Terra Battle: why the man behind Final Fantasy went free to play

Like it or not, it's here to stay

Terra Battle: why the man behind Final Fantasy went free to play
| Terra Battle

Free to play games are ten a penny on the app store. At least they would be if they cost anything. And very many of them are very awful, and unworthy of the time and attention of dedicated gamers.

Sometimes, though, there are some surprising hits. So when no lesser name than Hironobu Sakaguchi (of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger fame) released one, we felt we had to take notice.

The game was Terra Battle, an odd and addictive combination of role-playing and real-time strategy. We were impressed enough to bestow a Silver Award, though while also recognising it would have been ever better as a premium title.

But many fans felt short-changed by the game, seeing it as being a typical pay to win, free to play cash-in regardless of the track record of the designer. So we reached out to Sakaguchi at his new company, Mistwalker, to try and find out more about how he put the game together.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the game was its inspiration. It's easy assume that the designer conceived it as a money spinner, but the truth is very different.

"There is a game called Shogi which is similar to chess in Japan," Sakaguchi told us. "I used to play against my dad but could never beat him. To even the odds, we played with special rules called 'Hasami Shogi'. In this version you flank the pieces to take your opponents' piece. This is the basis of the rules for Terra Battle."

That begs the question of how it ended up being a free to play game. "I feel that the smartphone app market is going in the direction of free to play," Sakaguchi admitted. "However, while developing the game with this model, I felt that I could incorporate the game balance and complexity of a console title."

The key to achieving that, he believes, is making sure that the gameplay is divorced from the monetisation.

Balancing act

"I think that is all about game balance," he continued.
"As long as developers don’t just think of the free to play business model and base their design on the game mechanics itself, then I believe a free to play game can offer the same depth as a console title."

This is an interesting philosophy. Especially in light of the accusation made by some that Terra Battle has pay to win elements and a soft paywall But Sakaguchi was quick to dismiss those claims.

"When we tested out the game, we had players that were able to complete the game without monetizing," he told us. And then went on to make a striking point about game design in general.

"I believe all games have a wall," he said. "I believe players get challenged with that wall and they get satisfaction when they clear it."

He's dismissive of the critics. "It might be a case where some players are used to games that just require players to just tap the screen," he told us. "Compared to the titles that I developed in the past, I feel that the game balance is just right."

So if it's a demanding game, and the balance is right, does that mean skilled players can get through without paying? Sort of.

"When you monetize and collect all of the characters, you'll be able to enjoy the game much more in-depth," Sakaguchi told us. "Therefore, we help out the players by passing out log in bonuses and energy. We not only target the hardcore users but we hope that casual users will monetize as well so that they can enjoy the different and evolving layers of the game."

Metal man

Sakaguchi was confident enough about new characters being the main draw for payment that he felt it was the main thing he'd have changed if Terra Battle was a premium product.

"I probably would have adjusted the parameters of how a player can get certain characters by playing the story mode," he admitted.

If this is all correct, it made me wonder why certain aspects of the game, like the metal creature fights that net you bonus experience, were only available for limited timeslots. By restricting availability and giving them a higher energy entry cost, it looks a lot like players are being encouraged to pay for energy to make the most of the opportunity.

Predictable, Sakaguchi disagrees. "I felt that by having these dungeons available for a limited time, it added to the engagement of the players," he told us. "I wanted to players to have different ways to gain experience though dungeons and to enjoy the process."

Whatever the truth, Sakaguchi was obviously willing to risk his reputation on a play mechanic with a lot of negative connotations. And it's worked: in spite of the baggage, Terra Battle got a lot of acclaim from both press and players. He's confident that it goes back to the secret of getting the balance right. "There are some free to play games that only concentrate on the monetization," he said, "but that is not the case with our game."

Ultimately, he wants the players to be the judge of what he's created. "The game wasn't just developed by my team, but by the players who monetize and fund the game are part of the development and evolution of this title," he told us. " If my team makes a fun and thoughtful game, we feel that the fans will support us as we make more content."

Hope for the future

Terra Battle is an interesting case. Another recent free to play title that I'd enjoyed, Spymaster, seemed to go to great lengths to downplay the negative aspects of the model. But Terra Battle makes no such effort, yet is arguably an even more fun game.

As simplistic as it may seem, I think Sakaguchi hits the nail on head in his obsession with balance. A lot of the free to play games we love to hate have obviously been designed to annoy and frustrate the player, to try and get them to pay up.

But if you design a game, make it fun, and tack on the monetization elements afterwards, it shouldn't feel like a chore. It should just feel like a fun game. That means good press and good word of mouth, leading to more players and hopefully more money.

We just have to hope that more designers and developers realise this, before the app store gets overrun with more cheap licensed games and dire nostalgia cash-ins.