Nintendo Already Has What it Needs to Succeed on Mobile - Game Design Gazette

Friday 21 February 2020

Nintendo Already Has What it Needs to Succeed on Mobile

Ask anyone that’s in the creative businesstelevision, books, or videogamesand they’ll all tell you the same thing: great characters are the cornerstone of any good piece of entertainment. Marvel, Game of Thrones, and Doom couldn’t be more different from one another, but the one thing they all have in common is that people love them for their characters, whether it’s Marvel’s costumed superheroes, Game of Thrones’ complex cast of nobles, or Doom’s menagerie of demons.

While it’s a little newer than TV, books, or traditional videogames, the mobile games industry has embraced this idea, too. Some of the most popular mobile games, including Monster Strike, Puzzle & Dragons, Fate/Grand Order, and Pokémon Go, revolve around the idea of collecting characters and use that broad goal as the pillar of their gameplay loop.

Earlier in the month, analytics firm Sensor Tower reported that one of these games, Fate/Grand Order, has grossed over $4 billion in player spending since its launch in 2015. Based on a Japanese multimedia franchise, Fate/Grand Order tasks the player with collecting “Servants”powerful familiars that are based on historical figures such as Marie Antoinette and Christopher Columbusand using them in battle. The game is published by Aniplex, an anime and music production company owned by Sony, and has an estimated 13.8 million downloads to date.

That’s an absurd $487 million earned per download on average, and that statistic serves to highlight how much players enjoy their virtual characters.

2012's Puzzle & Dragons doesn’t have quite as fanatical a user base, but has made $4.6 billion across more than 60 million downloads. Meanwhile, Monster Strike is at an intoxicating $7.2 billion with more than 45 million players worldwide. Like Fate, both games revolve around the idea of collecting creatures or characters—all dispensed through complex gacha systems—and using these characters to then earn even rarer characters. This is how they attract large swathes of players and keep them engaged. Even Pokémon Go, which doesn’t indulge in the aforementioned gacha mechanics of any sort, uses the notion of collecting creatures as its primary draw, and this has worked out in its favour.
With this, we come to Nintendo. Nintendo’s a little different from the companies behind Fate/Grand Order, Puzzle & Dragons, and Monster Strike in that their main business is not mobile gaming.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal in 2019, Nintendo even asked its mobile development partners to curb the extent of player spending in their games, with CyberAgent, the company behind Dragalia Lost, famously stating that the game would have made a lot more money had they gotten to operate it without Nintendo’s involvement. At least for the time being, Nintendo views mobile games not as an opportunity to make a lot of money off a small audience of whales, but as a way to expose a large number of people to their IP, support their console business, and keep players engaged with their brands and characters all around the year.

Here’s the problem: at present, a lot of their mobile games aren’t necessarily doing that.

Nintendo’s first major mobile effort was Super Mario Run, which required a one-time payment of $10 for the full game. Since its release in 2016, it has seen over 300 million players engaging with its free trial version and is still among the company’s most-downloaded mobile games purely in terms of how many people have installed it. However, in late 2017, Nintendo president Tatsumi Kimishima revealed that the game had “not yet reached an acceptable profit point,” and that Nintendo would learn from it to improve their mobile business going forward. Sensor Tower estimates that Super Mario Run has made just $76 million since its release, and one would imagine that wasn’t quite the outcome Nintendo had envisioned for Mario’s first major mobile outing—especially one as polished as Super Mario Run is.

The next mobile effort from Nintendo, 2017’s Fire Emblem Heroes, is the polar opposite of Super Mario Run. The game doesn’t have nearly as many downloads as Mario does, but has made $656 million in player-spending over the last three years, which is the most of any Nintendo game on mobile to date. It’s managed this because, unlike Super Mario Run, Fire Emblem Heroes is not a one-time $10 purchase. Instead, like most mobile games, it asks the player to spend little bits of money at a time, and while it does rely on gacha mechanics, it’s far more generous than its contemporaries. More importantly, it’s built upon a large cast of appealing characters for the player to collect, and is regularly updated with new characters, quests, and storylines, which has allowed it to amass a modest but dedicated audience of fans over the last two years. Fire Emblem Heroes is the ideal mobile game—great characters, engaging gameplay, and a healthy balance between fun and responsible monetization.

On the other hand, Dr. Mario World and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, both of which had the potential to be major games in the mobile space, have come and gone without much ado, much like Super Mario Run. While Pocket Camp has made $131 million to date, Sensor Tower estimated last year that the game only earns $6.50 per install on average, and I’d imagine this is down to the fact that it involves a rather boring grind where the furniture and kitchen sets you earn to decorate your campsite aren’t worth the hours of effort you’re required to invest. The game also has a subscription plan meant to help ease the grind, but player reception to Pocket Camp has been lukewarm on the whole, hence its performance.

Even Mario Kart Tour, which launched last year and has over 147 million installs, has only seen $86 million in revenue so far, despite being the most popular of any of these properties. The game launched without Mario Kart’s essential multiplayer component and users feel its $4.99-a-month Gold Pass isn’t worth the features that are locked behind it. In the company’s latest earnings briefing, Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa only briefly touched upon the game’s performance, noting simply that it is played by a “wide range of consumers” and that nearly 40% of players are women. However, going by the data available, Mario Kart Tour sees less than a dollar earned per install, which isn’t reassuring.

Dragalia Lost x Monster Hunter
In contrast, Fire Emblem Heroes makes an average of $39 per install. A few weeks ago, Nintendo also announced that the game is receiving an optional subscription service, which confers more powerful versions of its characters for $9.49 a month. Given that the optional subscription plays to the game’s strengths, it could elevate the game to significantly higher earnings, especially in its domestic market of Japan. Meanwhile, Dragalia Lost—which, like Fire Emblem Heroes, is about collecting characters—appears to have done reasonably well, too, despite CyberAgent’s remarks about Nintendo curbing player spending. While lifetime revenue for Dragalia Lost is relatively low at $123 million, its average spend of $33 per install is also much higher than that of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp and Mario Kart Tour. Again, this comes down to game’s main draw, which is collecting adventurers and dragons with appealing designs, and makes for a much more incentive than picking turnips and grinding for furniture. Even Dragalia Lost’s ongoing collaboration with Monster Hunter (featuring that series’ popular mascot dragon, Rathalos) is a sign that the developers understand what matters to players.

So, that’s just two out of six Nintendo mobile games that have done reasonably well, and both have the same thing in common: an emphasis on characters and making those characters the pillars of progression. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. And let’s be clear—while Nintendo definitely wants to avoid being known for shady gacha practices, ultimately it would rather see earnings closer to Fire Emblem’s $656 million than Animal Crossing’s $131, even if the latter has a much higher number of downloads. Fire Emblem’s revenue tells Nintendo that people are engaging with the game, instead of uninstalling it two weeks after putting it on their phones. And the only way it’s going to repeat that success is if it begins applying the “characters are everything” mantra to more of its mobile efforts. After all, that is what Nintendo is best known for: its characters.

When you begin to look at it from that perspective, it becomes easier to narrow down which of Nintendo’s brands and concepts would lend themselves well to engaging mobile affairs. The first and most obvious is Super Smash Bros.—after all, Smash is partly a game about collecting characters and commodities from across Nintendo’s celebrated history. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, for all intents and purposes, is Nintendo: The Game and a simpler take on that concept could work incredibly well on mobile, provided you support it with engaging mechanics and a clear sense of progression. You would have the player collect different Nintendo characters, along with bits of trivia, trophies, and pieces of music just like in the console experience. Each character would have multiple variations and costumes for diversity, and each would come with their own unique skills. Some would be rarer than others, and more challenging to earn. To set the game apart from the console version, one could turn it into an RPG as opposed to a fighter. The design document practically writes itself. (Which is also why one would need to make a conscious effort not to let monetization spiral out of control.)

Then there’s Xenoblade, an RPG series that’s known for dealing in appealing characters and intriguing sci-fi worlds. For better or worse, 2017’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2 even introduced a gacha mechanic itself, which the player uses to earn “Blades,” weaponized life-forms that you can call upon in battle. Blades are divided into Common and Rare types, and are born from Core Crystals, which the player can find through battles and exploration of the game’s world. Using a Core Crystal produces a random Blade, with randomly generated stats and skills, for the player to add to their collection. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 developer Monolith Soft even had a number of guest artists contribute Blade designs for the game, similar to the way mobile RPGs commonly do. Again, because of its focus on memorable characters and storytelling, the Xenoblade series would lend itself well to a more bite-sized mobile variant. Such a game would, in all likelihood, appeal to a narrower audience just like Fire Emblem Heroes and Dragalia Lost, but would more than likely make up for it in terms of ongoing engagement and player-spending.

Finally, there’s Splatoon. Splatoon is one of those brands whose reach extends beyond the videogame audience. Its combination of bizarre tunes, fashionable characters, and colourful world have made it an Internet darling, and that’s on top of the 9.8 million units Splatoon 2 has sold on the Nintendo Switch. The brand’s Inkling and Squid Sister characters have the same sort of Tumblr-esque appeal that Vocaloids do, and its unique art, music, and sense-of-world have catapulted Splatoon to being the most popular new IP by Nintendo in years—not just in terms of game sales, but also the potential to reach a broader, more diverse audience through different kinds of games and media. It’s a perfect fit for mobile experimentation, and there’s a lot you could do with it in that space.

Despite whatever hiccups have arisen along the way, Nintendo still has the potential to do incredibly well in the mobile market. It just needs to realize that the “reinvent-the-wheel” school of design doesn’t work very well on mobile. A lot of mobile gamers appreciate familiarity and are even drawn to it. Making smaller changes within the confines of something familiar might serve Nintendo better in the long run, especially when the company’s brands afford it so many opportunities to create different kinds of experiences whilst focusing on what ultimately works best: appealing characters and interesting worlds.