New comic experiment ShiftyLook shows how other industries are toying with free-to-play

Fans of videogames are known for a prolific outpouring of creativity in keeping their favorite characters alive beyond the screen. With ShiftyLook, an online symposium of free webcomics based on classic games, Namco Bandai is hoping to leverage that spirit in order to boost the visibility of its aging franchises to a younger audience.

Launched last March, the site has already started attracting over 100,000 monthly users. A new comic based on the fixed-shooter arcade classic Galaga was revealed on Monday, written by Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics) and illustrated by Christopher Hastings (The Adventures of Dr. McNinja)

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Namco’s venture is garnering attention from other industries dipping their toes into the freemium model. Publisher’s Weekly reported on ShiftyLook recently with an eye on how such a move could help content producers and their fans interact beyond the normal, paid-for channels. You might have played Dig Dug in the arcade thirty years ago. Now you and your kids can read the comic, written by Scott Kurtz, and be exposed to something otherwise ignored or forgotten. These familiar faces seen in new ways can drum up business that can then be turned into fresh, original work.

“We have very strong IPs [intellectual properties], but we have to develop more, and these classic IPs are a very good way to have more content to provide users,” said Yutaro Ikegaya, Namco Bandai’s v-p for strategic development. What’s more, he said, the success of ShiftyLook is attracting interest within the company, so more IPs may become available in the future.

The idea of brand extension has been around as long as videogames themselves, from Donkey Kong board games through Halo novelizations and more. But these products were always parallel to a new or upcoming game; the idea of producing new content based around old, out-of-the-limelight titles seems novel, and a clever way of leveraging the always-on nature of a website. There’s little risk for the consumer, and large reward for the company, who is expanding the reach of a previously stagnant brand that’s now ripe for revival. Moreover, the success of Skylanders and the spectre of the upcoming Disney Infinity suggests that game publishers see a big world out there to conquer.

ShiftyLook intends on expanding into games next. Soon you’ll be able to read a brand-new comic based on Wonder Momo, a 1987 arcade game that never made it out of Japan, and perhaps play a version of the source material emulated in your browser. It’s an odd bit of reverse marketing, kind of like watching Star Wars only after eating the breakfast cereal. Let’s just hope Mike Costa’s four-panel rendition of Xevious brings the mighty Solvalou ship back to its rightful place alongside Vic Viper and the Millenium Falcon.