Rusty Slugger has seen better days. His wife took off without a word, he’s got ten kids to look after, he’s nearly broke, and the only way he can dig himself out of this financial hole is by selling a bunch of games that he is impressed by, but no one else seems to care about. To say that the plot of Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball is an allegory for Nintendo’s struggle to stay modern is incorrect- an allegory has hidden meaning, and the game quite blatantly namechecks Nintendo. This is their story, as they see it- the honest, hardworking, but slightly clueless dog past its prime, trying to reinvent itself to save what it has left. The message is more than skin deep, however- this isn’t a pity party. This is Nintendo’s first attempt at free-to-play monetization, and as we’d expect from Nintendo, they do it differently than anyone else has.
The titular dog-baseball-player-turned-salesman is a big fan of haggling, so as he sells you a variety of baseball-themed minigames, he’s happy to negotiate. Don’t expect playing hardball to get you very far, though- if you want the real deal from Rusty, you need to endear yourself to him. Compliments and flattery help a little, but the meat of the discounts comes from helping Rusty sort out his life. Give him a coupon for cooking lessons so he can cook for his kids, and he’ll lower the price of a game in gratitude. Lend him some nose hair trimmers so he can deal with a… situation, and he’ll show his thanks financially. It’s a direct reward for investing in the story, but if you don’t care you can pay full price.
I’m not talkin’ in game currency, either. When you haggle with Rusty Slugger, it’s actual dollars and cents you’re saving. Every game costs four dollars US, and with proper negotiation I’ve paid as little as $1.70. You can always get as low as $2, so with 10 minigames total the full experience will cost you from $40 to just under $20. It’s a novel approach to free-to-play, but while it’s great for the hardcore, it misses the point of free-to-play from a company standpoint. The reason F2P is so profitable is that it capitalizes on your curiosity and desire to play more. Energy-based games charge you if you want to keep playing. Timer-based games make you pay so that you don’t have to wait for a timer to tick down to progress. Resource-based games sell you the tools you need to do well. It’s free to get in the door, but trying to save money will lead to a measurably worse experience.
In Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball, players are rewarded for dedication with savings on their money. That feels good, to a player- they don’t get that dirty feeling of being exploited. They feel like the game respects their time and their investment. From a traditional design standpoint, that’s great. But Nintendo has never had a big issue with people disliking their games once they’ve bought them. The first party offerings from the house of Mario have been some of the best games ever made- depending on my mood I’d say the greatest game ever is either Metroid Prime or Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The problem is getting people to invest in those games in the first place- getting the hardware necessary to run them.
For all its brave experimentation, Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball is a collection of solutions in search of a problem. That’s not to say Nintendo is short on problems- anything but. Their problems, however, are marketing, response time to trends, and ultimately profitability. The wild new ideas that Rusty offers don’t address any of these things. It hasn’t been marketed nearly enough- only hardcore gamers have even heard the name, and they mostly don’t know what it is. Its line-straddling model splits the difference between free-to-play and episodic, not fully leveraging the strength of either. Episodic releases use story-based tension to drive consumer excitement, as well as giving the developer time to make use of player feedback between episodes. Rusty released with its full content at launch, so it can’t do either. Free-to-play, while unpleasant in its tone and atmosphere of greed, provides great financial incentive for the developer through “whales”- the individuals that dump absurd amounts of money into an F2P title and turn the game into a wild success. Nintendo’s free-to-play-alike offers no path to spending more than $40, and while I’m personally grateful for the restraint as an opponent of F2P, the point of the model is its financial rewards, which Rust can’t provide. It’s a weird half-step delivery that doesn’t have any real strengths.
The things that Rusty does do well feel really good- the bang for your buck is quite satisfactory, with each potentially-two-dollar minigame being packed with content. Rusty and his story are charming and engrossing, like a strange Animal Crossing midlife crisis. The haggling is satisfying, and ultimately the game feels very respectful of the player in money and time. Contrary to all the free-to-play manipulation, this is a game that thinks you’re a smart dude whose time it should not waste. For its shortcomings, perhaps that’s its ultimate purpose- to serve as a mission statement for Nintendo moving forward. We’ve had hard times, we’ve screwed some things up, and it’s time for this old dog to learn some new tricks. But even as we learn what it takes to survive in this marketplace, we will never stoop to treating you like a wallet. You are a person, and we respect that. It’s a sentiment that goes a long way.
Other problems with Rusty are apparent too- the Real Deal won’t be so Real in a few months when a retail game’s price would have dropped, but the digital game will remain unchanged. The ten minigames do kind of stretch to keep a healthy variety: they’re all about baseball, and there’s only so much you can say about baseball. But these are minor nitpicks. Rusty is a line in the sand, where Nintendo states what they are and aren’t willing to sacrifice to save their faltering company. It remains to be seen if this stance will see them rise again, but if they go down, they went down sticking to what made them great, and you’ve got to respect that.