What global-local companies can learn from the Brave Frontier makers

Gumi Asia Head of Operations Ronnie Tan says the synergy between international offices and the values practised is what sets it apart

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The mobile RPG Brave Frontier has done steadily well ever since the game’s worldwide release a few months ago. Through the collaboration of the developer Gumi’s Japan and Singapore offices, the game is slowly gaining traction in the Western countries, while it’s already doing well in Southeast Asia. Currently, the game is at 10 million users worldwide and has achieved a top 10 ranking on both, iOS and Android platforms over 10 countries.

The publisher also has plans to file for an IPO before 2014 end, and release an anime series based on the hit game. It seems that things are looking up for the company, and it will not be long until the press outside of Asia will start taking notice.

e27 spoke to Brave Frontier Head of Operations Ronnie Tan, who used to work with Gevo Entertainment in 2006, arguably one of the first Nintendo DS game-makers residing in Singapore. He talked about co-working with Japan on its hit RPG, justifying the paywall and energy meter mechanic, and its gameplay similarity to classics like Final Fantasy VI.

Gumi has a number of studios across the world, but the most significant one is Gumi in Japan and Gumi Asia, as both studios collaborated in creating the worldwide version of Brave Frontier. How do the Japanese and Singapore offices work together in this regard?
Between us and the Japanese side, we have our weekly meetings where we exchange information about our development. From there, we discuss what are the events coming forward and the things to put in. This constant feedback give us an idea on how to position the game and also what good stuff we could give to players.

For the Japan version, there’s exclusive artwork that’s partly done from the Singapore art team. For development and game design, however, it depends on the situation. If an in-game event or promotion has been run on Japan before, we’ll just bring it over to the global version of the game and localise it on the way.

Conversely, if we created exclusive content just for Asia or the worldwide English version, it will be transferred to Japan’s side if needed. We test it out on our side and then show them the build. If they like it, it’s approved and we run the exclusive content on the global version.

Most companies try this method of working between international offices, but so far yours seems successful. Why is that?
I think one thing that sets us apart is the synergy. It’s less traditional and rigid in the Gumi offices, not like most traditional companies with corporate structures. The people in Gumi are quite liberal and open to new ideas. Their methods are interesting and their values are worth adopting in the Singapore office. Our once-a-week constant communication also helps, so that everyone in Japan and Singapore is on the same track.

It depends on the work required, of course. In certain instances, the Japan office even sends its guys (engineers, designers, etc.) down to work on current projects for weeks. Other times we send our Singapore staff over to the Japan office for weeks too.

How is Brave Frontier doing in Asia?
In terms of downloads, we are approaching our 4 million mark. There are a few countries we can highlight: Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia are incredibly supportive of our game.

The game’s appeal is partly its RPG backdrop, though its main point is that the game reminds players how RPGs should be like. When you say “I want to play an RPG that’s like an RPG (of yesteryear)”, Brave Frontier answers that basic question.

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Also Read: Korean mobile game Ace Fishing gets downloaded 11 million times

While the game is fun, there are criticisms about the game’s paywall and energy meter system. From a game design standpoint, how do you justify the two in Brave Frontier?
When I was with the creator, the game was set out for everyone to play. Yes, we want to monetise, but free users are our priority. In regard to the paywall, our first talk about it was justifying it on an RPG mechanic. If the RPG has no challenge, it’s not fun.

The paywall is catered for people who do not have time to invest in grinding. They pay to accelerate their growth. If you’re patient, you spend more time to grind like in a regular JRPG. As an example, let’s use Final Fantasy VI. When you play at the starting dungeons, they’re easy. But as you go to the second part involving the World of Ruin, don’t you find that the mazes and enemies are bigger and tougher? Mid-bosses before the main bosses would be difficult; when you thought you killed them, they evolve into a bigger form.

These are the sort of walls developers use to impede your progress; they’re placed there so that players can think to themselves “oh, I need to do something different; strengthen myself or invest in other levelling-up parts, or even in other bits in the game”. This is the kind of motivation that pushes you to play further and overcome the obstacles. Ergo, a paywall is just an option; do you want to grind for the goods, or accelerate the process if you don’t have time?

In terms of energy meter, you use it for quests and everything. But we need to teach players the scarcity of resources. Let’s go back to Final Fantasy VI; in most cases you need mana to kill monsters. As you proceed on, you need potions to refuel. This makes you want to grind more for in-game gold to pay for these expensive potions. That acts like a gating system.

In mobile games, there’s no mana system to worry about. You either wait when the energy meter is depleted, or you accelerate it with currency. It’s entirely optional.

Why not pay up-front and do all this for free afterwards like a traditional retail model for a JRPG?
As with all mobile games, Brave Frontier is made as a free-to-play game, meaning that it reduces the entry barrier so everyone can play. So we asked ourselves “why not pay a set price and not worry about additional costs later?”

The answer is that it’s all about the motivation factor. This is different from console games; you’re purely motivated to complete a console game. But in a mobile game, you will never complete the game; it’s an unending RPG. Our intention is to not let players play and pay non-stop (hence the paywalls and energy meter).

When they invest one or two dollars in a game, they’ll continue playing because they put a big stake in it, even for a few minutes. We do want our players to continue playing in this manner so that the game’s long-term appeal is there and keeps going in service. If we bleed people’s wallets dry, we are reducing our longevity on Brave Frontier.

An article I read on GameSpot describes the dangers of free-to-play, particularly on how it manages its finite resources that will lead players to play something else entirely. How do you respond to that?
We wanted Brave Frontier to be an ‘every now and then’ experience; we want our players to go “oh, I’ll kill time JRPG-style in 10-20 minutes and play something else.” The market is free and very open (and complementary with other games in that sense); they’ll come back to play Brave Frontier time and again, just to invest in that 20 minutes they put money in.

Even with other games coming out which few people will play nonstop, (with this method of design for mobile games) people will still remember and go back to Brave Frontier as part of their time share. That’s a goal we’re still aiming to this day.

Because 15 minutes of their life will be taken away, we hope that players will be entertained. That’s more important. Any freemium game with the RPG style, you need free players and regular players so that the game exists. Still, it’s up to the player’s mindset in the end.

Having said that, we’ll put in new features which will allow players to entertain themselves in-game until the energy meter recharges to full. The existing ones that mitigate the wait include the Town option and Arena mode (the game’s PvP).

We can’t talk about the upcoming feature since it’s still in the works, but we can talk about the existing secondary feature in Brave Frontier: item and gear management. There are so many instances where your inventory is full, so players are advised to do house-cleaning. There are also units that require fusion and selling, as some of them are copies of the same unit. From our experience, many players neglect to explore beyond the synthesis option.

Here, players upgrade existing units with spheres so that they become more powerful. Similar to Final Fantasy VI’s equipment-management system, players need to visit the synthesis and fusion pages often so that their party is optimised for future battles. As they invest more time there optimising their gear and squad levels, the energy meter would mostly be filled up. If you (players like them who wait) just stare at the energy meter, why not use that time to use the game’s secondary functions? Brave Frontier wasn’t built to be a game where you just keep whacking enemies blindly and effortlessly.

This also depends on the game in question if it’s built that way. If you have a racing game and there’s nothing else to do but that, and then implement a paywall or energy meter for the sake of it, you’re asking for trouble.

Let’s talk about the Brave Frontier community. What’s the most-requested fix or feature from users?
I think the popular request is fixing obvious crash connection issues for Brave Frontier, which we fix on a regular basis via updates. Features-wise, we took in some of the player’s feedback regarding Daily Logins (you get a random free item when you log in; prizes are cumulative for each login per consecutive day).

The most-popular starting characters Burning Vargas and Warrior Eze are picked the most not just in North America, but also worldwide. The higher ratio is still the aforementioned two characters.

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Also Read: How can Asian devs best break into the West?

Is there anything you’re planning for the game in the future?
There’s something exciting coming in June where we will do something exclusive for the global version. We’ll announce a new game mode and a game event on Facebook in a few weeks’ time. There’ll be a story around the event and good rewards for players who stay through. The events aren’t for high-level players; we want more participants in this.

Is F2P the only model that’s viable in the gaming market?
In the Asia side, F2P is very important because for us to pay a new IP, you don’t know what you’re getting. If it’s free, the entry barrier is lesser. As for the future of the model, I’d like to bring up free-to-play transcendence. A game transcends from mobile, then to TV, then to other devices or platforms. You can be walking to your room playing your mobile game, then when you’re at your TV, you can switch screens and interact with it from there.

Microsoft is making its presence felt in China. What are your thoughts?
I come from a console background; I used to make games for the DS. For console games and retail model ones, players pay first then enjoy them to the max. Our philosophy is: players play to the max, then maybe pay later. I give the best to the player, not charge them for anything yet, and give them their own freedom.

Traditional game makers are slowly going to the free-to-play and mobile side like Sega and maybe Nintendo, but that change isn’t just like a single coin flip. There’s an entry barrier to change that mindset. Whether they will work with other mobile companies to change their mindset is up to them.

Gumi’s CEO Hironao Kunimitsu will be coming down to Echelon 2014. You can get your tickets here.

Jonathan Toyad

If you want an elaborate answer on who would win in a fight between Ultraman and Godzilla, Jonathan Toyad is your man. A six-year veteran in the game journalism industry, he did words and videos for outlets such as GameSpot, GameAxis, IGN and Stuff.TV. Fears coyotes and scorched earths.

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