I am surprised that people are surprised about the lack of success for Super Mario Run from Nintendo. While I do not claim that I can predict the future, and this time of year I scoff at everyone’s predictions because if the so-called experts actually could foresee develops they would be much wealthier than they are, in January 2012 I laid out the reasons traditional gaming companies were unlikely to succeed in the free to play space . The reasons I stated nearly five years ago were also the headwinds that doomed Super Mario Run.
As I wrote then, the biggest challenge traditional game companies face when moving to a free-to-play model (at the time it was more Facebook than mobile) is that they are different businesses. Old school game companies, be it Nintendo or EA to Take2, are skilled at creating a great product that someone buys, enjoys and finishes. Free-to-play companies are creating a service (hence the now relatively old term software as a service), something that customers use over time and becomes part of their life (like Netflix or Amazon Prime).
Building and running a service requires a different skill set than building a great game. The former needs
- Analysts to look at customer behavior and suggest changes to continually improve the product
- Product managers to create new features and elements that keep existing players engaged and ensure strong elder gameplay for the most committed players
- User acquisition specialists who not only can bring in new players but can reactivate the most valuable players
- CRM experts who can communicate with existing players both inside and outside of the product through multiple channels to increase their engagement and loyalty.
Conversely, traditional game companies succeed with a very different skill set
- Great game designers who can create a fantastic experience, though usually of a limited nature
- Marketing gurus who can get people to purchase a product
- Distribution experts who can ensure the product is placed prominently in front of potential customers.
I have no privileged information in how Nintendo structured its Super Mario Run team but based on the product and how they are managing it, I would bet the focused more on the skills needed by traditional game companies than those creating a free-to-play game service experience. The game clearly has great designers and their promotion by Apple shows they still know how to manage channels.
They do not understand free-to-play LTV
What they are lacking is an understanding of free-to-play economics, primarily how to optimize player lifetime value. I have written way too many times about customer lifetime value (even wrote a book on it) but it is still a concept that traditional game companies like Nintendo fail to grasp. In summary, lifetime value is the monetary value to your company of a new player and it is a function of monetization (how much they spend), retention (how long they remain a customer) and virality (how many other customers they bring in).
In the traditional game space, this equation is quite easy. For Nintendo, LTV is largely how much a payer pays for a DS and Wii game. It does increase by downloadable content (DLC), whether they buy additional Nintendo products and if they encourage friends to buy but it is largely driven by that retail purchase of a game.
This experience is evident in how Nintendo approached Super Mario Run. The product is built so that the free element is a teaser to get a $10 purchase. It is not built to create a long-term relationship between players and the game, where they return (and often spend) daily for months or years (no exaggeration, take a look at Mobile Strike or Clash of Clans or most of the games on the top grossing charts). They are still focused on the discrete purchase, selling the razor and not the blades.
This approached doomed Super Mario Run (and by the doomed, I meant compared to expectations and potential, as it will still generate millions), even if they were seeing more traction getting the initial $10 purchase. In the world of free-to-play, $10 is largely an irrelevant transaction. Supercell was acquired by Tencent for $8.6 billion because players are spending hundreds or thousands of dollars in the game. By focusing on the first ten dollars, Nintendo missed where the bulk of free to play revenue comes from and largely capped what most players would have to spend. Thus, a player who Nintendo could have built a relationship with that would generate $20,000 is now spending $10 and moving back to a Supercell or King or Zynga game.
Core game companies will continue to flail in the free-to-play business
I said it almost five years ago and it has largely held true, traditional game companies won’t succeed in free to play. Since I wrote that article a handful of game companies have seen some free-to-play success (most notable Hearthstone) or acquired respectable free-to-play businesses but most have either failed or gone bankrupt. We still have not seen EA turn their core games (FIFA, Madden, Battlefield) into free-to-play franchises. There is nothing from Microsoft or Sony on any mobile chart. Take2, not a player in the mobile space. You get the point. It’s no longer a question of when the core game companies will successfully move into free to play (and mobile) but when they will just give up (and investors will stop expecting it) and focus on what they understand.
- The failure of Super Mario Run by Nintendo was very predictable, as traditional game companies face many structural issues in creating free to play mobile apps.
- The biggest hurdle is their team structure, as they are built to create a product and not run a successful service.
- Core game companies also do not truly understand free to play economics, that customer lifetime value is driven by long-term retention and monetization and not a discrete purchase.