You may have noticed that Nintendo launched their first iOS game last month (with the Android version expected to launch imminently). Super Mario Run is a stunning debut – it’s polished, content-rich and unapologetically aimed at experienced video game players, with Toad Rally, an endlessly deep asynchronous multiplayer game, at its core (plus a set of 96 increasingly challenging single player objectives as a hearty side dish). It’s unquestionably one of the best premium mobile games ever released and is pretty much an essential purchase to anyone who isn’t deathly averse to Mario platformers.
While it’s priced appropriately (at the high end of the $5-$10 premium mobile sweet spot, with the quality associated with the brand bumping it a little higher than average), the game has received some negative press for its anomalous ‘free trial’ monetisation model: the game is free to download but only the first few stages can be accessed, with the rest of the game locked away behind a one-time $9.99 USD paywall.
There are few iOS games of note that have ever managed to successfully implement a hard paywall, New Star Soccer perhaps being the last, three years ago. (Since then a steady stream of minimalist one button shovelware has sadly led to many users assuming that mobile arcade games should be 100% free.)
Once the user has paid, Super Mario Run’s in-game economy works like a ‘sandpit’ version of F2P. There are currencies earned through time and skill which throttle the speed at which content can be accessed in other modes, but no microtransactions to let you bypass this process. A vaguely similar system is found in Ridiculous Fishing, although Mario is clearly designed to be played for much longer.
I think that – in theory – this was a very shrewd decision by Nintendo, allowing them to get the game into the hands of the widest possible audience (an estimated 90m downloads as of this writing – lots of new Nintendo Accounts that can be upsold to the Switch), while at the same time minimising their financial risk and avoiding diluting the brand. The choice of Mario (and specifically referencing the New Super Mario Bros games, a massive mainstream hit) further hammers home that you can expect a proper video game rather than a Nintendo-themed tie-in (in the style of the Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy, etc. F2P games) and sends the message to investors that they’re serious about this.
In practice, I believe that Nintendo underestimated the level of confusion and hostility that would be result from failing to clearly communicate how the game was sold.
Although comment sections and user reviews are always peppered with people claiming they would prefer to pay once than to jump through the hoops of the typical F2P game, in practice there is a section of the audience that simply refuse to pay for games ever.
Without the luxury of being able to soft launch Super Mario Run in a few territories to test the waters, Nintendo had to simply go on their foreknowledge of how the Mario brand was perceived (in conjunction with Apple’s assurance of an unprecedented level of marketing support on the App Store). The resulting negative reviews have overwhelmingly come from non-payers – if the game had used the conventional premium approach its review average would be much healthier.
The purchase process and first-time user experience (new players are led through a convoluted sign-up process, although unlike Pokemon Go the network side of things has at least been stable) have undoubtedly put a crimp in the percentage of players Super Mario Run has been able to convince to pay for the full experience.
However this shouldn’t be read as the launch having gone poorly. In spite of the unorthodox decision to not charge at install time, Super Mario Run is still a premium game, and has already shifted more full price units in the first few days than what many high profile premium mobile games have managed in their lifetimes. The ‘onboarding’ problem is isolated, and can be improved upon without Nintendo needing to fundamentally alter the design of the game. (They certainly shouldn’t react to a wave of disgruntled user reviews and investor grumbling by slashing the price – that is seldom a wise first resort.)
Thankfully, more sensible people seem to have grasped the idea that Nintendo aren’t trying to challenge the dominance of F2P games in the Top Grossing chart with a game that limits per-user expenditure to $10, and they didn’t design the game in this very specific way out of inexperience or arrogance. Here are some editorials that are worth your time:
Super Mario Run Is a Trojan Horse for Toad Rally (Kotaku UK)
Super Mario Run’s inevitable backlash (GamesIndustry.biz)
Super Mario Run’s missed opportunity (GamesIndustry.biz)
So why have we seen so many pundits jump to the conclusion that Super Mario Run has been a flop, and that Nintendo’s chances of making mobile games a significant pillar of their business are now somehow irrevocably blown? Well, oxygen is free and dickheads are plentiful. But more seriously, there are two likely motivations.
1. Ignorance: If you’re an analyst, business journalist, or even some strain of specialist games journalist who isn’t called to cover mobile games very often, it’s understandable that you would take the current dominant business model (Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans) to define the entire format in perpetuity. Most people don’t follow the day to day events in the sector that closely, and may (certainly at the business end) view the market through the lens of the Facebook game bubble or other short-term gold rushes. In this context it makes sense to directly compare Super Mario Run to F2P games. Whereas in an informed context, it would be more sensible to wait until Nintendo/DeNA release a true F2P game, which they’re widely expected to do before the year is out.
2. Insecurity: In every field there are some who need to view perceived rivals as failing to validate their chosen team/tribe/hobby horse. The rise of freemium has emboldened a few ‘mavens’ with this mindset: The sort who typically spent the last few years pointing at graphs of declining PC sales and growing smart device sales. (Since PC gaming’s resurgence and tablet sales flatlining they’ve gone quiet on this topic.)
These days most of their hot air is expended on ‘proving’ that the changing way in which the public divide their time between different screens somehow means that ‘traditional’ (console/handheld/AAA/hardcore/single-player/pay-once/etc.) games are in terminal decline. They can’t understand why thoughtfully made, life-enriching games – and especially Nintendo games, which seldom pay heed industry trends – can have any more inherent value than Cookie Clicker or a fixed odds betting terminal.
It’s easy to spot the people in this camp when they’re discussing Super Mario Run – they’re the ones desperately retweeting any scrap of negative coverage, no matter how inane, from unconvincingly scandalised clickbait about how it’s burning through players’ data allowances to glib anecdotes about schoolchildren not knowing who Mario is. They’re the ones treating the ignorant howls of one-star user reviews (the game is “too short” or “overpriced” or “no better than any other endless runner” – clue: it isn’t one; another clue: these reviews never, ever name one of these supposedly ‘just as good’ games) as established fact while ignoring professional critics.
Pokemon Go received similar brickbats. It’s technically broken. The user reviews are terrible. Nobody is going to want to change their routine for a game. It’s a fad. It’s not updated enough. All of which proved to be nonsense as the game dominated the charts for months, still maintaining a more than respectable position between updates, AND massively drove sales of the 3DS games (the aspect of Nintendo’s multi-platform strategy that always seemed to be a bit more “2. ?????” than “3. PROFIT” to be honest). Toys were hurled out of the pram at Miitomo, Fallout Shelter, and pretty much anything else that ever dared to deviate from the narrow path of conventional wisdom before that.
The wailing and gnashing of teeth from some quarters is understandable. In a market where a few advertising and tech companies have been able to become wildly successful by prioritising data-driven design and casino tactics far above artistry and deep engagement, a new wave of customers having their first mobile game experiences with Pokemon Go and Super Mario Run (and soon Animal Crossing?) will have expectations they can’t easily meet, at least without a protracted, expensive and painful cultural upheaval. (There are plenty of fun, deep and artful F2P games, but the model has constraints that will always put certain kinds of games off limits.)
Now, I’m by no means a blind Nintendo fanboy. I’ve regretted a fair few purchases of games for their systems, dislike their habit of repeatedly hawking their back catalogue at inflated prices, despaired at their fumblings with making a modern online service, and thought that the Wii U was a massive backward step. But Super Mario Run is a truly great game and a confident step into the unknown for a conservative company for whom playing safe would have been understandable. Anything that makes the mobile games scene a more vibrant place to be should be celebrated.