'It is by far the most expensive title we have developed – much closer to the cost of a retail console game'

Why Kobojo is ditching free-to-play for premium with Zodiac

Despite its years of experience in the free-to-play market, developer Kobojo is ditching the business model for its next game and going premium.

Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey is being developed in collaboration with Final Fantasy VII writer Kazushige Nojima and Final Fantasy Tactics composer Hitoshi Sakimoto. It was originally planned as an F2P offering, but after receiving feedback from early players during GDC, E3 and other gaming events, the studio decided the JRPG would be better off as a paid-for game.

Though it’ll also be released on PC, PS4 and Vita, it’s a risky proposition on mobile, and for a studio with its history in free-to-play. Particularly as the move has come late in development, with the title expected to be released later this year.

Develop spoke to Kobojo CEO Mario Rizzo to discuss why he believes the move to premium is key for the success of Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey – its most expensive game yet – and how it has made the shift from F2P.

Premium games have classically struggled on mobile compared to their free-to-play counterparts. Why do you think Zodiac can succeed?
At Kobojo, free-to-play games are a core competency of ours – our previous game, Mutants: Genetic Gladiators is one of our most successful games, and it’s 100 per cent free-to-play. We know that free-to-play games can provide a level of, if nothing else, risk mitigation, in that free-to-play titles can continually monetise over time, while premium games tend make their money up front.

But we also know that the launch version of Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey will be packed with high-quality content – we have multiple playable party members, character unlocks, high-quality cinematic sequences, and hours of exploration, gameplay, and combat. This is exactly the kind of content JRPG fans – including myself – would expect from the classic JRPGs of yesteryear, the kind that people would gladly purchase outright from their local game store.

How has this affected the game’s development? Won’t you have to drastically change the core game mechanics that lean toward the F2P model?
Well, the truth is that the development of the game is what influenced the payment model, not so much the other way around. From its inception, the goal with Zodiac was to develop a JRPG that did not compromise on quality. We started with F2P as we have developed ten F2P mobile games, and it’s what we are comfortable releasing. As we played the game more and more, it became clear we would not find a good way to monetise the game for F2P, so we decided it was time to take a chance and make the shift to premium.

Have the high costs and tough competition in the free-to-play space put you off the business model?
No, I wouldn’t say that because F2P is much cheaper to develop for us. As I mentioned, Kobojo has developed more than ten F2P games. The research and development cost of Zodiac is more than triple what our last game (Mutants: Genetic Gladiators) cost to develop.

It is by far the most expensive title we have developed – much closer to the cost of a retail console game then a regular mobile F2P or social game. We also have an unannounced F2P game in development in our Paris studio. We’ll have more news on that title later this year. All I can say is that it’s a new RPG title.

Given the premium price-point and the fact you are going cross-platform, is mobile treated as a secondary platform? How will it differ on mobile?
No, mobile is absolutely not being treated as a secondary platform. We’ve been developing the game for mobile since day one and have shown the game on iPad at every single major press event we’ve attended – Tokyo Game Show, GDC, E3.

Our planned launch for mobile this year will include the premium game that has been optimised for mobile, both in terms of technology and optimisation, as well as in terms of interface and playability. We’ll have more announcements about additional platforms in the future.

Will episodic content be free or paid for?
We haven’t completely finalised the details on this part of the game, but we do plan to have regular updates in the future. As you know, Kobojo is developing the game with the help of legendary developers Hitoshi Sakimoto, composer of Final Fantasy Tactics and many other classic games, and Kazushige Nojima, writer of Final Fantasy VII and many other classic titles.

Nojima-san is actually working with us on a rolling contract to continue to create new storylines and quest content post-launch. We hope to have a long relationship with both our Japanese development partners and with Zodiac players as we build out the storyline, cast of characters and the richly detailed world of Orcanon. We’ll have more announcements about this soon.

Will you go back to free-to-play for future games?
Yes. We continue to run and maintain our successful free-to-play game Mutants, and there’s nothing stopping us from continuing to release free-to-play titles in the future. But we feel that Zodiac itself is a very special game and we wanted to give the game a completely unique treatment. This is why we’re launching the game as our first premium title.

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