Lumines and Why Gaming Can be Paid and Free-to-Play

The convergence of gaming doesn't have to be just free-to-play Dungeon Keeper.

Lumines Puzzle and Music
Screenshot of rhythmic puzzle game Lumines Puzzle and Music. mobcast

Lumines: Puzzle and Music for Android is worth playing not just for the game it is, but for what it represents. This is an interesting rhythm puzzler, where you eliminate blocks to levels that play at different speeds based on the selected music track, each of which comes with its own theme. The game is based off of a popular PSP launch title in Lumines, and has been adapted to mobile and portrait mode play.

It is a unique concept that holds up well to this day.

What you may not know about Lumines for Android is that it is one prong of a two-pronged release: publisher Mobcast has a free-to-play version on the way as well. Now, how well a free-to-play version of a cult hit puzzle game from the PSP will do as a free-to-play game is a good question. But the key benefit of this plan? Well, it satisfies both crowds of people that are out there. Lumines fans who enjoyed the game back on the PSP and want it on their phones and tablets get a pay-once version that is exactly what they want. Then, the new audience that doesn't like paying for mobile games will have a game targeted for them.

Why don't more publishers do this?

The thing with the move to a free-to-play future is that it threatens to leave behind many people who enjoy paid games, and their structure in particular. A game that only demands one payment can play differently from one that is regularly expecting payment.

Not everyone minds the free-to-play shift. In fact, many people might actually prefer games that have communities, and don't end arbitrarily before they're done with the experience. Games like MMORPGs have been popular explicitly because of this sense of community. But not everyone wants an MMO, always-online, future.

Sometimes they want good, fixed experiences that work best as pay-once games. Perhaps they will be a niche audience as time goes on, but as they are on mobile. But in the larger gaming landscape, paid games are still the default on consoles. And major companies that need to adapt to mobile and the future of hardware convergence need to take care with how they approach free-to-play. 

Many free-to-play critics speak out because they fear that the games they love will be replaced. They like the current state of gaming, and free-to-play threatens their experiences. They see a company like Konami going the way of making mobile games and pachinko machines, and shudder for the future. What a sort of hybrid approach would do would be to make sure that the audience that wants paid game experiences will be satisfied, while the real money-makers for companies can also be made. Essentially, the paid versions would serve as PR for the free-to-play games.

One great example of how this could have been handled was back in the day of Dungeon Keeper for mobile. Dungeon Keeper is a cult hit PC game, with design by Peter Molyneux before he became a controversial figure by way of Black and White, and Godus in particular.

When EA did a mobile free-to-play game based on Dungeon Keeper, people lost their minds. While the game was seen as being particularly egregious with its monetization, the fact that a classic series was being dug up by EA only to power a free-to-play game was seen as blasphemous. Now, imagine if they had instead released a port of the classic Dungeon Keeper along with the new game. The people who would want to play Dungeon Keeper on their phone would have their way to do so, and the new audience that might be interested mostly by the theme can enjoy that too. 

Square Enix has been on record as saying that this concept intrigues them.

That they want to do both paid games and free-to-play. And if one looks at their strategy so far, it's been interesting. Games like Adventures of Mana, the classic Final Fantasy ports, and the Dragon Quest games are all priced as paid games with no IAP to be found. They come at very premium prices in comparison to the rest of mobile gaming, sure, but they still exist. Square Enix does not shy away from free-to-play games either, making free-to-play Final Fantasy games, and even the occasional match-3. Ideally, this strategy would be the best of both worlds for companies to imitate.

The problem is that these plans might not pan out. Square Enix, for all their talk, apparently had a limited presence of paid games at their Tokyo Game Show booth. Considering Japan is still their core focus, that should be concerning for their plans. Perhaps future paid games just were not ready – or Square Enix is running out of effective ports. And even Lumines saw some press backlash for its flaws. 

The other big concern is the cost-benefit analysis. Doing both paid and free games would obviously incur additional expenses for the paid version. And, it could be tougher to get PR and marketing for the free version, the real moneymaker, when many people would only want to talk about the paid version, especially when targeting a traditional gamer audience.  It's easy to say companies should produce additional versions of games when it's not your money.

As well, traditional gamers may not be as opposed to free-to-play as one may think.

Hearthstone is obviously very popular among gamers. Overwatch's loot boxes have been a better sell on people than one might expect. Destiny's enduring popularity has worked to make people get used to the idea of persistent games, with consumable currency added later on. Paid games evangelists may sound like they have strong, unshakable stances, but you can find excuses everywhere. They will adapt. But not all of their stances are wrong, either. And really, gamers need something familiar and acceptable to them to accept change.

And that's the thing – mobile is often foreign to traditional gamers. And fans of traditional gaming don't deserve to be left behind as gaming changes in the coming years.