Nintendo's been infamously slow to bring games to the lucrative mobile market, but its ventures are finally paying off. Nintendo's mobile games have generated $1 billion in lifetime revenue across the App Store and Google Play—but interestingly, the games based on its lesser-known properties are the huge money makers. Mario's mobile games practically earn crumbs.
Mobile app data site SensorTower reported Nintendo's success in the mobile game space earlier today. Nintendo currently has six games available for download: Fire Emblem Heroes, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, Dragalia Lost, Mario Kart Tour, Super Mario Run, and Dr. Mario World. The apps have amassed 452 million downloads worldwide. In terms of revenue, Fire Emblem Heroes is far and away Nintendo's biggest mobile money-maker. The strategy spin-off has brought in $656 million through January 26, 2020, which is 61% of Nintendo's mobile revenue. Nintendo's second most profitable mobile game is Animal Crossing Pocket Camp, which has brought in $131 million so far.
Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing aren't small franchises: Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a big seller on the Switch, and social media is practically salivating for Animal Crossing New Horizons. But Mario and his pals are inarguably some of pop culture's most recognizable icons, and Mario's games sell millions by association. Despite that strong link, Mario's mobile games only make up a fraction of Nintendo's revenue on iOS and Android. Why is that?
We already know the answer for Super Mario Run, which stumbled as soon as it shot out of the starting gate in December 2016. Millions of players downloaded the cleverly built auto-runner for free, then were incensed when they learned the entire game cost $9.99. Ironically, Nintendo wished to avoid the "gacha" monetization mechanics that define mobile games by asking for a price (almost) up front. People rebelled, and Super Mario Run remains Nintendo's second-lowest mobile earner at $76 million to date.
Mario Kart Tour is doing significantly better with $86 million earned since the racer's September 2019 debut. That's still a bit low, considering the phenomenally popular Mario Kart brand. Mario Kart Tour's shameless monetization mechanics might be part of the reason it doesn't earn anything close to Fire Emblem Heroes. Unlike Super Mario Run, Mario Kart Tour's monetization methods feature gacha mechanics galore. You pull new racers and karts by spending hard currency ("Gems," in this instance), and there's even a Gold Pass subscription service that lets you access perks like 200cc races.
Nobody wanted to pay $9.99 to play Super Mario Run, but Nintendo might've swung too hard in the opposite direction with Mario Kart Tour. Everyone expects a certain level of gacha mechanics in mobile games, but a lot of bad press lingers over Mario Kart Tour's Gold Pass and low draw rates for popular characters. Players have a 1% chance of drawing Mario—the Mario Kart series' title character!—as a racer. And since rarer racers have special abilities, there's a valid argument that Mario Kart Tour is "pay to win."
All that negative discourse around Mario Kart Tour put dedicated Mario Kart fans off the game early—and that's on top of the not-so-appealing prospect of playing a Mario Kart game with touch screen controls. That leaves casual fans who download Mario Kart Tour because they enjoy having the odd race with friends at parties, or they remember how much they loved playing Mario Kart 64 as a kid. These players aren't the kind who stick around, nor are they likely to get invested enough to spend money on Gems for new racers and karts.
What's with Fire Emblem Heroes' crazy earning power, then? It has gacha mechanics. Why does it continue to rake in big dosh while Mario straggles?
Part of the appeal is Fire Emblem Heroes is simply fun to play. Though its maps aren't anywhere near as complicated as what you'll find in a full Fire Emblem release, you can still expect a good challenge. (Or so our venerable Editor-in-Chief and dedicated Fire Emblem Heroes player Kat Bailey tells me.) Additionally, Fire Emblem: Heroes' "strategy lite" gameplay is well-suited for touch screens, unlike Mario Kart Tour's awkward steering.
Fire Emblem's cast of millions also guarantees there's always someone interesting to pull in Heroes. Nearly every Fire Emblem character has a cool design and a detailed story to go with them, and every Fire Emblem fan has their favorites. Whenever Nintendo runs an event promising those favorites, fans eagerly throw their orbs into the Heroes' gacha machine. By contrast, who wants to spend actual money for a 0.3% chance to pull Metal Mario in Mario Kart Tour? What's his backstory? "He's Mario, and he's metal." Hey, that's great. Good for him.
Nintendo's found success in the mobile gaming space, but it's strange how it owes its new fortune to a pack of teenagers with swords instead of the plumber it's relied on for so many years. Goes to show how strange and unpredictable the mobile space can be. I'm curious to see if Nintendo will find ways to rev up Mario Kart Tour's money-making potential, or if it's content to let Fire Emblem Heroes do the heavy lifting while Mario Kart Tour continues to putter along.