Super Mario Run
Today is a joyous day! It’s the day when I finally get to blog about a Nintendo designed and published game developed from the ground up for mobile. That game is Super Mario Run and I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time given that on this very blog I’ve written about why Super Mario 64 is one of the greatest games ever made.
At this year’s Apple keynote dedicated for new devices, it was revealed that Nintendo were developing Super Mario Run exclusively for the iPhone and iPad. After years of speculation it was finally confirmed – Nintendo were making their first real move into mobile and they were bringing their most famous IP with them. The game was shown off but little about it’s true inner workings were revealed in terms of monetisation and pricing, and it’s this that got the industry talking.
In this article, I’m primary going to look at the mechanics of the game and talk about the core gameplay and progression systems added by Nintendo, along with it’s social features. But I’m also going to comment a little bit about the monetisation model used by the game and consumer reaction to it near the end.
Gameplay and Loops
Super Mario games are all about platforming. SMR is also a platforming game but designed from the ground up to be a mobile game (good work Nintendo), so in this game Mario runs automatically, even hurdling enemies so you don’t have to worry about killing them. As a player you simply time his jumps and can control the height of his jump and his actions in the air when landing.
At first I thought this game was going to be a traditional endless runner in the Doodle Jump vain, but the core gameplay is a lot more interesting than that. In the spirit of the older Mario platform games, each level has finesse to it’s jumping and timing. Controls are fluid and the level designs are brilliantly done. The use of special blocks that allow Mario to travel backwards or to pause before running give the game a lot of depth without sacrificing the ethos of being a one-handed game and are one of those “obvious but brilliant” game mechanics that always seem much harder to come up with then they should. Sometimes the game does require some adaption as it feels weird not to be able to go backwards in a Mario game and some depth is missing in terms of power-ups such as Fireflower and Flight, but all-in-all this is a brilliant rendition of 2D platforming on mobile and it’s all playable with one hand.
There are 24 levels in the game, each uniquely hand-crafted. This means each level offers something different and interesting, but does mean the game can feel repetitive once complete, even in the multi-player component which we’ll get to later. Levels have a decent amount of replayability through a “coins” system. Each level has 5 pink coins to collect. Once the player has done that, new purple coins appear to collect, and finally once that has been done, black coins appear to be collected. The final set of coins subtly changes some parts of the level and feels like a real challenge akin to Star Road or similar from past 2D smash hit Mario games. You can also replay levels to beat your old score (which can be compared against your friends) and even boss battles with Bowser make it in, even if they are pretty tame by comparison.
The overall platforming experience is typical Nintendo – first in class. The only disappointment is that it’s over far too quickly as the 24 levels can probably be done in around 3-6 hours (it took me about 4 across multiple sessions). The additional coin challenges are fun, but not really that interesting and I have my doubts as to how many people will complete all of them. I have no problem with “limited” games that have a very clear end point, but at the price point on offer, I feel like Nintendo could have added more levels or made levels that are longer to play towards the last couple of worlds. The gameplay is great, I just wished there was more of it.
Kingdom Mode, Toad Rallies and Progression
In order to pad out the game and offer more content / replayability, the game also has a Kingdom mode which is a progression system and attempt at an endless social gameplay construct. For me it doesn’t quite come off but it intrigues me to see the attempt and makes me excited for the next set of Nintendo mobile games.
Super Mario Run features a super-lite version of a City Builder where players can purchase buildings and decorations for their Kingdom over time. There are no timers and there is no ability to shortcut a lack of currency. The player has to earn everything via grinding Toad Rallies or by collecting from Toads in your Kingdom / playing some of the bonus games that are unlocked via placing specific buildings down in your kingdom. Your kingdom starts off as one screen but over time you can expand it to multiple by earning Rainbow bridges and can currently expand up to 5 times.
Endless gameplay comes from the ability to start a “Toad Rally.” This uses the same levels that you have already played but now you play against ghost data of other players in the real world. Ghosts seemed to be served up randomly but I think there is some logic that is being used to give you a comparable match instead of matching you up with someone that is way better than you. It’s also possible to play against friends (as of the 21st December update) but more on that in the friends flow section.
When running in a rally, you have to accumulate a score higher than the ghost data of your opponent, with the score racking up through collecting coins, performing flashy moves and going for bonuses such as pink coins or using the Star power-up. There are a number of toads at the bottom of the screen who cheer when you do something stylish, which is a nice touch! Each of the opponents you can choose from could be on a different level and each level has different Toads you could collect. As there are 5 colours of Toad and you need them all to get everything in your Kingdom, it means you have to learn lots of levels, not just one.
The ghost gameplay is asymmetrical. If you win you gain toads, but the ghost player does not lose them. However, if you lose, you do lose some Toads although the opponent does not gain them either. This prevents players from “farming” weaker players and means the game can choose a good match for you. However, it can feel quite punishing to try a race on a level you are not familiar with and lose toads as a result.
The Toad Rally concept is pretty cool and something unexpected for this game. It uses the power of mobile and volume of players to introduce some good old fashioned competition. However, the art of grinding levels over and over to get a good score can become tedious and often frustrating. If you make a mistake early on in a level against an opponent you might not have any method to catch-up so the rally seems very punishing. In some ways you can think of a Toad Rally as a race from Mario Kart, however in Mario Kart power-ups allow players who start badly to have some chance to catch-up. It might also be nice if you could race the opponent synchronously instead of just their ghost and have some ability to interact with them (in the game Sonic and Knuckles on the megadrive there were many sections which required two players to co-operate with one another).
Anyway the point of having a Toad Rally means there is something to pull the player back every day. Many of the buildings in the game award Rally Tickets but have an invisible timer, meaning players are encouraged to return every day and grind over time. These mechanics are a bit “meh” in Super Mario Run but it makes me think that when the mobile version of Animal Crossing releases in 2017 that we will be losing a LOT of time to Nintendo mobile games, because these are the sort of features that bring players back. And one thing you should never under-estimate is Nintendo’s ability to make games that players want to 100% complete and master. They have earned that brand loyalty through years of great games. So it will be interesting to see retention and DAU for Super Mario Run as Pokemon Go is still going strong more than 6 months after release.
Social and Friend Interactions
Utilizing the power of mobile devices and the inherent connectivity that comes from the platform, Super Mario Run has an internal friends list which can be used to compare your progress with via high scores and to challenge to a Friendly Run – a Toad Rally that does not cost Rally Tickets but that can only be done once per opponent per day. There are a number of ways to add friends, but primarily it uses Nintendo’s own services and Nintendo ID instead of Facebook or Game Center. In fact it’s quite unusual for a game promoted by Apple not to support Game Center but clearly Nintendo is such a big pull that they can get away with it. This means that this game is a platform play instead of a revenue play, which makes a lot of sense. Nintendo want to generate revenue from customers buying Nintendo hardware and games, so see mobile gaming as a way to broaden their potential audience instead of competing against themselves.
Sadly, this means that adding friends is really clunky and unwieldy and it doesn’t do the game any favours. King have mastered making games inherently social by making it as frictionless as possible to compare your progress to friends in games such as Candy Crush Saga. This is something I feel that Nintendo and DeNA should take a look at because it will have a negative effect on making their games go viral. This game is one of the first real stress tests for the Nintendo and DeNA cross-platform ID service and whilst it is functional, it is not joyful to use or navigate through!
If you compare the ability to add friends and chat to rival companies and services such as Blizzard’s Battle Net and Clash Royale’s friends list then the service feels pretty archaic. It’s sad because the day Mario Run came out everyone was playing it, but it was incredibly painful to add friends to your game to be able to compare progress with one another which is what adds a ton more fun to social games.
New Features and Live Service
Another part of the Nintendo / DeNA cross-platform service is the ability to send news and updates to players and excitingly, Super Mario Run has already added one new feature to the game. DeNA have a lot of experience in running live service games in Japan and the West and this is arguably one of the most exciting parts of the collaboration. Nintendo have amazing IP’s and great gameplay, so new features, content and dare I say it, events being run in their mobile games will be great from both a commercial and a customer perspective.
Consumer Reaction and Mario’s Biggest Hurdle – A Big Old Paywall
Rather than going all-in on free-to-play Super Mario Run is free to download, but only offers around 10 minutes of gameplay to non-paying players. In order to progress, players have to unlock all 6 worlds at a cost of $10. The game’s marketing assets are very vague on the true price, as the app uses the traditional “GET” language used for free-to-play games.
This approach has likely been chosen to get as many downloads as possible for positive PR and to avoid any incidents of players spending thousands of dollars in a free-to-play game by only allowing players to make a single purchase. However, in creating a huge paywall which appears after just 10 minutes of gameplay, Nintendo have created a lot of negative publicity for themselves. Reviews for the game are around 3-stars and their stock price has decreased despite insane velocity of downloads from the store.
Let me get this out of the way now. I think Super Mario Run is a fantastic game that is a lot of fun to play. The core platforming gameplay is fun, responsive and addictive. I personally think it’s well worth the money it costs to purchase. However, I think the business model used by the game is wrong! I think the game should have been sold as a premium app requiring players to pay up-front. The approach Nintendo have used is actually pretty anti-consumerist and I think speaks a lot to changing audience expectations on mobile compared to traditional Nintendo hardware.
I think Super Mario Run is one of the biggest indicators yet that mass market consumers expect games to be free, but yet also to offer years of gameplay even at that price. A lot of consumers feel ripped off by Mario because they’ve probably downloaded a game for their kids only to have to cough-up after just 10 minutes. $10 is also a fair amount of money for a mobile game as an up-front cost suggesting that Nintendo got it wrong with their monetisation in this game.
Tellingly I think it also shows that whilst players *can* spend hundreds or even thousands in the top mobile games, an awful lot of players can play games for years without spending any money at all. I have friends that have got to 3000 trophies in Clash Royale without spending a dime, which shows the depth of gameplay on offer without having to spend. And I think there is greater demand on mobile for this type of gameplay / monetisation instead of paywalls.
The irony here is that I am sure Nintendo chose this business model to avoid negative PR around pricing and to position their games as premium products. However, I have a feeling that when they release a truly F2P game, they will find they actually get both higher review scores and more revenue, and it will be very interesting to see how this affects the company strategy going forwards.
I think it’s also worth calling out the decision to make the game online only. Most mobile games do this nowadays, but in the case of Super Mario Run, it feels odd. As the game is essentially all about wasting a bit of time with some good old fashioned jumping, it’s very frustrating not to be able to play when waiting for a bus or when you have a few minutes spare. Given that this game was always going to set the downloads record on the app store and have many younger players playing, it seems like a bit of a let-down and is reflected with negative comments in a lot of reviews. Not a deal-breaker, but I think it’s the wrong call for a game in this genre.
Wrap-Up and What’s Next for Nintendo on Mobile?
Ultimately I think Nintendo got what they set out to achieve with Super Mario Run. I think the game will be top grossing over the Holiday period but will decline thereafter. For Nintendo, they proved that their IP can generate hits on mobile but more importantly raised the profile of their own IP’s ahead of their new hardware launch in March, on which much more lies. The Wii U has been an abysmal failure in the market place so a lot rides on their new console. Many industry observers have suggested that Nintendo would make more money if they ditched making consoles and concentrated on IP and games, so this is something they will need to prove to the market is not true. I’m not quite convinced on the Switch yet, but think it’s a better offering than the Wii U so am looking forwards to seeing it.
I’m also excited to see the next few titles released by Nintendo on mobile. According to some sources, these games will be more traditional F2P titles instead of having a pay-wall and if so, I expect them to do very well. Nintendo have said their games won’t use Gacha which is interesting as I think that if they did, they would have a top-grossing hit and billion-dollar game on their hands! That might be a nice problem to have, but you have to remember that Nintendo were at their most successful when they were a platform owner too and being in a position where you take a cut of every sale of every game is how you go from being a big player like Supercell into a true titan like Apple or Google. Nintendo already is a big-player so they have the equivalent of app store first world problems.
Regardless 2017 will be super exciting and I for one could not be happier to see the era of Nintendo mobile games finally upon us. They have brought so much joy to the world over the years with their phenomenal titles and I have a feeling they will be creating some genuine mobile classics in the not so distant future.