After the monumental success of Pokémon Go, many wondered what Nintendo’s next step into the mobile market would be. Their questions were answered during Apple’s annual September keynote, which saw Shigeru Miyamoto himself onstage to announce Super Mario Run, a mobile Mario game built from the ground up for mobile devices.
The response, predictably, was pure euphoria, with one analyst even going so far as to say that the game could potentially exceed 1.5 billion downloads. I myself even wrote that Nintendo won the day, which, for those who don’t recall, was impressive considering the reveals of the iPhone 7 and PlayStation 4 Pro happened almost simultaneously. As millions rushed to receive a notification of the game’s release, one question still lingered: how much would the game cost? Today, finally, Nintendo announced that Super Mario Run would launch on December 15th for the price of $9.99.
This is absolutely the correct price.
The mobile market is a wholly different beast than the handheld ecosystem, built by Nintendo, mind you, that the company is used to. Where handheld gamers are used to paying $40 for new games, mobile players scoff at any price other than a goose egg, causing many to roll their eyes at Nintendo’s announced price point. This is the result of the success of the free-to-play model, where games can be downloaded and played for free with players paying money for additional bonuses and items. Runaway successes Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans and Nintendo and Pokémon Company’s own Pokémon Go stand as titans of the format, bringing in millions daily from addicted player bases. These gaudy numbers leave dollar signs in the eyes of investors, pushing publishers to try their hands at their own games and storied franchises, decreasing the value of their games in order to make a quick, easy buck.
But the marketplace has shown that if there is money to be made on free-to-play games, it is already being made by the likes of Clash Royale, Mobile Strike and Game of War (the current top 3 grossing games on the app store) and their ridiculous celebrity spokespeople. Millions of games are released a year (almost 500 per day in 2014, according to Gamasutra) of the mobile platform, but only outliers truly make a dent in the marketplace. Then how are they making money? From a tiny portion of their players, known as whales, who spend massive amounts. That means that the vast majority of players are playing these games for free while spending nothing, which sows the idea that you should never have to pay to get value.
But what do the majority of these games have in common? They involve time-gated progression where players either build settlements or complete levels, often against other players. They are endless runners where you play for a high score on a leaderboard and simple puzzle games that are great for a minor distraction. They are designed to be addicting, because whether you spend $100 a month or nothing at all, the makers are making money if you are playing the game, either through purchases or advertisements. They constantly remind you that you can be doing something faster if you spend, or you could buy a premium version to skip all of the annoying ads. While they can be deep, strategic experiences, the investment to reach that point is massive, requiring either large amounts of time or money and constantly dangling a new carrot for you to strive (and pay) for. And because they are in their nature addicting, players often squeeze a lot of play out of them.
What this has created is a massive population of gamers who have no idea how to value a game. Who would say, “why pay $5 when I can get another game that is similar for free”, or, “Why spend a dollar to get rid of ads when I can just close out of them.” As a longtime console and handheld gamer, this sentiment is utterly maddening. I, and I’m sure most of you, understand the value of games that cost real money to make and real money to buy. Anybody that has played Super Lep World will confirm that for all of its familiar elements, isn’t Super Mario World. Not even remotely close. One is among the greatest games ever made while the other is a soulless knockoff that can be played for free. The depth of gameplay, brilliant storytelling potential and creative desire that make games great evaporates when a publisher puts no value into the product they are producing.
Take Final Fantasy: All the Bravest. It is a game that features gorgeous recreations of classic Final Fantasy character sprites and throws them into a game that is reduced to tapping a screen to attack a boss. All of the complex battling and party management of Final Fantasy gone with a simple touch of a button, but slap that name on the game and it immediately becomes a product dumb people want to play, for free of course.
Nintendo is challenging this convention. Super Mario Run’s $9.99 price is an exclamation to the world that this is a true Mario game that has real value worthy of your time and money. No ads, no nickels, nor dimes, just perfect platforming gameplay from the masters themselves. For the price of a sandwich you can play a premier gaming franchise in a true incarnation on your mobile device. Nintendo realizes that their franchises and their names are worth something, so they are putting their full weight into the preservation of their golden IP by placing value into the creation of the game and asking its audience to understand that value.
Very few games on the app store take this approach. For the blasting of Square Enix I did before, they are perhaps the best publisher in the mobile space because they put value into the products they release there. From the fantastic Go series, mobile ports of classic games and the original Chaos Rings RPG series, Square has long put reasonable price tags on many of their mobile games. But because the mobile ecosystem, arguably still in an embryonic state, has been weaned on free games and shallow experiences, they truly don’t know any better. If you play Super Mario Run this December and don’t understand what makes it great (assuming a Nintendo-made Mario game will be), I’m sorry, but you don’t understand games.
That isn’t to say that mobile games are inherently bad, or that free-to-play games are the work of the Canadian Devil. These games have their place alongside other titles and can provide fun experiences, particularly social ones. If friends are playing a game, it is fun to be a part of the zeitgeist. For example, my Clash of Clans addiction was fed by roommate clamor about raid compositions and the outstanding Clan Wars feature that let my friends and I battle for supremacy together. But these didn’t change the fact that the game constantly demanded my full attention, or the contents of my wallet. Its gameplay is strategic, but requires an unhealthy investment that contradicts the joys of the mobile and handheld markets. Pokémon Go is similar in its social appeal and gameplay that quickly dries up in the absence of a companion.
Super Mario Run is different. It has Mario levels designed by Nintendo, new gameplay hooks to master, collectibles to find, ghost runs to perfect, a social system to challenge friends, and a Mushroom Kingdom builder mode where the coins you collect can go toward bettering your kingdom. Everything is accessible on the surface and doesn’t ask anything of you. You already bought in, so the game rewards you all at once, not incrementally. For the reason that gamers don’t like season passes or Day One DLC, mobile players shouldn’t stand for paying for part of a game. Nintendo understands this, which is why the game is $9.99, but is also the reason why their DLC efforts have been unarguably phenomenal. They understand the value of their product, for better or worse, and trust that you do as well. Why do you think Nintendo games never decrease in price?
If Nintendo was going to enter the mobile space, they were going to do it on their terms. This means true versions or mobile adaptations of the classic franchises that will either enhance or maintain their value to consumers. If this means a free-to-play model, like with Pokémon Go, then perfect, but if it means a meaty release like Super Mario Run, then they will not hesitate. Now that the best game makers in the world are making games for mobile devices, it will be interesting to see how the market shifts. Will Nintendo set a trend for future game makers in the space, or will their content be buried under the weight of millions of pounds of shovelware for simply bearing a price tag? Only time will tell, but Nintendo is absolutely correct in asking players to value their game. And if you are angry about the price, there is always Super Lep World.
Brett Williams is an Associate Editor for MONG that knows a Power Star from a Shine Sprite and a Peach from a Toadstool. He hasn’t quite perfected the triple jump in real life yet; that aerial flip and twist is harder than it looks. You can follow his nonexistent endeavors on twitter.
(Published 11/16/16, Middle of Nowhere Gaming)