wizardry roguelike, Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders (it kills me that this isn’t out yet), and a match-3 puzzler called Bubblen March. Being the Bubble Bobble nerd that I am, Bubblen March immediately caught my attention, and it wasn’t long before it was sitting on my iPhone’s app set.
I’ve been playing for a couple weeks now, and my feelings towards Bubblen March are… complicated, to say the least.
The Japanese App Stores are a battlefield: the top grossing free-to-play apps rake in millions every day for their respective producers, jockeying for status and position on the charts, while thousands of others peter out after a few months or maintain a small but eagerly supportive audience. Others never even get off the ground – remember that Street Fighter card game? It went into beta around this time last year and nothing has come of it since. The freemium market might look like easy (or even greedy) money to a casual observer, but it’s actually a far harder nut to crack than most folks might think.
Monster Strike, a game which has been in a heated war with Puzzle and Dragons for top-grossing Japanese app for months, is noteworthy not only because it’s been such a huge hit in a very, very tough market, but because it’s something of a redemption story. Publisher Mixi operated a once-dominant social network in Japan that, in recent years, was rapidly losing ground to competitors like Facebook, Line, and Twitter – only to see business take a dramatic upwards turn as people picked up the game. The game’s designer, one Yoshiki Okamoto, is a man responsible for numerous classics at companies like Konami and Capcom, practically defining the late-80s-early-90s arcade legacy of the latter. Okamoto’s previous studio, Game Republic, suffered a terrible collapse after deals with western developers tanked, leaving them with massive debts that AAA development budgets require. Okamoto has now sworn off console development entirely, focusing strictly on mobile – thanks to Monster Strike’s roaring success. It might seem tragic at first, but knowing just how badly he got burned – and seeing just how fun Monster Strike is – Okamoto finding a new path and purpose in game development is actually a very happy story indeed.
I had an opportunity to talk with Okamoto and Koki Kimura, a producer at Mixi, about Monster Strike, along with Michael Oakland of Mixi’s localization team. We talked about the game and the ideas behind it, engaging in a lot of silliness in the process.
I originally had a good chunk of this text as the intro to my upcoming Terra Battle article, but it became so long-winded that I felt it’d be better off as its own bit. It occurred to me that rather than front-loading a piece that’s supposedly dedicated to a specific game with way too much text justifying covering free-to-play games, I should make it its own little editorial. After all, free editorial is part of the reason I started Gaming.Moe to begin with.