During the most recent Apple conference, Nintendo announced Super Mario Run would be released on iOS (and will later come to Android devices). Investors are jumping for joy at this news. Nintendo is finally releasing their biggest IP, Super Mario, on mobile devices. This is going to be as big as Pokémon Go right? Not so fast! Super Mario Run may not be as successful as everyone thinks.
Why Pokémon Go Was Successful
The basis for Super Mario Run being a success is that Pokémon Go was a success and because Super Mario is a strong brand, it should do well too right? Yet was Pokémon Go successful just because of the brand? To understand, let’s examine why Pokémon Go was a massive success in the first place.
In my article Pokémon Go Brings Back the Phenomenon, I identified three reasons for the game’s success.
- The game works well for the medium
- The strength of the brand
- The game’s social aspect
Obviously, the success of Pokémon was a factor for the success of Pokémon Go; however, contrary to what the analysts believe, this was not the only reason it did well. Pokémon is a mobile series, so having the game on your cellphone, a device that people carry around with them everywhere, was a natural fit. Also, the game was a very social game. Since the game forced players outside the house, players would be inclined to interact with people. Interestingly, the nature of Pokestops encouraged interaction because players would congregate around places with plenty of Pokestops. The three teams helped to establish an identity for players and made them part of a group.
Pokémon Go works because it does its own thing. It wasn’t just putting Pokémon on a cell phone. It was creating a unique experience that could only be on the cell phone with elements such as the augmented reality and using the real world (via GPS). As a results, brand recognition is only a piece of the puzzle. Brands lead consumers to a product, but it alone can not make a success. The success of the game is based on the game alone. In gaming, its innovate, or die. If you can’t do anything more than to stick your iconic series on a cellphone and call it a day, then you probably won’t get very far. We can see these follies in action when another major video game publisher tried the same thing with their iconic brand…
Super Mario Run isn’t the first time a major character was reimagined on the cell phone. In 2014, Sega released a mobile game, Sonic Runners, developed by Sonic Team. Game director Takashi Iizuka, in an interview Touch Arcade, discussed that the reason the game was made was to take advantages of the unique experience and usability of the mobile device. In the end of the interview, he mentioned that “We ‘Team Sonic Runners’ make an effort to make Sonic fans out of everyone.” This is akin to Nintendo’s strategy to promote their IP, although it is not a direct parallel.
Unfortunately, Sonic Team’s effort didn’t work out too well. Sonic Retro reported that Sega considered the game that starred the company’s mascot a failure. In Japan, it made, at most, $428 thousand a month. Sonic Retro surmised the game didn’t do much better abroad given the absence of reporting. In 2016, Sega announced the game’s servers would be shut down, essentially killing the game off. The failures of Sonic Runner can be blamed on a number of factors. As Sonic Retro indicated, the game was riddled with bugs and problems. They state, “If anything, it was a fine endless runner at its core drowned by countless terrible design decisions.” Despite the analyst obsession with brands, the main determinant of a game’s success is the game itself. Sonic Dash, a game more akin to Temple Run, has been downloaded over 200 million times. Both of these games feature Sonic the Hedgehog, but both have far different results. The same can be said of licensed games. These titles are often scorned by the gaming public due to their poor quality; however, compare this to game like Ducktales, made by Capcom, which fans love and adore. So much so that the game was remastered by WayForward. Quality, not brand, is the ultimate determinate.
New Super Mario Bros
A similar pattern can be observed in the New Super Mario Bros. series. As of now, Nintendo has released four titles in this series and all of them have widely different results.
|System||Sales (in millions)|
|New Super Mario Bros||DS||30.80|
|New Super Mario Bros Wii||Wii||29.79|
|New Super Mario Bros 2||3DS||10.39|
|New Super Mario Bros U||Wii U||5.34|
When looking at the sales, it’s clear there is a significant variance. From New Super Mario Bros Wii to New Super Mario Bros 2, sales declined by 19.4 million units, or 65 percent. Sales declined by another 49 percent from New Super Mario Bros 2 to New Super Mario Bros U. Although the culprit may appear to be the system, this is not entirely true. Comparing the difference in sales of 2D Mario to 3D Mario games indicates a different reason. New Super Mario Bros Wii outsold Super Mario Galaxy, a game considered to be one of the best games on the Wii, by 17.1 million units. Conversely, New Super Mario Bros U outsold Super Mario 3D World by a measly 330 thousand. The decline in sales is better explained by fatigue. Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D World are very different games with different worlds and levels. The games stayed fresh. Conversely, the New Super Mario Bros. games have been often criticized for being overly similar. You often play the same scenarios, the same worlds, and the same bosses. If you’ve done it once, you’ve done it a million times. The first game reintroduced 2D Mario in a new generation. The 2nd one continued the games, improved upon them, and added multiplayer (a first for the games). However, the previous 2 games have done very little to innovate or differentiate themselves.
|2D Mario Sales||3D Mario Sales||Difference|
|Wii (New Super Mario Bros & Super Mario Galaxy||29.79||12.69||17.1|
|Wii U (New Super Mario Bros U & Super Mario 3D World)||5.34||5.01||0.33|
Software sells hardware. The Wii U’s failure can be partly blamed on the issues with New Super Mario Bros U. The game did very little to innovate and was “phoned in.” This was a major launch title for the system, but it failed to even come remotely close to sales of the Wii title. The game added almost nothing to the series, but still required players to move through the same style of levels, fight the same bosses and enemies, and reach the same ending.
Super Mario Run is a Pseudo Mario Game
With Sonic Runners, Pokémon Go, and the New Super Mario Bros games, there is a common theme: good games work and bad games don’t. The success of the game is dependent on the game rather than simply the brand. Great games turn into powerhouse brands. It’s the reason we like Sonic and Mario and not Bubsy. It’s also why the dream of a Mighty Number 9 franchise seemed to die when the game turned out to not be so great, So to adequately judge Super Mario Run, we have to look at the game. When we do, we see that Super Mario Run really isn’t much of a Mario game.
Super Mario Run can be best seen as a ‘pseudo Mario’ game. It has the window dressings of a Mario game, but it isn’t the same. You run. You jump. You grab a flag pole at the end. But the game is so simple that it loses much of what makes Mario great. Even in the first Super Mario Bros game, you have secret paths and treacherous traps. Can Super Mario Run replicate the bridge with endless Cheep Cheep? Could it have your path blocked by the dangerous Hammer Bros? Can you even hunt for hidden blocks? What many analysts fail to see is the game will never be as good as a regular Super Mario game. You lose the precision and control over Mario. You can only go forward. You can’t explore a level and your ability to find secret pathways will likely be diminished. You don’t have the same freedom of choice you have in a standard Super Mario game. Essentially, the game is less of a Super Mario game.
Contrast this with Pokémon Go, which instead of porting over Pokémon, created a new game. The game made getting out and walking a major element. It encouraged players to visit real world places to get items or fight gyms. It adds a social element like the teams. It was not the same as a standard Pokémon game. It wasn’t just a Pokémon light game. It did something totally different. That, I believe, is a major factor in its success. Super Mario Run, on the other hand, is just Super Mario without a lot of the features. It’s not a difference experience than what you can get on the Wii, the 3DS or the Wii U. Where Pokémon Go was something new and different, Super Mario Run is something we’ve seen and played before, just far less of it.
How Well Will It Do
Based on what I’ve said, you think I’m saying this game will be a failure. Not exactly. The game will still do well. Mario is a big name and the game is being promoted by Apple. What I do believe is that the game is not going to be nearly as successful as Nintendo, Apple, and analysts think it will. As I said before, it’s not a new game built for a mobile game but taking an existing console game and trying to get it to work on a mobile device.
The game will be successful for a different reason; it will get people to buy console Super Mario games. Analysts have often misunderstood Nintendo’s mobile strategy, thinking it as nothing more than putting Nintendo games on mobile devices. In truth, Nintendo’s goal is to make mobile users Nintendo customers. The late Nintendo President Satoru Iwata explained it accordingly:
Smart devices have the widest reach and, thus, have the strongest potential for us to be able to connect with the largest number of consumers. We aim to construct a bridge between smart devices and dedicated video game hardware that connects consumers to our dedicated video game systems.
Iwata is very clear on Nintendo’s strategy. They want mobile users to become console buyers. Any business wants their customers to buy their products with higher profit margins. Mobile games are low margin products especially as they are often given away for free. One study pointed out that only 2.2 percent of mobile users spend money on a game. Even worse, half of the revenue comes from 0.22 percent of users. This is why Iwata said “it is a highly competitive market and only a handful of content providers have been able to show enduring results.”
You can already see the strategy in action with Pokémon Go. In July 2016, sales of Pokémon X/Y increased 200 percent and sales of Pokémon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire increased 80 percent. August saw similar positive results with 3DS sales up another 83 percent. Analysts have been surmising that mobile gaming is cannibalizing Nintendo’s handheld business. On the contrary, Nintendo is using mobile games to drive their handheld and console games. The way Nintendo will be successful with Super Mario Run is to increase demand for 2D Super Mario games. I expect sales of New Super Mario Bros 2 to increase with Super Mario Run. Moreso, if Nintendo launches with a new Super Mario Bros. games on the NX, the company could see a massive success. This is how Super Mario Run will be a success.
Analysts often get lost in their own hype. This is why Nintendo is the business and analysts are the analysts. Often analysts do not adequately appraise the challenges and risk that are present in the mobile market. This is why they miss Nintendo’s strategy. Super Mario Run will likely do well on Nintendo’s quality and brand alone. But analysts are becoming fanboys with their overly lofty predictions.
As I’ve tried to present in this article, its the quality of the game that makes it a success. Pokémon Go was successful by doing something different that worked with the medium (mobile devices). Conversely, Sonic Runners flopped because, despite having a strong brand (Sonic the Hedgehog), the game had numerous issues. While Super Mario Run will be a well made game, it doesn’t seem to have something to make it stand out. While its success and impact on Nintendo’s bottom line remains to be seen, perhaps our good friends the analyst may temper their excitement a tad.