It’s less than three years since Super Mario Run (SMR) heralded Mario’s smartphone debut. Yet despite much fanfare at launch, largely positive reviews and revenues pushing the $100m mark, Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima felt the plumber’s performance “did not meet our expectations“.
Given the huge affection that gamers have for Nintendo’s most-prized IP, Mario’s journey from console to smartphone was always likely to ruffle some feathers amongst his most ardent fans.
Today, Mario returns to mobile with the much-anticipated launch of Mario Kart Tour (MKT). As one of the best-selling game franchises in history, Nintendo’s investors will be hoping that MKT delivers on the revenue promises that its predecessor could not. While Mario’s loyal fanbase will be expecting a player experience on a par with the console version.
With a handful of mobile games now under its belt, what game design and monetization lessons can Nintendo learn from its existing smartphone portfolio to ensure that MKT crosses the line in winning style?
Back to the Free-to-Start
To answer this, we need to go back to the start. Or the ‘Free-to-Start’ (FTS), to be specific, which was the unconventional monetization mechanic that split player opinion. Asking players to cough-up £10 to unlock the rest of the game after only playing a few ‘free’ levels, was the nail in the coffin that ultimately led to SMR becoming a revenue reject for Nintendo.
Next came Fire Emblem Heroes (FEH) in 2017, minus the harsh FTS paywall mechanic. In fact, none of Nintendo’s subsequent mobile releases featured the paywall, despite still referring to the games as Free-to-Start in the marketing materials. A tacit recognition of the mechanic’s failure? Maybe.
Despite being Nintendo’s most successful mobile release to date, generating nearly $300 Million in revenue in the first year (10x more than SMR), FEH has issues. Lots of issues.
For a start, the game is clearly not optimized for players in the West, evidenced by the fact that only 28% of game’s first-year revenues were generated in the US.
It feels like the game is set up for a core audience, meaning that players new to the franchise or genre will find the going tough. Players are left to discover the various screens by themselves and are not properly exposed to key areas of the game. This lack of optimization must have had a significant impact on the early retention of casual/mid-core players.
The game is bursting with content and features an endless amount of options for players to spend money on. However, its poor onboarding and overwhelming UI design have limited its potential to be a dominant top-grossing/chart-topping game.
Fire Emblem Heroes dropped the controversial paywall used in Super Mario Run
The release of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp (ACPC) in 2017, definitely ticked a lot of boxes when it comes to Free-to-Play (F2P) best practice. But it still felt like the game was missing a trick.
The game does have charm but its retention, monetization, and social mechanics feel like too much of a safe bet. Worryingly, after just a few sessions it seems like you have seen all that the game has to offer.
When designing F2P games, early-stage retention is everything. But unless you are a diehard Animal Crossing fan, it’s hard to see why casual players would be compelled to stick around.
Poor sessionization (players can burn out too easily with long sessions), excessively “grindy” gameplay and a lack of social features – both co-op and competitive – to support long term retention (and ultimately justify monetizing) are clear areas for improvement.
The right formula
Dr. Mario World has the essence of a solid F2P game, with a decent onboarding process, slick UI and a core loop that is fun and addictive. It’s not perfect in many ways but it certainly had me reminiscing of the good old Game Boy days.
Unlike ACPC, Dr. Mario World has a much softer approach to monetization, with an energy mechanic that promotes monetization but in turn helps prevent burnout. Players that are unwilling to pay to continue in the main campaign can either come back once their energy has been replenished or continue playing by engaging in multiplayer.
That being said, the difficulty curve is quite steep and multiplayer elements are challenging from the get-go for the casual player, so potential churn due to difficulty is present. In addition, premium currency can be very hard to come by and the notion to spend isn’t quite there in this game. With a reported $1.4M revenue in its first month, the lowest launch figures of all Mobile titles released to date, it’s clear that there is still work to be done.
Dr. Mario World provides a solid F2P experience
Not fully invested in Mobile F2P?
It’s fair to say that Nintendo’s approach to mobile thus far has been confusing at best. It is evident that there is a division across Nintendo’s mobile games in terms of following the best practice approach when it comes to designing free to play games.
In fact, Nintendo appears to be at odds with the Free-to-Play model. The late Nintendo president Satora Iwata told investors that the company’s mobile strategy wouldn’t be focused on chasing ‘whales’. Hence why Nintendo refers to its mobile games as being Free-to-Start, rather than F2P – which they clearly are.
It just feels to me that Nintendo has been holding back on mobile. To date, it has only experimented with core IPs are used the blueprints of successful F2P genres and mechanics.
We all know what Nintendo is capable of when it comes to solid game design so, when it comes to mobile, why should this be any different? This could be because unlike its console games, Nintendo’s mobile F2P games aren’t developed entirely in-house. While Nintendo is invested in F2P, it doesn’t yet feel in tune with the rest of the market.
All eyes on MKT
There’s no question that Mario Kart Tour is one of, if not Nintendo’s most important mobile releases to date. Its huge appeal amongst casual and core players will guarantee huge download numbers upon release. But what are the key design and monetization lessons Nintendo should adopt to ensure MKT succeeds where SMR failed?
Firstly, MKT will have to possess a solid core loop that doesn’t deviate too far from what players know and love from console/handheld versions. The gameplay also has to be deep and engaging, but easy to understand. That sounds obvious, but many racing games on mobile suffer from having overly complex systems (eg. Asphalt, CSR, NFS & Real Racing series). However, MKT doesn’t need to get bogged down in complexity.
A light-touch approach to monetization would also be in Nintendo’s best interest, such as collectible & purchasable vehicle customizations to let players stand out on the racecourse (Think of it as a more granular and expanded version of the customization options available in MK8 Deluxe). This could be serviced through a rotating store or a tiered reward system similar to Fortnite, rewarding both paying and free players.
One red light from the MKT closed beta is its use of the energy mechanic to restrict gameplay. Restricting a game of this caliber behind an energy mechanic could make MKT an easy target for negative press.
There are far better ways to limit gameplay than locking players out. If energy is used as a mechanism to balance progress in an offline campaign/PvE environment to feed players into multiplayer then fine. But if it’s to push players out of the game before they are ready to leave might feel a bit harsh.
A far better way to monetize players would be to reduce the reward pool over a set time period each day to offer a more natural breakpoint for players and to promote monetization when these rewards dry up.
Instead, sessionization could be managed by a recurring list of daily challenges. As the challenges dry up, it becomes a natural breakpoint due to reduced rewards and a compelling reminder to return to the game the subsequent day. As the game evolves new tasks could then be fed into the system to facilitate late-game content/updates.
Marvel Strike Force provides a perfect example of managing sessionization through reduced rewards post-task list completion. The game sweetens the deal by drip-feeding players the resources necessary to claim a special character for consecutively clearing daily objectives.
On the other hand, a simpler approach would be to adopt something similar to Clash Royale, where timers and limited reward slots play into restricting rewards over time. However, both mechanisms could work in tandem if implemented correctly!
The main learning from these two examples is that players never feel pressured to spend nor leave. They can continue to play as they were, except they just won’t earn as many rewards. This can be resolved by spending or coming back at a later point in time.
At its core, Mario Kart Racing has to be accessible to all, easy to master and hard to put down. The matchmaking will need to be solid and getting players into races quickly will be imperative to its success.
The same competitive and social nature of the console game needs to be carried over to mobile.
As it currently stands, multiplayer info has not been made clear. We can only hope that MKT includes PvP friendly races and tournaments, local multiplayer, competitive Battle mode, time-limited tournaments, and local leaderboards and team/clan competition mechanics.
All of these would ensure MKT that crushes it on mobile, but is Nintendo finally going to start being bold on mobile at the risk of devaluing its hardware business? Probably not.
A version of this story first appeared on gamesindustry.biz