Following all the stuff and nonsense spouted over Super Mario Run, the announcement of Fire Emblem Heroes - Nintendo’s first free-to-play mobile game - provides the first real opportunity to consider the company’s mobile strategy.
Coming to Android on February 2nd and iOS “soon” (whatever that means), Fire Emblem Heroes is an old school squad-based RPG that’s been designed ground-up for mobile.
But more than this, just looking at the game screen and video, it’s clear it's been designed ground-up for the Japanese market.
This isn’t to say Fire Emblem Heroes has been designed to alienate non-Japanese players.
A Japan-first approach comes naturally to Nintendo.
The game is being launched in over 50 countries, with important Asian territories such as China and Korea getting their own customised releases later in 2017.
But as the pixelated 2D graphics, manual movement mechanic on a 8x6 grid and turn-based battles make clear, at heart this is a core JRPG, made for mobile and meshed with the retention and monetisation techniques Nintendo's partner DeNA has honed over 10 years of domestic F2P success.
The place to be
As a proud, even traditional Japanese company, this Japan-first approach comes naturally to Nintendo, of course.
But there are reasons why it makes sense for this particular game too.
As with the Chinese and Korean mobile game markets, Japan is culturally differentiated from the rest of the world in a way Western markets aren’t. Equally, given its scale - c. $6 billion of annual revenue - the Japanese mobile game market is big enough that its top grossing games can generate a lot of cash.
What’s even more attractive is the fact that because of the type of mobile games which appeal to Japanese players, once a game hits the top of the Japanese top grossing charts, it generally sticks there for years.
True, the longevity of titles in the top grossing charts is a universal trend, but in Japan it’s moreso.
For example, the first mobile game to generate $1 billion in a year was GungHo Online’s Puzzle & Dragons in 2013. Not only did all the revenue come from Japan, the game continued to generate $1 billion from Japan in 2014 and 2015.
Now, in early 2017, Puzzle & Dragons remains a top 5 top grossing game in Japan, generating over $500 million.
Monster Strike was the #1 top grossing game in the world in 2016.
It’s a similar story for Japan’s current #1 mobile game, Mixi’s Monster Strike.
More significantly, during this time, it’s also been the #1 top grossing mobile game (or app) in the world.
Hey, big spenders
Of course, plenty of mobile games have now generated $1 billion in 12 months; Pokemon Go will soon join the likes of Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, Game of War and Mobile Strike.
Yet these titles do so on a global basis, often from over 100 million downloads or in the case of Candy Crush Saga, hundreds of millions of downloads.
Japanese games typically do these revenue numbers from downloads measured in the low tens of millions, however.
In this way, the beauty of the Japanese market is its potential to provide the top grossing mobile game in the world off the back of a relatively small number of players from Japan’s relatively small 130 million population. That's why it has the highest average revenue per user in the world.
Of course, to find this success, you have to design a game that both excites Japanese players and provides deep and long-term monetisation. And this is the context in which many commentators have been talking in awe about Fire Emblem Heroes’ so-called ‘Gacha’ mechanics.
A fancy name for a randomised reward system, gacha mechanics are now used in many western F2P mobile games. They are inherent in everything from CCGs to RPGs and found in any game using a tier-based reward system.
Yet, as is often the case, the mechanic itself isn’t the issue but the aggressive way in which it’s used that marks out the top grossing Japanese F2P mobile games.
In Fire Emblem Heroes, one of the main metagame loops is consuming orbs to summon new heroes.
Few top grossing Japanese mobile games have had much success outside of their domestic market.
How easy it is to collect the type and number of orbs to summon the highest level heroes, how frequently they drop and how important those heroes are to making progress in the game will be the mark of how aggressively Nintendo and DeNA are targeting the Japanese top grossing charts.
The world awaits
On the flipside, it will be fascinating to see the reaction of Western gamers.
With the exception of Puzzle & Dragons, few top grossing Japanese mobile games have had much success outside of their domestic market. Mixi recently gave up trying to break Monster Strike in the West, as did COLOPL with its White Cat Project (renamed Rune Story in the west).
This situation seems likely to provide Nintendo with an interesting dilemma. The company’s global cachet and the brand recognition of Fire Emblem will ensure strong app store support and tens of millions of downloads.
Yet with a hardcore RPG designed for Japan, Nintendo might find itself facing a similar reaction, albeit for totally different reasons, to that which greeted Super Mario Run’s $10 paywall: a customer backlash which resulted in an App Store user review rating of just 2.5.