Super Mario Run (iOS only for now) is out and it is Nintendo’s first real mobile game. To put it mildly, this is A Big Deal.
It’s a big deal for many players and Nintendo fans who have been clamoring for it. It’s also a big deal for Apple to have the exclusive rights to the game for a time (the Android release is coming soon).
Apple couldn’t have rolled out the red carpet any more for Nintendo. The game was announced at one of their much ballyhooed keynote events by Shigeru Miyamoto himself. The game’s App Store page also sported a brand new, never-before-seen “NOTIFY” button which allowed the game to be featured for months before it was actually available for download. Once the game was out, Apple of course continued to pull out all the stops in terms of featuring.
In all the coverage of the run-up to the game’s release and in the weeks since though, what we mostly heard about from the gaming and business press is that Nintendo’s first proper mobile game is a big deal for investors.
Now, this is par for the course for business publications. After all, business is what they cover and how much money companies make, the fluctuations of stock prices, analyses of what went right or wrong with various decisions, and more is what one expects to read about from an outlet like Bloomberg or CNBC.
Gaming and tech publications naturally often cover the business aspect of games as well and it’s an important area of coverage to be sure. However, there is typically a lot more to it than that. There’s critical discussion of the games themselves; their themes and mechanics, their story, their technical execution, player reaction, and so much more.
Granted, not all of these always apply to mobile games. In a game like Super Mario Run for example, there’s obviously not much of a story to talk about it. But there is also a great deal more to talk about than monetization, how much money the game has made or will make, whether investors are disappointed or not, and whether this spells doom for Nintendo’s fiscal future.
For instance, is the game any good? What are the mechanics like? Is it fun?
To the credit of many sites and reviewers, that has been talked about to some degree and there was even this headline on some vanilla tech site which pretty much said it all.
But what we see a lot more of is stuff like this:
After tons of hype, Nintendo finally released Super Mario Run, its first Mario game for a mobile platform. In its first 24 hours, the game was downloaded more than 5 million times, according to app tracking companies, and made between $4 million and $8.3 million worldwide, depending on who you believe.
These aren’t Pokémon Go figures, but they aren’t anything to sneeze at. And yet, as The Wall Street Journal reports, the game isn’t living up to investor expectations. Shares of Nintendo’s stock were down 7.1 percent on the Tokyo Stock Exchange on Monday, with investors citing poor reviews and sales that haven’t matched projections.
In fact, it’s often the case that with mobile games, the only information that seems worth mentioning is how many downloads a game got and how much money it made. Again, these are not insignificant pieces of information, but they are only one facet of a mobile game or, indeed, any game. Can you imagine if almost every story about a console or PC game was solely about how many copies it sold and how much money it made? The very idea is ridiculous, but it’s what we see time and time again with coverage of mobile games.
It’s important to think critically about why this is so. It’s important also to ask what impact this has on mobile gaming and on the platform’s stature in the broader gaming industry. If the only topics deemed worthy of talking about are monetization, sales, and downloads, where does that leave artistry, game design, fun, story, replayability, and more?
If we think deeper about this, where those things are left is for discussion of “real” games. Games you play on a PC or a console. Mobile games are just free-to-play casinos designed for amusement and fleecing the player for as much money as possible, right? One doesn’t discuss the colors and design of a slot machine after all. When we talk about a painting however, that’s a different story and it is this dichotomy by which many view mobile games in relation to those on other platforms.
If this seems like an exaggeration, go and count the number of times that stories about Super Mario Run mention games like Candy Crush Saga. I’ll save you the trouble. It’s pretty much every story.
Candy Crush, and other frequent examples, serve as placeholders that are supposed to be representative of all mobile games. They are quick, shallow, mechanically simple, and above all, free to play, often making millions on in-app purchases.
This is the narrow box that the gaming and tech press want to shove all mobile games into. Because those games make the most money and are the most prominent, the story of mobile games has been written to its conclusion for many games and tech writers. This is all mobile games are and this all they will ever be.
It doesn’t have to be this way though.
We can, instead, regard mobile games the same way we regard all others. We can acknowledge that there is currently a dominant business model on the platform, but that it is not the only valid model, nor does it have to remain the dominant one for all eternity.
We can wake up to the reality that mobile games aren’t just being played on the bus or in line at the grocery anymore.
We can give these games the full weight and benefit of our attention.
Why should we do this?
The obvious reason is that sidelining some types of games is nerd gatekeeping and this keeps gaming from becoming a broader appeal medium like movies and music. But we should also strive to approach mobile games the same we approach others, because we should want these games to be fun, ethical, and maybe even meaningful for our friends and family members who aren’t console or PC gamers. We should also want a good experience for beginning gamers, for whom mobile will be their first, but maybe not only, platform.
So the next time you read an article about a mobile game, ask yourself whether it’s covering that game fully or is it just telling you about how many downloads it got? Is an article about a mobile studio just about their latest merger or acquisition that’s going to make them millions of dollars? Is a piece about a successful mobile game focused just on the amount of money it has made or does it delve into how the game’s design or production values or something else has enabled its success?
And if you want to read an actually nuanced and thoughtful piece about Super Mario Run’s monetization, make it this one.