How Fire Emblem Heroes Made $100M from 10M Installs
This deconstruction was originally posted on Bothgunsblazingblog.wordpress.com but has been re-posted here and updated based on latest numbers.
Nintendo's second mobile game (and third mobile title) has been available on the app store for nearly 6 months and visits more familiar mobile game territory compared to Super Mario Run or Miitomo as the classic Japanese RPG model meets head-on with Nintendo subsidiary Intelligent Systems's classic Fire Emblem console series. The result is a very slick and enjoyable experience with some really fun and rewarding combat mechanics, which has also proved to be very lucrative.
An Introduction to Fire Emblem
Fire Emblem has actually been around since 1990 as a Japanese only title on the Famicom (or NES in the West). In 2003, the game Super Smash Bros. featured two characters from the series called Marth and Roy and their popularity in the game persuaded Nintendo to start releasing the titles in the West too.
Starting with 2003's Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade for the Gameboy Advance, Fire Emblem introduced a slick and very well designed turn-based RPG experience to Nintendo hardware. Though each series varies and changes, the core formula is always a turn-based RPG consisting of a number of missions. As the player, you earn and collect heroes who you use in battle and improve over time. However, the player has to carefully manage their roster as losing a character in battle means the character is lost permanently (a feature which unsurprisingly does not make it across to mobile).
It's hard to explain the appeal of the Fire Emblem series with just words, but essentially the core gameplay offers a wide variety of tactics and strategy to the player. There is a lot of gameplay mastery in that you can build a team to execute on a specific strategy that you create for yourself, whilst also providing a vast myriad of other potential tactics and strategies you can use. Ultimately this results in a game that isn't necessarily mainstream but has a very core, loyal and deeply engaged audience.
Fire Emblem would not be considered a "tier 1" Nintendo IP such as Mario, Zelda or Pokemon but definitely has a big following and a Fire Emblem game usually arrives for every device that Nintendo release after about 12-24 months. Thus it's with great interest to see how Intelligent Systems have gone about creating a mobile experience.
This game uses a very familiar loop structure that can be found in one of many Japanese RPG games such as Brave Frontier, Final Fantasy Exvius, Summoner's War, et all. Essentially the game has a twin currency system where the player can battle PvE or PvP. Battling in either mode levels up their Heroes which allows them to continue to invest and upgrade them. Players can accelerate the process by playing the Gacha to get rarer and more powerful characters but can make their way through the game without spending but taking a lot longer to do so.
Compared to rival games, the biggest difference with Fire Emblem Heroes is that the core gameplay is a lot more nuanced and enjoyable and less grindy. As a result, there is no real base building progression system which has crept into titles such as Summoner's War and Brave Frontier, but instead, there is a good deal of depth in character customization with skills and party composition playing a large part in mastering the game.
I am going to spend most of the article talking about the core gameplay of the title, as this is where it really shines. It's a different approach to most mobile RPG's and probably reflective of its console heritage. From a personal perspective, I would say that the game feels less grindy than some of its rivals because the core gameplay is more enjoyable. There are also options to auto battle and skip animations to speed up proceedings if you are more of an idle RPG fan who is more interested in the metagame, progression systems and min / maxing your favorite character..
PvE and Heroes
At it's heart, the game uses a very straight forward model for it's PvE mode. Players are given a selection of missions to play through, each ramping up in terms of difficult and stamina costs over time. If the player completes a chapter they can also unlock the same battle on hard and then lunatic difficulty settings for extra replayability value and to help them accumulate XP for new characters they will acquire over time.
Players earn Orbs fairly generously in this game, with pretty much every mission giving an orb instead of requiring a whole chapter to be completed like most other JRPG's. This likely decreases ARPPU potential but likely fits more into Nintendo's overall brand and is also likely to improve retention.
Just as its name would suggest, Fire Emblem really is all about its heroes. There were around 60 at launch with more coming in at a steady pace. The Heroes come in multiple colors and types, which greatly impacts the core gameplay. Each mission can be min/maxed by carefully thinking about the enemies you will encounter compared to the Heroes you own. To truly master the game, over time you will want a well-rounded roster with powerful heroes of multiple types. This means a lot of going back over old missions and the training tower to build up the level of your Heroes.
Combat in Fire Emblem Heroes feels very familiar to its console counterparts but well suited with good optimizations made for mobile. Battles take place on a 6*9 grid which is considerably smaller than on console. The game could have used multiple screens for larger battlefields, but it seems obvious that the game was designed to be playable with one hand and for short sessions, with battles resolving faster than the console equivalent.
Combat in the game has many nuances and there is a ton of depth in tactics and strategy available. Some characters have to assist abilities that allow you to buff other party members to make them even more powerful but are weak as a result. Some characters have deadly ranged attacks but die horribly if someone gets close. Some characters are good at debuffing the enemy meaning you can weaken them before attacking them with your own. These are just some of the top level gameplay decisions you make but give an idea of where the game leads.
I particularly enjoy the depth of combinations you can come up with your Heroes auto and their skills. For example, I have a character called Tiki that heals adjacent party members when she attacks but is generally quite slow moving. However, using one of my Knight characters that I won, I can use the knights "shove" skill to push Tiki further into the battlefield. Supported by two powerful flying characters, I can use Tiki to heal and support my flyers whilst keeping her safe. The game is full of combinations and team synergies like this and makes the game really addictive. I often find myself thinking about combinations of Heroes that I own and how they would interact with each other, which creates a powerful call-back mechanism to make me return.
Most characters also have a special move which is activated automatically when their trigger is ready. This means that you often have to plan a couple of turns ahead in advance to maximize the potential of your party as wasting your special on an attack that would have killed anyway could mean losing a battle you would otherwise have won. Some specials also have abilities like an area of effect or healing nearby units, so core gameplay keeps you on your toes!
Though the game has a story mode, the story isn't the most riveting and essentially is just a facade to lure you into the satisfying gameplay. Actual progression comes from the investment you make in your characters over time. Heroes' stats increase to begin with, but over time your character can learn new skills which you can equip to your characters to change the way they can be used in battle.
An interesting nuance which has made it over from the console series is that characters primarily gain XP by dealing damage and/or pulling off the finishing blow on an enemy. This means that when you want to invest in new characters that you have acquired, you have to plan the battle such that your powerful units don't completely kill off enemies, but do leave them weak enough for your lower level heroes to commit the last blow. Additionally Heroes don't gain any XP at all if they die, so you need to formulate this into your plan too. Characters gain levels during battle, something that is quite unique but adds a lot to the enjoyment to the battles when you play them.
It's also possible to acquire items called Crystals and Shards from quests and the training tower to invest into characters to level them up at a faster rate. These are basically XP potions, with a colour specific shard required for each colour character, and a universal shard also being available which can be used on anyone. These items are only available on certain days in the training tower, so it means that in the mid and elder game, you need to pay attention to the weekly game cycle.
After a while, players face more obstacles when trying to improve their characters. Whereas Crystals are used for characters below level 20, Shards are needed once they pass that point. Additionally, to truly maximize a character, you may want to unlock their potential of merge heroes. These systems make up for the lack of a traditional fusion system and are not the most intuitive. However, they serve a purpose and effectively determine the elder game for most players - grinding the Arena and training tower to gain the rare resources you need to improve your characters to their highest capability.
Gacha is the lifeblood of any RPG based game, with developers making large numbers of 2D assets that can be created fairly quickly but that are in high demand by players. Fire Emblem actually introduces a fairly unique system to its game as players get a discount on their summons by summoning up to five heroes at once. The player also has some ability to influence their rolls, by being able to choose from either Legendary or Devoted hero (these determine their type) and by getting a preview of what color they will earn. If you really want Marth, who is a red Hero, then if you go to summon and see that there is no red available, you only have to make one roll and know that it's not possible to get him in that specific summoning period.
Interestingly this means that as a player, your goal is usually to play until you get 20 Orbs so that you can go crazy at the Gacha to summon new heroes. This helps create daily and weekly goals and makes the game feel quite fair. Of course it's painful to see someone roll three 5-star heroes in half the number of rolls you make, but that's literally the luck of the draw and how Gacha games inherently work. It does also men though that players are not incentivised to buy orbs if they are getting less than 20, so it will be interesting to see if this increased ARPPU or conversion on the 20 orb bundle.
At this point, I must also call out the AWESOME Gacha sequence the game offers. Some characters play a movie when you get them, and this is one of the best feelings I've ever had in a Gacha in any game. The level of polish and quality throughout the title is of an extremely high standard and even though this game is 2D, I would argue it's a clear example of a "Triple-A" game in much the way that Clash Royale is.
PvP / Arena Duels
The game currently has a mode called Arena, which is the nearest thing the game has currently to PvP. Players battle against ghosts of other players using an Arena currency called Duelling Swords. Players only get 3 of these per day but can spend one orb to replenish them. This system is almost identical to ones used in many games such as Brave Frontier so is about as proven as they come.
There isn't a global leaderboard, but players do earn arena points which tie into rewards they will get at the end of each season based on how any points they acquire. Rewards are of the highest desirability being Hero Feathers, so Arena is a must for elder game players. Bonuses are awarded for win streaks and for using specific characters, which makes the game interesting. At higher tiers especially, it poses an interesting question as players are likely to use the heroes that offer additional points, but means you can beat them in the meta game by picking units that counter the ones giving bonuses. This isn't an innovation per se, but given the brilliance on the Fire Emblem gameplay, means that this mode can become moreish to the hardcore players out there.
However, it should be noted that PvP is probably the weakest area of the game. This game nails the mechanics and character depth but without a mode to battle other players, the game loses the potential for an infinitely fun gameplay experience. I feel that Nintendo should take a leaf out Summoners War, one of the most successful RPG games on the market which has a synchronous 1v1 PvP mode. This would give the most engaged and competitive players something to do and provide a real motivation to go through all of the other core progression systems in the game.
Many RPG games these days have a progression based element of a town or base that the player can invest in over time. Fire Emblem has something similar, although the amount of progression it offers is very little. Players have a Castle where some of their heroes stand and where they can interact with them (a nod to the more sophisticated stories of the console games). Players can also upgrade the appearance of their Castle to get permanent XP boosts to all of their characters. This is a no-brainer purchase and recommended for everyone, though it's fairly well hidden away. This means that the hub for the game is well presented and fun, and not just a boring menu, like some other games. The hub is also used to interact with friends from your friends-list.
Friends and Social
If there is one area that Fire Emblem is weak in, it's definitely in its lack of social. In fact, this could be said of all of Nintendo's games so far. I have a feeling this is because Nintendo is scared to add a chat system to their games given their brand but it's equally possible that it's just an oversight.
I've commented on this in my Super Mario Run deconstruct, but the mechanism used to add friends in all of Nintendo's mobile products is exceptionally weak. It has a high friction barrier because it requires a code and not allowing an easy way such as using Facebook or Game Center as pretty much every other game in these day does.
Once you are connected you can greet friends to receive Hero Feathers, but interactions are very limited after that. unlike almost every other JRPG, there is no "borrow a friend's Hero" mechanic which seems like it would be really well suited to this game. There is no way to send messages to each other and the only "free" invite you get is when you play someone in Arena. This could be an area which the developer is looking to expand upon in the future, but currently, with no guilds service, no way to chat and no reason to want to chat (such as trading items or working together to achieve a goal), it's a definite weakness in an otherwise great game.
Live Ops and Notable Updates
It's encouraging to see that in launch week the game was getting heavy support with new events, game features and challenges being added at a regular intervals. Many JRPG's have already paved the way for successful roadmaps for event cadence and new features so Fire Emblem doesn't need to innovate in this area. However, given the charm of the game, I am expecting to see some twists and originality in what comes next, so look forwards to seeing what comes next.
After playing the game solidly for a few months, and having grinded a number of characters up to level 40 and beyond. I'm still really enjoying my time with the game, but there are a number of issues I can find at this point in time that may be areas of concern in the not so distant future.
The game is short of content. I finished all of the story missions in about 5 days, and although there are Hard and Lunatic difficulties available the game, I feel like the finishing line is way closer than a good service game should be. This is easily rectifiable with more content and game modes, but I think the developer needs to get a move on with it because mid-core is a competitive place and players will happily move to the next game of the week if you don't give them a reason to stay. If the developers could add a good synchronous PvP mode to this game, it would be insanely addictive as the core gameplay is fantastic and if anything my experience of it has improved over time rather than diminished and would give the game evergreen gameplay, so I am hoping the hidden game mode is something related to multiplayer.
Some characters are too strong in PvP. A 5-star archer called Takumi is wrecking havoc in PvP right now. Though it is possible to beat him, some teams run multiple Takumi's which are almost impossible to beat. Whilst there was always going to be some characters that end up at the top of the pile, he seems possibly a bit too good as he does massive damage, hits from long range, has no colour weakness AND has the deadly counter attack meaning that even if you get up close and ambush him, you still die. This means you either need to get him yourself (I don't have him) or spend to get him and it's not very fun to play against. I hope they nerf the character somewhat, but given the tough rules on Gacha in Japan, have a feeling this won't be rectified.
There are some annoyances. No game is perfect and Fire Emblem Heroes has its share of minor gripes. My biggest problem is two-fold. Firstly, I can't deploy my team into battle in the way I want to (this was not the case on console), which means that often my tactics are ruined by the random placement as healers and dancers are placed in front of tankier characters. This is exacerbated by not being able to see the map you are going to fight on (especially true in PvP and Training Tower), which makes it extremely frustrating when the map screws you by having a Cavalry character start among the trees or similar. Luckily this doesn't happen too often, but it is annoying when it does!
Fortunately, since originally writing this article, it seems like the developers were paying attention, as a number of quality of life improvements were made to the game, including allowing players to re-position their units for free at the start of a battle and doubling the stamina cap to allow players to keep fighting for longer. The game also saw notable features added, The Voting Gauntlet and the Skill Inheritance.
The Voting Gauntlet was a mini version of a world domination event seen in some GREE titles such as Modern War and Crime City. Players allied themselves with a faction (or hero in this instance) and battled to accumulate a score for their team. The team with the highest score got a reward at the end of the gauntlet. Interestingly there was no way to further monetise during the event (IE they could not pay for more energy), but the event seemed to succeed in terms of increasing retention for the hardcore players of the game. This is yet another example of a game mode where Nintendo could easily have increased monetisation but opted to keep to their brand values and be more generous instead.
The next biggest feature added to the game was Skill Inheritance. Players were likely annoyed that some heroes were Over Powered in PvP and led to a stale meta-game. Skill Inheritance allows players to make an almost infinite series of character builds to create their very own team and team synergy. This also meant that the theoretical spend for the game went through the roof as players could take all of the really strong abilities from powerful heroes and put them onto a hero that didn't have it. This feature has gone down well with the super hardcore players of the game who enjoy the theory-crafting and experimentation that such a feature brings.
5 Thousand Installs and Half-a-Million of Dollars a Day
Fire Emblem is probably the "safest" game Nintendo could have made in terms of generating solid revenues. It's a proven game model with an IP which can have a long tail through live ops. It won't win any awards for daring innovation or uniqueness. However, overall I have been very impressed with Fire Emblem. It's a high-quality product that is genuinely fun to play. Even if you stripped the progression systems away, the core gameplay is fun and involving and there is plenty of design space left for the game to grow into over time.
With $100M in revenues from zero marketing spend, Fire Emblem proves how "easy" it can be to take a franchise game and make it a success even on a platform that is not native. Whilst the majority of this revenue comes from Japan, it's till proved to be a reasonable success in the West too. I think the scariest thing is that mobile is still at the very back of Nintendo's mind. This game clearly has high ARPPU's and LTV's and Nintendo could profitably run a User Acquisition on this game if they choose too. The fact that they can make a mobile game that generates $100M in half-a-year with a Tier 3 IP shows you the potential Nintendo has on the mobile. Even more incredibly the game has obvious shortcomings compared to rival RPG's. Characters cap out at level 40, the Castle progression system is as limited as it possibly could be and there is no Rune based system to optimise or min/max characters to the level of Summoners War. These additions could easily increase the ARPPU of the title and would probably improve the retention too given the lack of things to do in the title at the end-game.
For the western market, the game is still rather complicated. Though the game has high production values, there is poor UX in places, as it's not clear how a lot of the game features function, and often it's unclear how the battle works. Sometimes when your characters do 0 damage, you are left scratching your head, and it took a group of us a few days to work out that special attacks weren't random and that there was a logic behind it! These things increase the self-discovery when playing the game but ultimately hurt the genre and title from really going broad on appeal. However, I suspect that's not really the goal of the Fire Emblem series.
For myself personally, I think the game is great and think the rewards are richly deserved by the team developing the title. How much more they choose to add and support the game will be interesting to see, but the game retains a loyal audience and almost endless potential.