Technology

Lessons From Super Mario Run's Business Model Stumble

By / Jan 3, 2017 (Nintendo)

Nintendo’s first Mario game produced exclusively for mobile platforms was heavily hyped but struggled to keep up sales momentum beyond its first week. Despite being a pretty solid game, it got savaged by reviewers thrown off by the price tag. The lesson for associations bringing something online? Your business model has to match the medium.

If you were to read any of the recent headlines about Nintendo’s Super Mario Run, it would sound like the game is a terrible failure.

But that’s far from the case—in fact, it defined the way a lot of people used their phone during the waning weeks of 2016.

I’m one of those people. I’ve invested a lot of time in the Mushroom Kingdom over the years but am very picky about the way I like my Mario. For a lot of gamers, Super Mario 64 defined the Mario series, along with their childhoods. But that’s about the point where I checked out. 3D worlds took all the fun out of it for me.

But this specific game, with its always-on-the-run touch mechanism, has me hooked in a way I haven’t been since Super Mario World. (Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s appearance on The Tonight Show certainly helped matters, too.) So again, why the frustration among the public? Well, it comes down to the product’s business model.

Goomba Gripes

See, Nintendo’s business model for the game is similar to the one that worked for games the company has sold over the last 30-plus years: You pay a double-digit price tag for the product, and you get a pretty good game.

It doesn’t matter that Nintendo generally sells a game of this quality for $60 on its own consoles. It doesn’t fit expectations in this specific ecosystem.

Although that works well for brick-and-mortar stores, it’s a tougher sell on mobile phones, where the business model for games has been based on micropayments—many games are free to play (or F2P, in industry parlance), but you’re eventually starved of necessary items if you don’t keep making in-app purchases.

Super Mario Run uses a different strategy—the first three levels are playable as a limited trial, but after that, users are required to spend $10 to play the rest of the game.

I plunked down the 10 bucks for Super Mario Run right away, because I found it refreshing that a game built for mobile wasn’t trying to nickel and dime me at every turn. But I was apparently in the minority.

“Not only has Super Mario Run ignored advances in F2P commercial best practices, it’s overlooked the importance of a slick onboarding process to retain players, with many bemoaning that the game setup was at least as challenging as the trial content,” DeltaDNA founder and CEO Mark Robinson wrote in VentureBeat.

“What Nintendo has done is apply its console experience to a mobile game. Gamers will fork out up to $60 for a Triple-A title, but mobile games are a different kettle of fish,” Applause blogger David Bolton wrote.

Both of these analysts are focused on the app industry, and they might be skeptical of a company of Nintendo’s caliber ignoring industry norms. But there has to be some truth to these statements, considering the 2.5-star average rating that the game has garnered so far in the App Store, which works on a five-star rating system.

Paul Tassi, a respected Forbes contributor who mostly focuses on the traditional video game space, says this may have been an expectations problem, noting that many mobile users were turned off when they were told, after playing a couple of levels, that they had to pay. This tweet does a good job underlining the point:

It doesn’t matter that Nintendo generally sells a game of this quality for $60 on its own consoles. Super Mario Run doesn’t fit expectations in this specific ecosystem.

“While mobile gamers are used to hitting paywalls when they lose lives or have to wait to build things, no, they are not used to getting through three levels of something and being told they have to pay $10 to keep going,” Tassi writes.

A Business Model Power-Up

And that’s a situation that associations may find themselves in when attempting to make a shift into a medium that they’re unfamiliar with.

Nintendo hasn’t seriously produced a game for a piece of hardware it didn’t create itself since the days of Donkey Kong. (Even Pokémon Go, which saw significant success in 2016, wasn’t actually developed by Nintendo.) And while Nintendo is likely correct that its games deserve a premium price tag, it tripped in how it asked an unfamiliar audience to pay.

Likewise, if you’re trying, for example, to bring an educational experience online, you may find that you’re turning away a broader audience by treating it in the same way as your traditional member base.

A great example of an organization that has effectively pulled off this shift is CompTIA. Rather than closing off its content from a tech world that has become accustomed to getting answers to technology issues through a search engine, the trade group implemented an open-access model for its online offerings back in 2014, effectively by creating a free membership tier. As a result, it has a giant carrot hanging out there at all times, which could potentially draw in both paying members and people willing to take its well-known certification tests.

It can be really attractive to put your content behind a hard membership wall, especially considering its potential value as a tease. But your online content may be worth far more in an open format that’s designed to pull in lots of people rather than a few. It’s all about weighing the potential benefits of dropping a traditional strategy in favor of something that plays well online or in a mobile context.

Here’s the thing: People come to you because of what you can offer them. Is your business model a deterrent to a broad potential audience? Then fix it. And if your audience isn’t so broad, that’s when you lean on scarcity.

Since we’re talking about Mario, let’s put this in Mario terms: If your goal is to get as many coins as possible, you may be better off skipping a few right off the bat for bigger prizes down the road.

And not every question-mark block is hiding enough coins to be worth your while.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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