Comment & Opinion

Forget revenue, it’s Super Mario Run’s retention that proves Free-to-Start is DOA

Nintendo's mobile debut demonstrates dated thinking

Forget revenue, it’s Super Mario Run’s retention that proves Free-to-Start is DOA

When Nintendo CEO Iwata Satoru came up with the phrase “Free-to-Start” to describe the company’s approach to mobile gaming in 2015, he was attempting to overcome what he felt was an inherent lie in the term 'Free-to-Play'.

“I do not like to use the term ‘Free-to-Play',” he told TIME.

“I have come to realise that there is a degree of insincerity to consumers with this terminology, since so-called ‘Free-to-Play’ should be referred to more accurately as ‘Free-to-Start.'”

Other interviews have him stating: "We do not want to use the Free-to-Play terminology that implies you can play games free-of-charge.”

At this stage, the alarm bells should have been ringing.


For one thing, the term F2P doesn’t imply you can play games free-of-charge.

It demands you can play games free-of-charge. 

The F2P model is predicated on an unwritten contract that if players throw significant amounts of time at a game, they can unlock everything.

The essence of the F2P model - at least in terms of the best design - is predicated on an unwritten contract that if players throw significant amounts of time at a game, they can unlock everything.

Sure, there’s a continuing debate about whether “significant amounts of time” is hundreds or thousands of hours.

Personally, I’ve put hundreds of hours in EA’s Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, and thanks to the recent update which added spaceships, am little closer to maxing out the game in terms of things I can unlock and level up than when I started playing 13 months ago.

And that’s the point of the F2P experience.

The deal is players will form communities and commit vast amounts of time to games while developers will continue to give them interesting and enjoyable things to do, with the few players who spend large amounts of money providing the financial incentive to fuel this perpetual entertainment machine.

Now, let’s rewind to Free-to-Start.

Stealing our fun

Pusillanimous in terms of game design and ambition, the vision sees Nintendo serving up a game - maybe even a great game - but splitting it into a small starter slice you get for free.

The main part of the feast is locked behind a paywall.

In the example of Super Mario Run, the game has been split into 24 levels, 20 of which are unavailable unless you pay $10.

And on one level, mobile gamers have fully endorsed the model.

Two weeks post-launch, estimates suggest Super Mario Run has been downloaded 90 million times on iOS. Currently, the official number from Nintendo is 50 million, but when the game is soon released on Android, we can expect the total to reach 150 million, even 200 million within weeks.

Yes, mobile gamers like free stuff. What they certainly don’t like is paying for stuff.

We could make the usual arguments why they’re wrong: arguments about the value of $10 in the gaming space or spurious economic comparisons between dollars per hour of gaming and hours of other screen-based entertainment.

But, let’s save our breath. Those 90 million (or 50 million) gamers have already spoken, shouted even.

Mobile gamers like free stuff. They certainly don’t like paying for stuff.

By comparing Super Mario Run’s position on the download charts and top grossing charts, it’s clear the conversion rate for Free-to-Start players who became Pay-to-Complete players is pitiful - 3%.

Of course, as the download total rises and the game’s released on Android, this rate is going to fall. By the end of 2017, I’d expect it to be less than 1%.

And let’s also be clear. Comparing the conversation rate of Super Mario Run to a proper F2P game is another non sequitur.

One is measuring the one-time conversion rate of single digital item (in this case 20 levels) while the other, the conversation rate of an experience that can be consumed via time or money.

However the rates stack up, it’s an apples to pineapples comparison.

One weekend of play

Anyhow, the nail in the coffin for Free-to-Start isn’t the 3% conversation rate. It’s the comparison between Super Mario Run and Pokemon GO in terms of user engagement.

According to Verto Analytics, which measures user behaviour via an opt-in measurement app, Super Mario Run demonstrates the sort of player behaviour we’d expect from a console game.

The time spent per user per day increased over the first couple of days, and then decreased once the players had consumed all or the majority of the 24 levels.

The other long-term modes such as Toad Rally and Friendly Runs clearly aren't holding many people's attention. 

Conversely, the free-to-play Pokemon GO demonstrated ever-increasing engagement over the its first five days as the game’s virality took off, and its peak month for revenue wasn’t its launch month but August, the month after it launched.

One final - flawed but significant - comparison. Pokemon GO was the most downloaded game of 2016, while Super Mario Run was the fastest downloaded game of 2016.

Pokemon GO generated an estimated $200 million during its first month and has to-date has done about $750 million, earning over $100 million every month. 

Conversely Super Mario Run has generated an estimated $30 million during its first two weeks - its peak earning period given its monetisation is one-time.

And even at a 3% conversion rate will need a gigantic 333 million downloads to generate $100 million.

What's next?

How this situation will impact Nintendo’s forthcoming mobile versions of Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem remains to be seen.

Hopefully, given these games aren't Nintendo's significance franchises, the F2P experts at DeNA will have been given the opportunity to create mobile games with long-term appeal and a more flexible monetisation model than locking away the fun stuff behind a paywall.

Otherwise, Nintendo’s mobile experiment, which promised so much, will have been Quick-to-End.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.