Nintendo’s announcement that they were going to make a free to play (F2P) game was something I was kind of concerned about. Square Enix has basically turned F2P into an abusive slot machine meant to gouge players, so seeing another big traditionalist company try to do the same thing was a worrying idea, up until Nintendo announced that in actuality, their F2P game was going to be a haggling game, where you’d try to coax down the price of the content presented in the game from a virtual store keeper. Okay, that at least sounded interesting. Enough that I’d give it a try. Which, it turns out, is the point.
Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball is based on a lie. That lie is that it’s free to play. It’s not at all that game. What you’re downloading is the first half hour or so of the game, a playable demo that then gives you the full storefront, in which a middle-aged dog shopkeep named Rusty wants to sell you ten (baseball themed) video games that your Mii can take home and plug into your Nontendo 4DS. After the early content, where you’re given a free demo of one of the games he’s selling, and get the setup to the story of Rusty’s ramshackle life with his litter of puppies and bevy of problems, that’s it. You hit the wall. To go further, you need to commit to purchasing something.
But that’s where the actual game begins. You see, Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball is absolutely a collection of baseball minigames, but it’s also a strange adventure game where you navigate a protracted comical conversation with Rusty in order to get him to lower the prices of the games through haggling and using items you receive from playing the games he sells (conveniently made real through the Nontendo 4DS’ 3D printer, which seems winkingly more useful than actual extra features of Nintendo’s current home console). For example, one of the sequences involves you offering up a remedial cooking class voucher you got from your system, but first you have to appeal to his insecurities about being the oldest person taking a class to learn such a simple life skill. Do that, and he’ll knock down the price on the game you’re haggling over, always by at least half and sometimes much more.
That, ironically enough, is the actual game you’re paying for. The baseball games are cute diversions, simple and appealing in the same way Wii Sports was often simple and appealing. You do various catching and throwing games against human bodies with pitching machine heads, completing challenges and winning medals and items. But the real meat of the game lies in this progression with Rusty, the picture book story sequences about his mishaps in the world, and the conversations you have to try to rescue him from his troubles with your array of items. This is the hook, the loop of story and the haggling feedback loop.
It’s also brilliant. The game does a good job of balancing making Rusty look increasingly sympathetic as you talk him out of more and more money his failing shop needs, while you get the benefit of ‘cheaper’ games in this ostensibly F2P title. The real magic happens when one of Rusty’s kids, who is treated as your sidekick and tutorial-giver, offers to tell you outright when you’ve hit the bottom of the bargain barrel and the price reaches its lowest point. That he’s basically betraying his father and keeping himself poor is moot. The whole game is a breezy hand-waving affair about what’s actually happening, the same kind of broken capitalism narrative that Animal Crossing indulges in with Tom Nook’s constant strong-arm real estate tactics. Nintendo’s localization team is in rare form here, and the game is constantly charming and funny about a very strange and potentially offputting situation.
By giving this push and pull tension but setting hard limits, Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball creates a game in which the act of buying it is the narrative hook. It’s masquerading as a free to play game, but that’s really deceptive. In truth, Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball costs $16 in total (I almost thought about not saying the final price, considering it a spoiler, which is both ridiculous and serves to underline my point), but the journey of purchasing the various parts of the game is what sets it apart and makes it something special. It’s a game about our relationship with paying for games in a world of in app purchases, seen through the lense of an outdated mode of commerce (who haggles for anything in 2014?), presented through the most superficially cynical way we engage with video games.
It’s a heady idea, that the act of purchasing could potentially be as much a part of your game experience as anything else, but why not? We live in a world where the narrative of a game’s production and marking, the release, the long tail of people playing and talking about it, and the final acts of its impact and spirtual successors are often as interesting as the game itself. Why not the purchasing be included in that narrative? I’m fairly certain that this is an idea that can’t readily be co-opted by other games, but having one example of this experiment is fine. It’s a strange beautiful thing, as much a subversion of free to play games and games as products as it is a product you can buy and a thing advertised as free to play.
That murky double-standard might be troubling if the game wasn’t so up front about winking and asking you to play along in its retail theatre, but instead I find myself looking forward to each time I get to spend a dollar and change in my battle of wills against Rusty, and I marvel that I’ll be kind of sad when I run out of things to buy, and the narrative of this strange real deal adventure comes to an end.