The standard webcomics model is to post a comic for free and make money selling ads and related merchandise. That works fine for a handful of individual creators, but now the Japanese videogame giant Namco Bandai is giving the freemium model a try with their new webcomics site, ShiftyLook.

ShiftyLook is a free Web comics site featuring comics based on 1980s-era games from its parent company, Namco Bandai Games. The site launched in March with four series, Alien Confidential, Bravoman, Xevious, and Sky Kid, and have been steadily adding content ever since, bringing in popular creators such as Jim Zubkavich (Skullkickers), Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics, Adventure Time), and Dean Haspiel (Cuba: My Revolution). Most recently the site launched Wagan Land!, a new webcomic based on another classic Namco videogame about a mechanical dinosaur, that is written by Matt Moylan and drawn by Rob Porter.

In addition, ShiftyLook has had a major presence at numerous comics and game conventions since last March, including Pax East, Comic-Con International in San Diego and New York Comic Con. At San Diego they took over the courtyard of a nearby hotel and set up a free game arcade; at New York Comic-Con, they had the arcade plus a performance stage and a pizza party for fans.

All this to get people to read free comics?

That's only the beginning, as Namco Bandai senior v-p Shigetaka Kurita explained during an interview behind the ShiftyLook stage at New York Comic-com [PW checked with Kurita to update his comments]. As music pulsed and fans played the arcade games and watched a live show (which was being streamed on Twitch TV), Kurita talked about the importance of building the ShiftyLook brand. “In the first phase, we are not worried about monetization,” he said. “It’s more about building an audience and getting a lot of fans. So you put stuff online for free, you build a fanbase. Once there is enough of that base together, we can do stuff that makes money, like games or other experiences where it's something where someone actually wants to pay money to get something.”

In fact, what ShiftyLook is doing is creating an entire content-consuming culture, starting with comics and expanding to web animation, music, and more, and that means that any individual piece of it doesn't have to make money as long as it contributes to that culture, Kurita said: "We do look at things from a very big picture: How does this promote everything? And if this ultimately helps drive forward this cool culture, then that's great."

ShiftyLook has already launched two mobile games, Alien Confidential and Rocket Fox, which are free to play but have paid upgrades. There were also some T-shirts at the booth. For the most part, Kurita said, the push toward monetizing the properties would start in spring 2013. “More realistically, for bigger stuff, it could be a year,” he said. That could include not just games but toys and “chip music” (music made using sound chips from video games) as well.

In terms of game platforms, Kurita said, the focus would be on smartphone and browser based games. “The great thing about games for smartphone platforms or browsers is you can execute them very fast and also very cheaply compared to console games that take a couple of years' development cycle and lots and lots of money,” he said. "ShiftyLook is all about speed and new things and being nimble, and that fits well."

Most of the comics on ShiftyLook are based on games, such as Galaga and Mappy, that are not only 25 years old but were never released in the U.S. at all. That makes perfect sense to Kurita, as they are not being developed in any other way at the moment, so this is one way to revive them. “It’s something that's owned by our company, so this is a good medium to use to introduce some new characters to people,” he said.

“We are trying to make a lot of different IPs [intellectual properties] and different styles and different kinds of creators, and Namco Bandai has a really rich history, especially in the Namco arcade area,” said Rob Pereyda, v-p for business development. “Stuff like Bravoman or Wonder Momo, or [Legend of the] Valkyrie, even though they were not released in the U.S. or Europe, they are really fascinating titles. I think there is something very cool there, and with the medium of Web comics, it was something we could do very quickly and very cheaply and just see how it goes.”

“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.

For the moment, Shiftylook is measuring its success by the number of unique visitors to its website. “We are well over 100,000 monthly unique users, and [they are] high quality users who view tons of page views and [spend a] lot of time on the site,” said Kurita. The trend is upward, and, he said, “We are happy with the progress.”

While the site does not carry ads at the moment, Kurita said, “It’s something we wouldn’t discount for the future, if it makes sense.”

Another possibility will be to encourage fans to sign on to the Bandai Namco ID program, which connects the user to a number of different websites and services. “A lot of it is in Japan right now, but you can use it for playing a browser game on your computer, you can use it for going to a little virtual avatar system and talking to your friends, all kinds of different services,” said Kurita. “So something else ShiftyLook is valuable for is pushing further this Bandai Namco ID, which is very important for Namco Bandai Group, because with that, we will get to have a direct way to connect with consumers. We can understand the consumers better and give them more of the things they want.”

“With Bandai Namco ID we can provide customized ads, because we know the users by Bandai Namco ID,” said Ikegaya. “We are thinking this is a very value added monetization system in the future—not now, because we do not know you that well, but in the future we [may] have our own ad platform as well.”

Asked whether that would be used to promote Namco Bandai products, Kurita said, “We don't have a specific plan for that yet but that is definitely something we plan to do in the future.”

The live events at comics and gamer cons are another way to connect with users. At NYCC, ShiftyLook set up a stage and arcade and drew in fans with tournaments, live appearances by creators and voice actor Rob Paulsen, and a pizza party. Building one-on-one relationships with users has historically been a challenge for makers of console games, Kurita said, because people play the games at home. “We are not at the store, we are not at their home, we are just making it and shipping it out,” he said. Arcade games are a bit different: People would go to the arcades to play the games, and the people who worked there got to talk to them directly. “That was actually a huge benefit for the company, because we had direct consumer engagement,” Kurita said. “That is very valuable information. Here at events, we are able to engage the consumer directly.”

At NYCC, ShiftyLook announced a new way for fans to participate: An interactive webcomic, based on the Dig Dug game and created by Zack Weiner (Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal), Dave Chabot (Deadwinter), and Pereyda. “People can vote three times a week, influencing what kind of a person Dig Dug is: Does he go left or right? Before he leaves the house, is he going to grab the pickaxe, so he can dig, or is he going to grab the rope?” Pereyda explained. “You don't tell them how those decisions are going to influence the story later, but you can have a lot of fun with it, it's interactive with the fans, and it's interactive for us.”

ShiftyLook is designed to have a broad appeal, Pereyda said, drawing in younger users and longtime gamers alike. That gives the site a certain tone. “In order to have a broad appeal, you have to have a bit of a cleaner, more, I don't want to say super wholesome image, but something that teenagers and young adults, and people who just like that kind of stuff can enjoy without having to feel like turned off by something that is too sexual, too violent, too gory, there is no alcohol, tobacco, or political talk or religious talk,” he said. “We still keep it very exciting but we keep it something that a lot of people could enjoy at the same time.”

In July, ShiftyLook announced two web animation series, Bravoman: Cartoon of Unequalled Excellence and Mappy: The Beat, which will debut early this year. "With Web comics you hit a certain audience, and it's a great audience, but when you get video you start to expand the audience," said Kurita. “On YouTube it's pretty common knowledge now that it's not hour-long or two-hour-long videos that are really popular, it's short clips, short things. So with animation that's what we're talking about.”

In another interesting move ShiftyLook is now moving its focus back to Japan; the company recently launched a Japanese language version of their site, and they made an appearance at the Kaigai Manga Festa in Tokyo last month.

“This is a big step for ShiftyLook!” said Cory Casoni, head of marketing for ShiftyLook, “Not only because our home office is in Japan but also because it represents the first of many site translations to come.” Cosoni noted that even when the site was English-only, Japan was their 4th largest traffic source. “Since the launch they’ve become our second right behind America,” he said, “but as more content gets translated it's possible they could take the #1 spot! Ultimately we’ll make ShiftyLook easily accessible to everyone, because everyone in the world enjoys comics, animation, and games. We started ShiftyLook to introduce fans to these great retro titles that they might not be familiar with, all fans, worldwide.”

In the end, Ikegaya said, “ShiftyLook is not only about Web comics. We are making a new culture with Shiftylook. We are branching to games, animations, and other entertainment, and different contents, and finally we are making a culture. This is why we value to communicate directly with the users and we are holding many events, even though the Web comics are about the web. We need something real.”

[Rob Pereyda served as translator for this interview.]