"Happy Wars" is not exactly a stand-out name for a video game, yet this newly launched Xbox Live Arcade title is rather special -- it's the Xbox 360's first ever free-to-play title.
Given how long free-to-play has been around (and has been dominating video game headlines), it's taken a while for Microsoft's current home console to take note of the industry curve and jump in at the deep end.
The big question, of course, is whether or not the free-to-play business model will work on Microsoft's console. Sure, Sony's being down that side of the swimming pool for a while, paddling around with titles like DC Universe Online, Free Realms, and the upcoming Dust 514, plus a whole host of PlayStation Home additions.
But since Microsoft has previously steered clear of free-to-play on Xbox, we've not yet seen console F2P from all angles, and with multiple takes on potential monetization.
Happy Wars is a team-based battler that plays in a very similar fashion to Titan Studios' Fat Princess. Two teams clash across a variety of environments, pushing each other back and forth, taking control of outposts, until one team eventually smashes through the gate of the other's main castle.
The Toylogic-developed game is split into a single-player campaign and the main spectacle, the online multiplayer -- you're required to play through the multiplayer in order to unlock the campaign, no doubt due to the fact that the multiplayer is where all the monetization is based.
Said monetization comes in the form of vanity items, ranging from costumes to character customization, to new swords and shields to purchase. Currently there are no items you can buy directly which give players an advantage in-game, although cash can be used to take part in various lucky dip-style raffles, which may result in "premium" items with slightly boosted stats.
The game has two currencies -- Happy Stars and Happy Tickets. The former is collected by playing through the game, and can be used to level up weapons. The latter needs to be purchased with Microsoft Points -- i.e. real money -- and can be used to customize your characters, as detailed above.
The method for purchasing Happy Tickets, and indeed for spending them, has been built in such a way that it is as non-intrusive as possible, and always stays inside the confines of the game, rather than taking you out and throwing you into the Xbox Marketplace (unless you need to top up on MS Points).
Tickets can be bought in groups of 8, 50 or 170, costing 80 MS Points, 400 points and 1,200 points respectively (buying more in one go gives you bonus tickets, as an incentive to buy more). In comparison, the majority of items in the game, from skin packs to weapons packs, cost around 20 Happy Tickets, or 200 MS Points (if you only buy at the lowest purchase level.)
Converting that to real cash, given that 80 MS Points cost $1, you're looking at between $2-$3 for each download pack in Happy Wars -- a fairly reasonable price range, compared to prices in other successful free-to-play titles.
While the in-game purchases are for the most part vanity items, meaning that non-paying customers won't have a disadvantage, there are unfortunately some pay-to-win elements during Happy Wars battles.
By spending either Happy Stars or Happy Tickets, players can boost their character for a brief while such that they'll respawn faster than opponents, or receive notable buffs to their offence and defence.
Now, while non-paying customers can use Happy Stars to unlock these advantages, they are rather expensive and eat up a lot of stars for the simplest of buffs. Hence, those players who have paid for tickets have much better opportunities to turn the tide of battle in their favor if they so wish.
During battle, you can't see who has used these buffs either (or at least, I couldn't see any method for checking this), so you may find yourself losing horribly with their being no indication that the other team has completely buffed itself up and has a huge advantage over your team.
Then again, perhaps this system will balance itself out. If we assume that roughly the same number of players on each randomly-selected team will be using paid buffs, then the advantages begin to cancel each other out, and even the players who have not buffed can still stand a chance.
All of this is rather undermined by the fact that only Xbox Live Gold subscribers can currently play, with no word regarding whether non-Gold subscribers will be given the chance to jump in. Hence, to actually play this "free-to-play" game, you need to be paying a subscription fee.
Of course, this can be seen as a shallow niggle given that Xbox Live Gold offers many more features on top of simply allowing access to this one game, but it still means that Happy Wars is technically not free-to-play at all -- rather, it's a freebie for subscribers with in-app purchases thrown in.
Given that Sony's own PlayStation Plus scheme gives away dozens of games for free every year (including brand new releases), the "free" elements to Happy Wars begin to look less and less appealing.
Still, as a first trample into the world of free-to-play, Happy Wars looks like it will be a success, and very nearly has the right balance of paying versus non-paying content. This will no doubt be the first of many free-to-play titles for Microsoft home consoles, and based on this evidence, the future is now looking that little bit brighter.
2K Las Vegas —
Lead QA Tester