How 'Super Mario Run' soars by resisting the temptation to go 'freemium'

Mario's big mobile debut has proven controversial, but the game itself benefits from going against mobile trends

How 'Super Mario Run' soars by resisting the temptation to go 'freemium'

Picture by Koji Sasahara AP/Press Association Images

Super Mario Run - possibly the most eagerly anticipated mobile game ever - was released on iOS last week to great fanfare and a surprising amount of controversy.

The game itself has generally been praised. Critically it’s been a success, and it’s easy to see why. While few players will be mistaking it for a full-scale console quality Mario, it definitely boasts that unmistakable Nintendo quality. The mechanics are satisfying, polished and hide a surprising amount of depth. It is perfectly judged for the smartphone format - Nintendo’s peerless designers do some wonderfully witty and imaginative things with the vertically orientated screen, for example.

The core game is short - with only two dozen levels - but is rich with replay value thanks to some deviously placed bonus coin layouts and a surprisingly robust multiplayer mode (Toad Rally). It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch - especially by the high standards of the Mario series - but it is mostly delightful.

While official details on sales are not available, it appears to have been a hit, topping the App Store charts in many countries (Ireland included). It is reported to have broken first day download records.

And yet the game’s release has caused Nintendo shares to fall, and been surprisingly negatively received by many players. Negative user reviews plagued the app’s store page. Beyond a minority of players who simply did not like the game, there was seemingly two main causes of frustration: the need for an Internet connection to play (a perfectly justified complaint), and the game’s €10 entry fee.

A few important points on that latter complaint. Nintendo could have handled this ‘bombshell’ more elegantly, for sure - the game is deceptively ‘free to download’ (or ‘GET’ in Apple parlance) and the purchase screen only pops up when you’ve played through a few levels. Once upon a time there would have been a free demo (or trial) and a separate premium download. That aspect could certainly have been handled better.

There’s no doubt €10 is high by App Store standards, too - while the amount is relatively trivial by console or PC standards, only a few publishers (such as veteran Final Fantasy publisher Square Enix) publish their mobile offerings at high price points. While there have been successful paid games, they rarely break the fiver mark. Super Mario Run is the most high-profile example yet of a ‘premium’ priced mobile game, so some backlash - justified or not - is inevitable.

It’s not entirely surprising that people accustomed to ‘free’ games feel a little aggrieved by Nintendo’s pricing here, and the confusing delivery doesn’t help. Even as someone who knew the price in advance - it was announced by Nintendo last month, although probably only noted by those engaged with the gaming media - its App Store listing seemed a little deceptive. €10 is undoubtedly a notable chunk of change for many people around this time of year in particular.

There’s an argument that pricing it lower could have led to a massive increase in sales - although there’s also something to be said for Nintendo sticking to their guns and being reluctant to de- or undervalue their work. It’s an argument with plenty of shades of grey for sure, and the controversy is a perhaps unavoidable consequence of the often strange and reasonably immature mobile game market.

Ultimately though, Super Mario Run’s entry fee allows it to be a much more accomplished game than it would have been if it embraced a freemium or ‘Free to Play’ (or F2P) model. Such models typically see the core game offered for free, but only make certain features, items or bonuses available to players who pay for them. At worst, major restrictions are placed on the game - you may, for example, either have to wait or pay to play a game again. If you’ve found yourself battling a Candy Crush Saga habit, you know what I’m talking about.

These models are fiendishly designed, influenced by psychology in ways that are smart and cynical in equal measure. Check out the video below for a rundown:

It’s important to stress there are a few good - even great! - freemium titles out there. Many publishers would be foolish to not pursue the F2P cash cow - mobile games like Clash of Clans and seemingly perennial PC favourites such as Dota 2 and League of Legends have been astounding successes. Some developers like Valve have managed to achieve rake in millions with ‘aesthetic only’ microtransactions - completely optional and largely useless vanity items, such as new in-game costumes - without compromising the core game. 

It is a difficult model to pull off - many F2P games shut down quickly and consequently disappear completely, and there's little worse in gaming than a 'pay to win' model (where you can get a genuine tactical or competitive advantage by paying money) - but a potentially lucrative one for those that get it right. Developers deserve to be paid for their work, and freemium is proven to work even if it runs the risk of overly commodifying a game. There are also, of course, plenty of games (independent ones in particular) that have been released for free with nothing more than, at most, an unobtrusive option for a voluntary contribution.

But once you introduce financial ‘shortcuts’, or restrictions that can be removed with a payment, or a grind that will very purposely waste a player's time and/or money, you’ve compromised the game. That’s something developers and players alike have to accept. It can have financial benefits absolutely, but rarely if ever has it had actual gameplay or heaven forbid artistic benefits. The recent Playstation 4 exclusive The Tomorrow Children perhaps feels closest to achieving that. Its fantasy communist society, divided into the bourgeois and proletarian players, acts as a clear satire of and commentary on freemium ‘paywalls’ - but sadly it’s also a tedious game to play despite its somewhat more involved thematic commentary.

For an indicator of how F2P design can severely damage a game, look no further than Pokemon Go. It was a cultural phenomenon, but as a game it is pretty awful - something that certainly helps explain the dramatic drop-off rate in players. Experience points and valuable items are doled out at a frustratingly slow pace. Purchasable items - only occasionally found in the wild - make the game experience much smoother and more enjoyable by speeding up key mechanics like levelling up and egg hatching.

Ultimately most players will hit a point where further progress is based on either committing unreasonable amounts of time to repetitive tasks or buying a few cheeky shortcuts (an incubator here, a lucky egg there) to speed things along. And Pokemon Go isn’t even the worst example of the form, surprisingly generous to players in some respects. But it is, without question, a game where many core mechanics either exist or are compromised due to their commodification.

There’s no escaping the fact that a vast majority video games are a commercial enterprise first and foremost. Super Mario Run's very existence was surely heavily influenced by a need to please shareholders. It’s still, ultimately, a game you have to pay for. To paint it as some of radical outlier would be inaccurate, and its unwise App Store placement even unfortunately aligns it with its freemium enemies.

And yet, removed from the mechanical limitations of F2P, Super Mario Run is allowed to soar. If you fail, you’re allowed retry without penalty (unless you’re playing the fiendishly addictive and competitive Toad Rally mode, one of the unexpected highlights of the game). And you'll need to retry, because those pink and purple coins can easily become an obsession. Gold coins and other rewards are generously awarded in a way they wouldn’t be in a game more reliant on ‘purchasable’ virtual currency.

Overall that once-off payment means Super Mario Run is allowed to be first-and-foremost a really good mobile Mario game, and once you bite that initial bullet (bill) there’s nothing to get in the way of that.