Comment & Opinion

E3 2019: After mobile's no-show for Nintendo, is it really all-in on the platform?

If Microsoft, Bethesda, Ubisoft and Square Enix all found time to talk up their mobile plans - why didn’t Nintendo?

E3 2019: After mobile's no-show for Nintendo, is it really all-in on the platform?

It took Nintendo quite some time to take its first steps into mobile. Partnering with Japanese publisher DeNA, it released social app Miitomo back in March 2016 (though has shut down as of May 2018), before later launching what many thought would be a blockbuster hit: Super Mario Run.

But the ‘free-to-start’ business model, with a $9.99 paywall to play the full game, did not go down particularly well with a lot of consumers. Nintendo later admitted the game failed to meet expectations, but it did pick up an estimated $60 million as of July 2018.

There’s some money to be made in premium - see Monument Valley dev Ustwo and The Room studio Fireproof - but I doubt many seasoned mobile games industry professionals would have been too surprised that a paid-for mobile title did not hit the heights of a top free-to-play game. Perhaps the only company that was a shock to was Nintendo.

Going free-to-play

It’s had better luck since. Fire Emblem Heroes has been a huge success, raking in an estimated $500m-plus after just two years as of February 2019.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is another underperformer for a strong IP (estimated $70.8m-plus as of Feb 2019 after approximately 15 months), but Nintendo followed up with another RPG in Cygames’ Dragalia Lost, a much better sales generator (estimated $75m as of Feb 2019 after five months).

Nintendo is currently working on Mario Kart Tour, which ran a closed beta between May 22nd and June 4th, and Dr. Mario World, expected to launch this summer.

But judging by Nintendo’s E3 Direct, you wouldn’t know that these mobile games were coming.

The Direct was solely dedicated to the Nintendo Switch. No mention was made either of the 3DS, suggesting an end to support of the handheld. 

In an interview with Time, Nintendo of America president Doug Bowser said the company had "no games to announce on 3DS at this show" and that E3 was "all about the Nintendo Switch". He added that "as long as there's consumer demand for 3DS, we'll continue to support it".

The lack of mobile news was a surprise, though, particularly when Nintendo’s president Shuntaro Furukawa has previously stated his intention to turn it into a $1 billion annual business. It's supposed to be a growing business, unlike the 3DS.

If Microsoft, Bethesda, Ubisoft and Square Enix all found time to talk up their mobile plans - why didn’t Nintendo?

If Microsoft, Bethesda, Ubisoft and Square Enix all found time to talk up their mobile plans - why didn’t Nintendo?

It seems like a natural shift for Nintendo head full steam into mobile with the 3DS on its way out. Not just providing a potentially strong cash flow thanks to its strong IP, it also opens up these franchises to new and large audiences.

With the move into mobile and a Mario film in the works, Nintendo had looked to opening itself up further as an entertainment company that isn't just restricted to its own hardware business.

Half measures

Ever since Nintendo stepped into mobile there remains a sense that it’s not all-in on the platform. The company has built up a reputation as a family-friendly, premium games specialist - making some of the very best games around.

But Nintendo looks unsure on mobile, unable to adapt to effectively adapt to free-to-play. A recent Wall Street Journal article claimed that Nintendo has asked its mobile partners to adjust games so that "users won't spend too much". Instead, according to the sources, Nintendo sees smartphone gaming as more like a trojan horse to its console business.

But that sounds like a recipe for bad monetisation design, which will just result in poor game design.

If it doesn’t take seriously how players mobile prefer these free games and are perfectly accustomed and okay with the monetisation models they contain, it will not generate itself a billion-dollar business. Billions of people around the world enjoy free-to-play games. They are fine without spending. Others are fine with spending some money.

Through its partnership with DeNA, Nintendo works on frontend production, while DeNA works on the backend. However, creative decisions are made together, as well as other game and operation decisions.

The two have worked together on titles such as Super Mario Run, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, Fire Emblem Heroes and the upcoming Mario Kart Tour.

Fire Emblem Heroes is by far Nintendo's most successful mobile game to date

Despite rumours to the contrary, earlier this year a DeNA spokesperson told said the two companies still have multiple titles in development, “we just haven’t had anything to share very recently”. DeNA and The Pokemon Company recently revealed Pokemon Masters for mobile devices.

As for the claims that Nintendo has asked partners to not be as aggressive on monetisation? The spokesperson said “for sure it’s a joint discussion that we have with Nintendo”.

Fire Emblem Heroes, and the acquired Dragalia Lost, stand out in Nintendo’s mobile catalogue.

But the console giant might want to consider going all-in on mobile, rather than stepping around free-to-play monetisation and simply trying to appease investors by being on the platform.

By being more confident about mobile F2P game design, it might find it can make more, better games.

You can find all of our E3 coverage right here.

Head of Content

Craig Chapple is a freelance analyst, consultant and writer with specialist knowledge of the games industry. He has previously served as Senior Editor at, as well as holding roles at Sensor Tower, Nintendo and Develop.