Last week Super Mario Run was released after what seemed like an age of waiting, particularly for investors demanding that Nintendo make a big move on mobile. Though we had Miitomo earlier in the year, and of course Pokémon GO succeeding for Niantic and The Pokémon Company, the stage was set for Nintendo to make a big splash. After a launch weekend, which is a long time in this increasingly short-term market, the story for Super Mario Run is undoubtedly mixed.
Let's break down some positives and negatives:
Solid reviews and plenty of hype
Super Mario Run reviewed rather well, it seemed, and for our part we rather liked it. It has negatives - which we'll come to shortly - but as a first (official) Mario game on phones it does a lot rather well. The moveset and mechanics are well constructed, and beyond the relatively short 'campaign' the compulsion to keep playing comes from taking on rivals in Toad Rally, with joy to be found in pulling off tricks and smart jumps. The Kingdom building aspect also adds a little extra for fans of collecting virtual goodies and trinkets.
The app had huge hype, too, both earned and otherwise. We had yet another reminder of the brand power of Mario, with mainstream media focusing on the launch (a two-sided coin that we'll mentioned again). On top of that Apple gave the app unprecedented support; it had front-page placement on the App Store well ahead of time in addition to notification sign-ups, along with numerous ads and high publicity social media posts. Apple, having snagged timed exclusivity, seemed to almost give it a greater push than Nintendo.
All of this added up to a notable pre-launch build-up, which takes us to the next point.
A significant and successful launch in downloads and revenue
There are a number of negatives that we'll be coming to, because they can't be ignored, but it seems many keen to give Super Mario Run an early obituary are wilfully ignoring its early successes. A number of analytic firms have been giving estimates of huge download numbers, with some suggesting that the opening day was the biggest debut the App Store has ever seen.
In general we seem to be looking at 35 million+ downloads over the launch to date, though firm numbers are naturally elusive. Over a number of consecutive days the app has been number one in a number of countries, including territories like US, UK, Germany, Japan and many more.
The game is making good money, too, though firm numbers (remember, analytic companies produce estimates) may elude us until Nintendo decides to show off the results. Using App Annie as an example, the app has been top of the grossing charts for iPhone in a number of countries over the course of multiple days; at the time of writing Super Mario Run is still top grossing in the US, UK and Germany, just to give a few examples. It should be noted, however, that while the free download has held number one in Japan, in the grossing chart it's moved between 3rd and 6th, failing to hit top-spot in Nintendo's homeland.
Early evidence, certainly, points to enormous interest in the free download, and a solid performance (considering the high expectations) in the sales stakes, with plenty evidently stumping up the $9.99 / €9.99 / £7.99 for the full game.
The payment model
Nintendo has largely bucked the trend of a number of the most successful mobile games, in terms of setting a premium price for the bulk of the experience. Free-to-play is commonly used on smart devices, with developers not often hiding the fact they want to encourage 'Whales' that will spend large amounts on a single game through microtransactions. Nintendo isn't the only major publisher to shun this model, but it's arguably the most high-profile.
An issue, which was broadly considered by analysts before the game arrived, is that Nintendo would have to overcome expectations of the platform, where many are used to paying nothing and then dodging microtransactions. A problem with Super Mario Run, however, isn't just the price, but a lack of clarity over what you get for your money (if you don't follow news for the game closely online, that is). A message appears after you play though the first few levels, but overall there simply isn't enough clarity for typical users rattling through screens and tapping confirmation buttons. We won't embed it because of some of the language used, but this video by Cinemassacre showcases this point; they enjoy the game a lot, but remain unsure of whether micro-transactions are coming, or what they get with the main payment. Nintendo needs to remedy this quickly in an update.
Poor in-app communication aside, a key problem is the market; a number of people have taken to the game's store page to say they wouldn't pay that much under almost any circumstance. As we've said above, it's important to point out that plenty have bought it, but a narrative is being established through these reviews and the related media coverage - the price is too high for some.
We can argue all day over whether this is crazy or not, but that doesn't change the reality. A lot of people quite literally expect more for nothing on their phone, or 'nothing' in terms of dodging some ads; Nintendo is butting up against that culture. Our chums over at Pocket Gamer have done some amusing mock-ups of how Super Mario run might have looked as a modern Free-to-play game, too, which made us chuckle. The crazy thing, though, is that some would prefer that model, and likely wouldn't be complaining about it too much in app store reviews.
The demand for mobile data
Perhaps the second biggest source of complaints has been the demand for an always-on data connection. Experiences are mixed, with two of our own team arguing about this for a strangely long time; some have had no problems playing the game while on a commute, while others can barely get it to function when relying on spotty 3G signals. Naturally, it's the latter camp making their voices heard loud and clear in app reviews and on social media.
Nintendo stated that the online requirement was anti-piracy, and also as a way to keep Toad Rally match-ups running. That's fine when connected on WiFi, but naturally plenty are playing on the go, and aren't delighted at the game swallowing up limited mobile data allowances.
This issue can be argued in two ways, ultimately, hence the heated debates. Many fairly point out that many of the most successful smartphone games need a connection to play, and there's a whiff of double standards that Super Mario Run is getting hammered for it while other games aren't. On the flipside, mobile gaming has a lot of annoying and troublesome trends, with data requirements being an example; such is Super Mario Run's profile that it'll always be held up as an example of a potentially frustrating - and widespread - practice.
Like the issue with poor in-app communication on the content for buying the full game, Nintendo and DeNA could implement a quick fix. Options include adjusting how Toad Rally gathers data, perhaps scooping up multiple sets of the required data each time it connects. In addition, it's possible to have an anti-piracy measure that is more user-friendly - an initial connection followed by a requirement to 'sign in' once every few days rather than every time you play. Plenty of apps and services request regular check-ins without demanding an always-on connection.
Crashing share value and negative publicity
If pre-launch was an exciting period for Nintendo, the company will be feeling very differently right now. It's been a bruising few days for the big N and DeNA.
Despite the positives - and indeed broken App Store records - investors have reacted extremely negatively to the launch of Super Mario Run; no matter how you spin it, Nintendo's share price has endured a dramatic slump, and it's been even worse for DeNA. Investors prematurely inflated Nintendo share prices based on the potential of Super Mario Run and mobile in general, and before the app has had much of a chance they've torn them down. This writer's not hidden his frustration with the vagaries of the stock market in the past, but even by Nintendo shareholder standards the reaction has been rash and rushed. It's been a self-fulfilling prophecy - before any real data on sales was available the value was diving, which led to negative publicity, which led to continuing declines.
It's been an extraordinary turn of events, and negative coverage on social and mainstream media has naturally been the result. From the App Store review average (about 2.5 stars) to the billions lost in company value, we've had a strange mix of positive news in terms of the apps numbers, to the reality that the company is facing a mini (or arguably full blown) crisis of bad publicity.
Lack of Android support
This has been written about a lot and there's little point in digging in to any depth yet again, but it is frustrating for around half of smart device owners that have been left out of the action. It's been an odd move for Nintendo to exclude a significant audience with a tentpole release. Whether due to development challenges or a sweetheart deal with Apple, it doesn't change the fact that millions of potential consumers are left looking in from the outside - less blue ocean thinking from Nintendo, more like a luxury liner that many aren't allowed to board.
As that tally shows, the negatives seem to have been overtaking the positives of the app. Impressive downloads and revenues have gradually been swamped by complaints and falling investor confidence. Nintendo, it's fair to say, has brought a couple of issues on itself, with some design mis-steps in data usage and confusion and complaints around the price. As we saw to a degree with Pokémon GO, a high profile launch can be an incredible thing, but when the narrative goes the wrong way it can also lead to a maelstrom of negativity that's tough to control.
Super Mario Run can turn it around yet, but Nintendo certainly needs to act fast to fix problem areas that are within its control. If the revenues are strong, too, the company would do well to shout about it from the rooftops, as plenty don't believe the premium pricing model will be a success.
There are important weeks ahead for Nintendo's landmark mobile release.