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Fire Emblem: Awakening is a triumph of good design and advertising, not casual appeal
by Kris Ligman on 01/08/14 02:59:00 pm   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Kris Ligman is a Contributing Editor for Gamasutra.

Casuals! Casuals are the future. Without casuals our industry will crumble into dust. Igor! Bring me more pets and social features!

It's a seductively easy line of thinking, to believe that by simply tapping into that dirty casual wellspring of tropes your game will achieve financial success. Fire Emblem: Awakening's breakaway success on the 3DS, only recently outpaced by Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Pokemon X & Y, is supposedly a textbook example of incorporating casuals to reinvigorate a franchise, but I would argue this is a red herring. FEA's success has less to do with casual appeal -- which is not new to the franchise -- and more to do with aggressive marketing and press attention.

Putting into context with the rest of the franchise

Left: Marth from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. Right: A completely different character from Awakening. Really.

Fire Emblem: Awakening is the thirteenth entry into the Fire Emblem franchise and, so the story goes, a watershed moment for its developer, Nintendo's first-party studio Intelligent Systems. The fact that it comes at the tail end of a long line of games, many of which share the core characteristics as FEA, is important: it means we have an easy line of comparison.

So let's do that and contrast Awakening with its immediate predecessor, Fire Emblem: Shin Monsho no Nazo ~Hikari to Kage no Eiyu~ (informally translated, New Mystery of the Emblem, Heroes of Light and Shadow). As the styling of the name should cue you, this game never saw English localization, but otherwise it's a perfect comparison: developed for a Nintendo handheld (the DS), it features a customizable avatar unit and the ability to toggle on and off the game's hallmark permadeath mechanic, just as Awakening does.

How many copies did Heroes of Light and Shadow sell in Japan? According to one source at least, around 270,000. Half that of Awakening in the same market (510,000), and two-thirds of FEA's North American sales (410,000).

Now, 270,000 units in Japan is typical, even good, for a Fire Emblem game. It's in line with performance for the franchise's other recent handheld entry, a DS remake of Shadow Dragon (260,000), and significantly outperformed two of its recent home console installments, Path of Radiance (160,000) and Radiant Dawn (170,000).

I don't mean to lean too heavily on VGChartz stats here, but the overall shape of the story should be clear for our purposes: in general, the franchise has performed better in recent years on handheld than on home console, and while sales were in no way harmed by "casual" features like optional permadeath -- indeed, it undeniably had a positive effect -- these features alone aren't the magic bullet we believe them to be. Otherwise, Heroes of Light and Shadow's numbers would be more in line with Awakening's, even after we take into account variables like total install base.

An empty slate

So what did send Awakening over the top? In my view, it's a combination of good production values, an original narrative, healthy advertising, and fortuitous timing.

Awakening's production values speak for themselves: it's pretty, the character art is crisp and modern, the music is rich, and the voice acting for the most part passes muster, with a few exceptions. UI design, while not perfect, flows quite well for the genre and the combat and class system reveal a lot of fine-tuning.

Advertising and a smart launch window, though, did more for the game than solid design ever could. Particularly for N.A., the game was hyped early and often, first following Nintendo's 3DS showcase at E3 in 2012, then subsequently in Nintendo Direct videos and trailers.

Its Japanese launch in April 2012 found it competing with only one other JRPG for the platform, Code of Princess, and its N.A. launch in February 2013 had it competing with absolutely no titles in the same genre or practically any games at all, even as hardware sales remained decent. Arriving months before the 3DS's first Pokemon and Animal Crossing: New Leaf -- the latter of which I deemed the 3DS's "killer app" in my Best of Gamasutra list a few weeks ago -- Fire Emblem pretty much had the handheld market to itself for an unusually long stretch, during which time it generated plenty of chatter in publications like Kotaku and IGN.

This also bears out in the data I've managed to collect through a semi-informal survey late last year. Asking an audience of players including developer professionals through Twitter and Facebook, I found that the vast majority (79 percent) learned about the title thanks to web advertising and online buzz, and that coverage of the game in print and web news publications was the leading influence (36 percent) behind players ultimately deciding to make the purchase.

Now, this survey was not the most scientific thing in the world. Because of how the form was distributed, it self-selected for players who already regularly use social media, and thus would be more likely to hear online buzz and read game news sites. Also, since a large percentage of respondents came in after we retweeted the survey from Gamasutra's official Twitter, we can assume the respondents skew closer toward Gamasutra's typical readership than what Nintendo may have for its actual data on who plays Fire Emblem: Awakening and how.

That being said, the last thing the survey indicates is that casual features were a key driving factor behind sales. Take a look at the charts below which indicate play settings: a majority (60 percent) of players played the game on standard difficulty with permadeath on (71 percent). This flies in the face of any assumptions that survey respondents are either predominantly hardcore players (who would opt for harder difficulty settings with their permadeath) or predominantly casuals (for whom the permadeath toggle is ostensibly intended).

This plays out over individual responses as well. Though players on Normal difficulty were more likely to be newcomers to the series, more than half (54 percent) reported playing with permadeath enabled. And a good 60 percent of all respondents said they "never considered" the adjustable difficulty or permadeath settings when deciding their purchase, regardless of which settings they ended up using.

The survey's conclusions are a little simplistic, granted. It's not the sort of data you want to take into a board meeting. But it still provides us with more nuance than the assumption that it was casuals buying the game in droves which saved the series. To do so, in my opinion, denigrates a lot of the solid game development Fire Emblem: Awakening's team actually put into the title -- and also unfairly mythologizes casuals (and "casual appeal") as being a bigger part of a franchise's revival than it in fact is.

So, to recap

Reducing barriers for entry for players is valuable, yes, and the fact that in my survey players on Normal difficulty were almost evenly split between enabling permadeath and switching it off suggests this is a welcomed feature. But six percent of Hard mode players also made use of this option, so we'd be remiss in assuming only casuals benefit from its inclusion.

Instead I'd suggest it's a combination of factors, including -- critically -- aggressive advertising and the lack of real competition during Awakening's launch window, that enabled the game to bring in the numbers that it did.

Accommodating casuals helps, without a doubt, but let's not make the mistake in assuming it's a magic cure for an ailing franchise. Fire Emblem: Awakening is not the first game of the series with these features and its success versus its predecessors proves, in my opinion, that solid execution and market savvy beat out any singular mechanic or difficulty option.

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Robert Boyd
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First off, citing VGChartz sales figures is something that should never be seen in a Gamasutra. You might as well just make up your own stats since that's what VGChartz does most of the time.

Second, you state that "its N.A. launch in February 2013 had it competing with absolutely no titles in the same genre or practically any games at all" but Etrian Odyssey IV came out in February as well.

Christian Nutt
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Yeah, we don't generally hang with VGChartz, and saying this without yet doing the comps, I would guess their Japan numbers are just culled from a reputable source like Media Create which is freely available. I will doublecheck if I get some spare time though. As a general trendline I would guess it works, which is how it's being used in this piece.

Somara Atkinson
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I'll assume it was just an oversight, but I am curious why you didn't ask people if they had played a Fire Emblem game in the past in the survey. I feel like experience with the franchise would make a huge difference in whether or not you choose to make use of any of the game's casual features.

Tanner Mickelson
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It definitely does. I'm a HUGE Fire Emblem fan and I would never even consider playing on anything lower than hard mode. I do know people that like normal and casual mode though, and I think it was a great idea to include them for new players. I think that the empty slate is the main thing that helped the game though. Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn both felt like the same game. All the new features made Awakening feel fresh. Some people have pointed out that the timing did launch it against other RPGs (Etrian Odyssey IV as Robert Boyd mentioned above, and Code of Princess from the article) but neither of those games really had the potential to overshadow a Fire Emblem title, so I think the timing was perfect.

Somara Atkinson
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Including Awakening, I've played through 9/13 Fire Emblem titles. I feel like the marketing push along with being the best in the series (in my opinion) in terms of content, polish, and gameplay improvements made for the its high sales.

Jeanne Burch
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I have to report something that will cause many to insist I am not a true Fire Emblem fan (in spite of using my holiday break to play FE: Path of Radiance back-to-back four times on Hard to try to complete the conversations): I played Awakenings on casual and I loved it.

Fire Emblem games always take me forever to play because I can't stand permadeath. Even if a character gets killed on the last move, I have to reset and play the entire level over again. Awakenings' casual mode allowed me to enjoy the story, the game, and greatly lowered my frustration level. Which is a good thing, because throwing a controller across the room is one thing; throwing the 3DS would be expensive since I'd have to buy a new one right away.

Somara Atkinson
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Oh, I have to make it through the campaign with everyone alive as well. As you can imagine, my Lunatic playthrough of FEA was no walk in the park.

Steven Christian
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If someone was playing a 3DS early last year I would guess "You're playing Fire Emblem, aren't you?"
90% of the time I was correct, and the players assumed that I also played the game and perhaps recognised the music or sound.

Truth is, I've never even owned a DS in any form, but it was simply the most popular game at the time.

These people were always bragging about the maximum difficulty that they had played on, so perhaps they started on casual/normal but replayed the game on harder and harder settings..

Corentin Billemont
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An interesting thing to note about the development of this game is also that Nintendo told Intelligent Systems how this could be the last one (at least for a while) if they didn't improve the game in some aspects :
Most of my friends that bought the game I've asked never played another FE before, yet it was the difficulty that made them buy it (even if they played it on normal afterwards on their first run). I didn't the game was particularly advertised though, not really more than a regular "big game of the trimester" Nintendo game at least.

Maxim Zogheib
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Oh, I dunno.

I mean, I'd be hard pressed to point to a designer, at least within the ranks of my immediate peers, that would consider a "casual feature" a primary driving force behind player acquisition. And I haven't really been seeing any statements to the contrary around the community with respect to FEA.

Hence my question: why the article all of a sudden? =)

On the subject:
If the assumption that the major source of sales for FEA was media buzz, I'd speculate that a "no permadeath" option would hardly be a factor. It's safe to assume that people accustomed to the franchise don't really care for the existence of such a setting, while newcomers have little knowledge of the implications. And where implications are unclear, there's no real influence over meaningful choice.

There are many factors for FEA's success:

1. General lack of good titles on a relatively fresh platform.
2. Good launch window.
3. An updated take on an otherwise archaic set of systems.

However, all this wouldn't have done squat if the game wasn't just as damned good as it turned out to be. Just look at the metacritic scores.

I'd also point out that we don't have any dynamic sales figures to speculate on the success of the actual marketing campaign. There are distinct patterns in how sales develop over time, that fairly accurately point to the reason behind a game's commercial success. If you've got the majority of your figures piled up right after launch - there's your money well spent on advertising. If sales grow over time after launch, you've basically made a game that's so good, it's capable of driving sales on it's own merit.

In FEA's case, it's probably some combination of both, yes. I, for one, would love to see how sales developed over time for this particular title.

John Flush
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well the casual aspect sold 2 of the 3 copies in my household. My kids have always wanted to play FE like I do, but they are still learning when it comes to strategy games. Thus they would replay the first 5-10 levels over and over because by then all their people were dead. With this game they play all the way through it and they love it. It definitely added to the age range the game could target. And bigger market appeal 'should' cause more people to look at it and/or get it.

It also so helps that it did advertising right and didn't have any other recognizable games to compete against. I don't know I guess I should know what EO:IV is... it does have a '4' after it. But that might be why I don't pay attention to it. Any game in a series that is numbered where I haven't played all the numbers under it usually gets skipped. Another reason FEA works for me... even if I wasn't a fan, how would I know I have missed anything in the past with an FE game? I wouldn't... none of them have numbers so each appears to be a fresh start to the series. Chalk up another reason why FE got their advertising right.