The Wii U's gradual demise makes it seem as if 2016 was an uneventful year for Nintendo, but that's not the whole story. Last year marked Nintendo's debut on mobile platforms, arguably one of the biggest steps the company has taken since it started developing video games.
Nintendo's been a famous (or, if you're an investor, infamous) hold-out on mobile titles ever since phones and tablets showed promise as game platforms. Its response to the massive success of Angry Birds and accessible free-to-play titles was simply to dig in its heels.
Fast forward to here and now (take a wide detour around the political scene) and we see Nintendo finally caved: Its properties have come to mobile as part of a big push to diversify them. Nintendo has big plans for strengthening its IP outside of its own platforms, up to and including Universal Parks attractions called "Super Nintendo World" in Orlando, Osaka, and Hollywood.
Nintendo games on mobile make sense. Since children today generally play games on their parents' phones long before they play on consoles, putting Mario in a high-profile running game is a good way to ensure kids become familiar with Mario and his universe as quickly as possible – then continue to follow Mario's exploits on Nintendo-made systems like the Switch.
And as someone who's reviewed a lot of mobile games, I have no problem recommending Super Mario Run to anyone who's the least bit curious about it. At the time of this writing, Super Mario Run is still at the top of the App Store's "Free Download" chart. There's no question Mario generated a lot of excitement on iOS, and that putting Mario on the App Store and Google Play is a safe way to ensure the plumber's round, friendly face will be part of the next generation's childhood, and the next.
Nintendo's big plans for mobile quickly hit a snag, however: People are happy to download Super Mario Run, but paying for it is another matter. Currently, Super Mario Run costs nothing to nab off the App Store, but if you want to play the game beyond its first four levels, you need to cough up $9.99 USD. There are people willing to do so, but not as many as Nintendo was anticipating. As a consequence, Super Mario Run will likely wind up making quite a bit less than Nintendo initially hoped.
Admittedly, $9.99 is on the higher end of mobile gaming's pricing plan. That's not to suggest Super Mario Run isn't a quality title, but its price tag sticks out like a two-headed koopa in a market of games that are free, or else cost less than a meal at McDonald's. Minecraft: Pocket Edition, a much meatier mobile game than Super Mario Run, is $6.99 USD – and Mojang's juggernaut amongst most expensive of the App Store's top paid apps. Other paid games that chart well, including Heads Up!, Goat Simulator, and Don't Starve: Pocket Edition, cost $0.99 USD each. NBA 2K17 costs $2.99 USD.
Mobile game pricing has been a race to the bottom for a long time. It wasn't a big problem when the most popular games on the App Store were low-budget distractions like Doodle Jump, but mobile game development has since turned into a risky venture that yields smaller and smaller profits. Super Mario Run isn't a flop by any means, but players' reluctance to cough up their dosh for the full package proves Nintendo's got a hard road ahead if it plans to stick to its "free-to-start / pay for everything up front" game plan. Sure, people will spend $20 in Pokémon GO without blinking – but only on their own terms.
What's more, Super Mario Run generated a lot of backlash on Twitter and the App Store because people feel Nintendo "tricked" them by asking for $9.99 shortly after the initial download. Nintendo is transparent about Super Mario Run's pricing plan, but a six-year-old isn't interested in reading App Store descriptions or press releases. They see Super Mario, they see "Free," and they hit that download button. When they inevitably complain to mom and dad that the free Mario game actually costs money, mom and dad don't react favorably.
What's next for Nintendo's mobile strategy, then? No doubt the company is loathe to go free-to-play with its mobile content: Miitomo is free, but it's more of a social platform than a game, plus individualized Miis don't have the same cultural clout as Mario. Nintendo likely doesn't want to attach its properties to games full of ads and Gashapon-style character draws (something Square-Enix is tops at doing), but neither does it want the bad press associated with low-performing games. This is the company's big mobile debut, and everyone is watching.
Nintendo doesn't have to go free-to-play, though. It has two sensible alternatives. First and most obvious: Drop Super Mario Run's price tag, then price future mobile games accordingly. Nintendo is a late-comer to the mobile space, but the marketplace's trends were set into place a long time ago. People want dirt-cheap mobile games, and it's clear not even Mario can change that. For better or worse, Nintendo needs to fall into place.
Second, Nintendo should consider bringing back a relic from the earliest days of the App Store: Demos. When most mobile games still had price tags, it was common for developers to offer a sample of their game through a free-to-download "Lite" version. If people liked what they played, they could download the full title listed as a separate download on the App Store. If Nintendo's mobile games are accompanied by a separate sample that's free to download, it can avoid future accusations of baiting-and-switching.
Super Mario Run isn't pulling in money as cleanly and effortlessly as Nintendo initially hoped, but it's far from a lost cause. If nothing else, its problems delivered a sobering message to Nintendo: The mobile marketplace isn't easily molded to its whims, and it has to adhere to the unofficial rulesets put into place years ago by the App Store and Google Play.
vAlso, Nintendo: No more "always online" requirements for games that clearly don't need it. Please. You may not be able to control how the general populace values mobile games, but you can have some consideration for subway commuters and / or people with crummy data plans.