With two mobile games that take two very different approaches to monetisation, it appears that Nintendo is trying to calibrate its offerings to find out what works best for mobile apps. The runaway success of both games however means the it'll be some time before Nintendo will have any clear answers.
For years after smartphones became a bona-fide gaming platform, the big game studios still kept their distance. That's changed now, as everyone from EA to Ubisoft and 2K have their mobile offerings, from ports to entirely new games made for smartphones, but despite this, Nintendo continued to hold out for a long time. This all changed last year, first with the launch of Pokemon Go. The game was phenomenally successful, and for a while, you saw people from all walks of life buried in their phones hunting for Pikachu, even before the game actually launched in India.
Pokemon Go was not a Nintendo game, although it is very closely associated with the Japanese game company. However, a few months later, this was followed up by Super Mario Run. The game has its fair share of problems, including an always online requirement which irked many, but it was particularly interesting for the pricing Nintendo chose to follow. Although Super Mario Run is free to download and play, you can access only a very small part of the game. The app is more like a free demo, and to unlock the full game, you need to pay $9.99 (now Rs. 800 in India). Leaving aside the fact that this is a pretty steep price for what was, minus the Mario trappings, a pretty ordinary auto-runner, the pricing also seemed to give a clue about how Nintendo was looking at monetising its games on mobiles.
It's not so different from the shareware era of PC gaming (if you can remember that far back), where you'd get free demos that were passed around, and gave you a fair chunk of the game; in theory, if you liked it, you could pay the developers and they would send you the rest of the game. In practice most people would find pirated versions, but that's another story for another day.
The point is that Nintendo identified what it thought would be a reasonable price for its software and asked for that upfront, which is what happens with Nintendo games on its own platform too. You buy the game, and then you play the game.
With Fire Emblem Heroes, which released in some regions earlier this month, the company has taken a diametrically opposite stance. The game is free to download, and the full game is available right away. You still won't be able to access all of it right away, but that's not because of a money-gate; instead, it's locked behind difficulty levels.
Fire Emblem heroes embraces the Free to Play mechanics that so many people dislike about mobile games, and has multiple currencies that are used in a number of different ways. You'll find yourself short on orbs, on stamina, on feathers, you'll find yourself with a hero you really want, who lacks stars so you're stuck using a lesser hero simply because they're at a higher level. The game keeps dangling the promise of upgrades through perseverance, as it offers rewards through a random drop that rarely gives you anything you really want.
Until you decide to spend a little money. After all, it's a great game and you can see yourself enjoying it for hours; days or weeks could go by even. Surely the developers deserve something for all their work? And then you see someone else whose roster of heroes looks a lot better than yours, and think it's probably not going to hurt to spend a little more, and then a little more. Or perhaps you stop after the first spend. Either way, as long as you're comfortable with spending the money, there's nothing wrong with that either.
But the question that you have to ask is why Nintendo is taking such opposing approaches to making money from mobile apps? Leaving aside the specifics of the two games for a minute, and focussing only on the monetisation, the takeaway could be that Nintendo wants to figure out what mode would be most profitable - having every user pay for the game, or having a few users subsidise the rest.
In the F2P model that Nintendo is following, typically a few "whales" (high paying customers) will subsidise all the free players, and it is a well-established model at this point. On Reddit, one user shared a picture showing a maxed out barracks, and wrote that it involved spending $1000. In other words, that one user brought in as much money as 100 people buying Super Mario Run. If both games had 100 users, and 99 people didn't pay a cent to Nintendo for Fire Emblem Heroes, they would still draw level.
It seems to be working. According to a VG247 report, Fire Emblem heroes brought in over $5 million (approximately Rs. 33 crore) in its first week. But App Annie reported that Super Mario Run made $14 million (approximately Rs. 93.5 lakh) in its first three days.
The fact is that both games have been huge successes. They come with huge built-in audiences for their respective brands, and the Nintendo brand is nothing to sneer at either. As a result, fairly ordinary mobile games that don't stray from established conventions are currently printing money.
The problem is that they're also not providing any specific information about the modes of monetisation, and what will work best in the long run. For these reasons, we'd expect Nintendo to keep launching mobile games in the near future, and continuing to experiment with different monetisation strategies until it can actually build some useful data about what gamers want from the company. Hopefully, it will also try and bring in more innovative games, and not just repeat basic mobile games, in the coming iterations, otherwise the hype around the Nintendo brand on mobile is sure to die down with time.
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