Nintendo and the perils of free to play

The big gaming news this week was that Nintendo are going to start making games for smartphones in coordination with the mobile games company DeNA. Speculation has been rife, and many have been pointing to DeNA’s reliance on free-to-play games as a worrying sign of things to come. Want to play as Super Mario? Pay $5 for a super mushroom or $15 for a pack of five – that kind of thing.

Image courtesy of Kotaku
Image courtesy of Kotaku

I can’t really blame Nintendo for moving into the smartphone market – analysts (and Nintendo’s shareholders too, I expect) have been all but demanding that Nintendo makes a foray into this potentially lucrative market, especially as sales of the Wii U have been relatively lacklustre. Particularly in Japan, there’s been a sharp move away from console gaming towards mobile gaming, so it makes sense for Nintendo to move into this area.

Nintendo has said that it sees its mobile games as complementing its console titles: the mobile games will be new, standalone titles that will presumably be expected to channel users towards the company’s own-brand consoles, or at least raise awareness of its IP, like Mario and Zelda. So in theory us loyal Wii U and 3DS owners have nothing to fear – we’ll still be getting the usual, brilliant games, and we can safely ignore any watered-down mobile offerings that appear on mobile phones.

In theory, anyway. Of course, there was the recent debut of the free-to-play game Pokemon Shuffle on 3DS, which could indicate that Nintendo sees free to play as the way forward – or at least as an important part of its strategy – on its own consoles as well as on mobile. It’s not the first free to play 3DS game that Nintendo has made (Steel Divers: Sub Wars came out a while back), but it appears to be the most successful – it’s already been downloaded over a million times.

I’ve been diving into Pokemon Shuffle on and off over the past couple of weeks, and overall it left me a little deflated. It’s actually a fun little game – the presentation is excellent, and there’s room for a bit of strategy in the match-three gameplay, plus the music is fantastic – but it showcases the worst model of free to play, where the user is constantly nagged to spend money. Each level costs a ‘heart’ to play, and each heart takes half an hour to recharge. Use all five hearts and you’ll be asked whether you want to pay to get another one and continue playing. There are two problems with this. One, it’s just so damned annoying to have your play session interrupted by someone demanding money, and it ruins an otherwise pleasurable experience. And two, it assumes that the user is an idiot. Why on earth would I want to pay real money for something that I could get for free by waiting half an hour?

Pokemon Shuffle - Ready Wallet, Player One.
Pokemon Shuffle – Ready Wallet, Player One.

I’m not against free to play when it’s done well, but I don’t particularly like f2p games that are both annoying and assume I’m stupid. Lionhead’s upcoming Fable Legends gives a good example of how f2p should be done: it’s completely free to play, but if there’s a particular character or costume you like, you can pay to keep that character or costume permanently, otherwise they are rotated every month. It’s a fantastic idea: the user feels like they’re actually getting something tangible for their money rather than just time or expendable items. Buying coins or hearts in Pokemon Shuffle, on the other hand, feels like throwing money down a well.

I’m hoping that Nintendo’s new mobile games follow the example of Fable Legends, although judging by Pokemon Shuffle, there’s a good chance they’ll follow the ‘bad’ model of free to play. This certainly won’t hurt Nintendo in a financial sense, but it might tarnish their good reputation – a reputation that was on a high at the end of last year thanks to a slew of rock-solid games that launched with zero online issues, unlike their competitors. As we know, reputations are hard to forge, but easy to lose.

Still, we don’t know anything for sure just yet: Nintendo might not even go with free to play on their mobile titles, or they might use a very fair free to play system. But if they go down the ‘bad’ free to play route, expect plenty of articles like this one, where angry parents lambast Nintendo for ‘allowing’ their kids to spend X thousands of pounds on ‘free’ mobile games.

Here’s hoping that Pokemon Shuffle was just a one-off experiment.

Fable Legends gives an idea of how f2p should be done.
Fable Legends gives an idea of how f2p should be done.


  1. I haven’t played Pokemon Shuffle, but that monetization scheme you described worries me.

    Maybe Nintendo will take a serious look at successful F2P games like Path of Exile and Dota 2 and League of Legends. In all of these games, your ability to play is not hinged on your willingness to play. If you want, you absolutely can play for free, but usually the quality of product encourages the player to buy some enjoyable cosmetics. I have spent money on all these games because I wanted to, not because I needed to.

    It’s similar to a writing/publishing concept of putting your books/stories out for free and simply creating an avenue for fans to donate. If you endear persons enough to become fans, then you can create a sustainable income source off of donations/purchases of cosmetic products/some method for fans to display their fan-hood.

    However, it requires the production of high-quality, endearing content, which is where I think the business level gets scared away from this monetization scheme.

    The person in charge of the purse-strings is not necessarily the person who makes the video games; and so doesn’t understand whether a gaming pitch is something you can depend on to generate these Fan-Contributions that good F2P games thrive on.

    An Accountant will trust a “guaranteed” payout more than a payout determined by the customer; but doesn’t understand that there won’t be any customers under that design precept.

    And I guess this is what worries me if Nintendo launches a series of free-to-play titles. I keep hearing about disconnects between Nintendo’s business side and the game development side; and the disappointment the investors have had in regards to the profits over the past few years (or lack of). I feel like the game development side has been losing leverage in decision-making, relative to the accounting/investing side.

    If Nintendo does try F2P, I’m hoping that the recent success of Mario 3D World, Mario Kart, and Smash Bros will give the developers freedom to make a F2P structure based on confidence in the content, not fear of whether the customer will pay.

    1. Great comment – I feel like you’ve hit the nail on the head there. Customers should feel like they WANT to spend money on your game, rather than face restrictions if they don’t want to make a purchase. The latter seems more appealing to accountants, but in the long run it will lose customers as they get fatigued from constant money demands.

      Making customers feel like they want to spend money on something through choice makes perfect sense – after all, that’s how it works for most games (i.e. non-f2p ones). But of course, with f2p, the audience is potentially far far bigger than for regular retail games.

      I’ve got my fingers crossed that Nintendo take a leaf out of Hearthstone’s book – a great example of a top-quality game that people are happy to spend money on.

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