With the rise in popularity of free-to-play social games - whether through various online outlets, playing games over Facebook, or indulging in one of the many freemium titles available on the App Store - this new style of play model has carved out a significant market in pursuit of gamers' attention. The news last week that Japanese social gaming giant DeNa acquired iOS developer Ngmoco to the tune of $400 million dollars has pretty much sealed the deal - love it or hate it, freemium gaming is here to stay.

This makes the recently announced freemium social game Lil' Pirates significant in a number of ways. Lil' Pirates is a collaboration between developers IUGO Mobile Entertainment and Capcom Mobile, neither of which are especially known for having casual free-to-play titles. IUGO has dabbled with many different approaches to selling games on the App Store, from ad-supported versions of their games to freely downloadable trials with more content available as IAP, but never a fully featured free game with optional purchases to enhance the experience. Capcom is treading in even more unfamiliar territory, as they are widely known as one of the more "hardcore" game developers on practically every gaming system for the last few decades. For both of these devs to be entering into the casual freemium market with Lil' Pirates says a lot about how big a deal this business model has become.

As for the game itself, Lil' Pirates is a colorful pirate themed adventure with a huge focus on customization. You'll start out as a small-time scallywagger with just a basic pirate ship, and you'll import your friends from Facebook to amass a crew. Sending your crew on various types of missions will result in loot that can be spent on tons of different items to customize both yourself and your pirate ship. These missions are limited by timers that only allow you to complete them every so often. This of course adds the element of being "patient to see a payoff" that is the core of freemium games, and there will be ways to spend real life money in Lil' Pirates in order to speed up the process of getting bigger and better items. Your crew also operates on an energy system that can be replenished by completing various minigames on your ship. This process can also be bypassed by purchasing special Root Beer items in the game.

Another interesting part about Lil' Pirates is an island called Treasure Island where you'll be able to bury items from your inventory. These items will increase in value the longer they remain buried, but take heed as your friends also have access to this island and can sneak in and dig up the items that you've placed there. All is not lost though, as there is a chance that the item that replaces your stolen one will actually be of higher value than the original. This adds a neat risk/reward aspect to the game, as well as giving you an opportunity to playfully mess with your friends by stealing their items (and vice versa).

It's hard to get too terribly excited about most of the freemium games that get released, as they all seem to feature many of the same type of gameplay with just minor theme changes. Lil' Pirates actually looks a bit more interesting than most, and features an excellent art style and some novel game concepts. The ability to import friends from Facebook and have them join your crew could be fun for those that use Facebook for their gaming needs, but IUGO has told us that logging in will not be required to play Lil' Pirates and there will be an offline component to the game as well. We'll take a closer look at Lil' Pirates when it launches for free sometime next month.

  • Funkyflychicken

    This actually looks really good. My wife loves all those pointless Facebook social apps, and always wants me to get into them. But they all boil down to the same basic premise - place items on a map and look at them. Oh, and if you want to place another item before the 2 hour timer wears off, please buy XXXXX item from our cash store!

    The only one I've been able to enjoy somewhat is Zombie Farm (and the absolutely banal leveling - slow as molasses - is killing that one for me as well now), since they took an idea I always thought would make perfect sense for these games - GIVE SOMETHING TO ACTUALLY DO WITH THE CRAP YOU PLACE IN THE GAME!

    If this one really allows you to build up your pirate ship, has enough activities for you to do on your own (the treasure hunting, burrying, minigames, etc.) PLUS the ability to battle your friends and/or strangers online, kudos to Capcom and IUOGO. Of course, it's all going to come down to how much they let you do without dumping hordes of cash into the game constantly, and how much content their really is to keep things fresh.

  • Dyscode

    NEVER on my iPod

  • Anonymous

    I am so incredibly bored of freemium. Who actually falls for this scam? That's effectively what it is, a legal scam. Tricking people into trying out your game when normally they wouldn't have, just by flashing around the fact it's "free", then eventually taking more money from them than you'd have made if you'd just charged for the game in the first place. Die already.

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      You must have missed the part about how paying for IAP is optional.

      • Anonymous

        You're right, I totally didn't know. Now try telling your kids that, not so optional anymore, is it Dad?

    • EastsideStompers

      Freemium games flirt with your inner devil...'oh go on, just one more item...what's another trifling 99 cents?'. I detest the whole idea.

    • Nvk4

      The free to play model is not a legal scam, and nobody is "taking" money or having money taken from them. Microtransactions are based on a user's willingness to buy a product--in this particular case virtual currency. Microtransactions are the online equivalent of over-the-counter purchases.

      Think of it like a currency exchange. If I want to go shopping in Japan, I'm going to need to trade in some of my Canadian dollar for Japanese Yen. Nobody is tricking me into doing it--I'm choosing, out of my own free will (that part is key), to exchange my currency for another currency more relevant to my interests.

      I understand where you're coming from in saying that the freemium model is controversial--because I think we can all agree with that. However; this doesn't go to say that it should be abandoned completely. There are many casual gamers who would shy away at a static one time fee to play the game. It is important to keep the barrier of entry as low as possible to ensure that gamers of all ages and demographics can enjoy it.

      • Anonymous

        I think it's pretty obvious that freemium is aimed at children who do not yet understand money to it's fullest extent and would be quite happy spending $150 on a single game. Targeting a game with a payment model designed to squeeze the player out of as much money as possible, directly at those who are too weak-willed to avoid it is utterly shameful.

  • http://twitter.com/IUGOME Sarah Thomson

    Thanks for everyone's feedback, we truly appreciate it! The game has been submitted for approval by Apple so here's hoping the game will launch in the next few weeks! Can't wait to have y'all playing it and getting feedback once you've had the chance to give it a go. =)

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