Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. Here, Gavin grits his teeth and discusses how he's absolutely fine with the free-to-play aspects of the upcoming mobile Mario Kart.
The latest entry in the Mario Kart franchise skids onto your handheld device of choice in just over a month! No, not Mario Kart 9, but Mario Kart Tour, Nintendo’s mobile iteration of the kart racer to rule them all. Your reaction to the game will likely depend on whether or not you’re a diehard fan of the series or you've just played it a few times around a friend's house. The trailers certainly seem to be fun, with the series exploring 'real world' locations for the first time and Diddy Kong joining the roster again since going AWOL after Mario Kart Wii. Getting more people involved with Mario Kart can’t be a bad thing, surely?
Hurrumph. Well, I suppose not. As a console gamer, it's tempting to moan about the encroachment of free-to-play monetisation systems into a series that holds such treasured memories. It's fine, though. It's not really for me, and I don't have to play it, so why grouse? Anyway, reports suggest Nintendo is keen to not overdo microtransactions, so maybe it's been tweaked since the closed beta on Android.
A trip to the App Store gives us a glimpse of what's in store when the game launches on 25th September. A list of in-app purchases available for the game include a whole bunch of Rubies of various, rather odd, denominations. It's unclear exactly what the rubies will do as the game has likely changed since the beta back in May - they may be tied to a 'stamina' meter preventing you from racing repeatedly, or they could be premium currency that's part of a gacha-style system that rewards you with characters, karts or gliders. A Gold Pass is also available for a fiver, as well as 20 quid's worth of Special Offer, whatever that includes. The more rubies you buy, the more money you 'save', of course. Hmm.
Putting aside the weirdness of ‘pre-ordering’ a free game, this sort of list leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’d be far happier with a flat rate entry price. Why? Maybe I’m just old-fashioned and want the comfort of knowing I own something. I don't like feeling I'm on the end of a line with a company's hook stuck through my cheek. If I like a game, I want to have it and play it; I can’t be bothered with all the irritations of gems and rubies and rubbish. 'Free to play' isn't free - it's costing me my most precious commodity! There are too many great games to play to waste time with countdown timers.
On its home console titles, Nintendo has - until now, at least - remained resolute in maintaining the value of its games and avoiding microtransactions. For other company's games there are season passes and cosmetics galore, but generally for Nintendo's own software, you pay your money and you get the game. Sure, there'll be an expansion pack or DLC additions, but I've never felt like I'm getting fleeced. The company's even starting to experiment with sales on first-party software. No, you’ll never see Super Mario Odyssey with an 80% discount like you do with some other games in the weekly Switch eShop sales, but digital Nintendo games with a 33% discount pop up a few times a year, and that’s very welcome.
I'm used to simply putting my money down and getting the whole experience, and I rarely walk away from a first-party game feeling I haven’t got my money’s worth. I’d say the same about Super Mario Run, the plumber’s debut on mobile devices and an anomaly as the only ‘premium’ (meaning it’s not free-to-play) game in Nintendo’s mobile lineup. I’m satisfied I got my £7.99’s worth out of that and can happily tick it off my list.
The fact that Mario Run is easily my favourite of Nintendo’s mobile games to date probably says more about me than the games, though. The completionist in me gets antsy if it seems there's something being hidden behind another purchase, and that's exactly what most mobile games do. I’d prefer – as Shigeru Miyamoto himself preferred in the beginning before realising the financial mistake – to skirt all that countdown meter rubbish and have a fully-formed, properly tailored Nintendo experience on my phone with a one-time cost. There’s likely a raft of console gamers who’d agree with me, but we’ve already got Switches – Nintendo’s all about spreading its IP to new people and ‘free-to-play’ is the cost of that. You can’t argue with the more impressive earnings from the firm's other mobile games. Not even Mario can trump the power of tried and tested mobile monetisation tricks!
Maybe I should be looking at it a different way. All these mobile entries in my favourite franchises enable Nintendo to have its cake and eat it, gaining exposure for its IP on every smart device going, raking in the big bucks from the whales willing to blow £64.99 on 135 Rubies and keeping all those exhausting mobile trappings locked away where they belong. At least they’re all quarantined away on phones while the full-fat experiences exist safely isolated from the lure of the loot box. At least they won’t infect the ‘proper’ Nintendo games!... Will they?
I’ve written before about how Nintendo is right in keeping its mobile/console cross-pollination to a minimum, and as long as that separation remains, there’s probably not much to worry about. The family-friendly focus and fierce, Disney-esque protection of its brand should keep egregious mechanics at bay and delay the encroachment of microtransactions into first-party titles all the while dedicated hardware is financially viable. Thank goodness for the kids!
Even in the mobile sphere, Nintendo is wary of how it’s perceived and isn't interested in making a killing from a single mobile game. Presumably this is because there’s a belief that making Candy Crush levels of profit would somehow come with a detrimental effect on the company’s brand image. Nintendo is walking a tightrope between two businesses that it must keep separate to avoid falling, even if there are great wads of cash to be grabbed on the way down.
They might have been slow starters in the mobile space, but with the help of DeNA they’ve learned quickly, as any console gamer who has spent with Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp or Fire Emblem Heroes can attest. They start off as decent little time-wasters, I suppose, but after being engrossed by those series on console, the mobile mechanics suck the soul from them.
I’m sure Mario Kart Tour will be a decent game considering what it is and where it’s launching. It’s ‘free’ Mario Kart – what’s not to like?! The prices on those rubies make me uncomfortable though. Ultimately, I’d rather pay my money and be done with it. Whatever though, it's fine. *grits teeth* It's fine.
Are you happy enough playing for free with the inherent restrictions, or do you buy currency in mobile games as-and-when with no worries? Do you think Nintendo should better integrate its mobile and console businesses? Let us know your thoughts on Nintendo's mobile output and future below.