Two years ago, Nintendo announced its arrival in the world of mobile gaming in a big way. Super Mario Run was revealed for the iPhone onstage at an Apple event, with none other than game design legend Shigeru Miyamoto on hand to show off the latest incarnation of his iconic character. Expectations were high. “Super Mario Run is going to introduce millions of more people to the fun of Mario, and it’ll become the entry point for them,” Miyamoto told me just ahead of the game’s launch. The reality was sobering. More than 200 million people ended up playing the game — but Nintendo still deemed it a failure. A year ago, the company said that, despite those lofty numbers, Super Mario Run had “not yet reached an acceptable profit point.”
Super Mario Run went against the conventional wisdom for big mobile games. Instead of a free-to-play title supported by copious in-app purchases, Mario Run was free to download, which got you access to a handful of levels. If you wanted the whole thing, you paid a one-time fee of $9.99. It was a more consumer-friendly option compared to other games, but it’s also one with a high up-front price tag that didn’t make much money, despite it starring the most well-known video game character on the planet.
Since then, Nintendo’s subsequent mobile releases, Fire Emblem Heroes and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, have hewed much more closely to the heavily monetized mobile model. Fire Emblem in particular has been a huge hit; analyst firm Sensor Tower estimates that the game has made more than $400 million as of July, compared to just $64 million for Mario. This week Nintendo is taking things a step further with the release of Dragalia Lost, a free-to-play role-playing game that doesn’t even star a recognizable Nintendo character. It’s a game that shows how Nintendo has been forced to deal with the unpleasant realities of mobile game development.
Dragalia Lost launches tomorrow on both iOS and Android, and it represents a new partnership for Nintendo. Originally, Nintendo worked with Japanese mobile developer DeNA to help with its transition to smartphones, but for Dragalia Lost the company is working with Cygames, one of Japan’s most successful studios of the moment. There’s a good chance you haven’t heard the name Cygames before, as most of its games have remained exclusive to its home country (though its logo is plastered on the back of the jerseys of Juventus, Italy’s biggest soccer club). But the developer is behind some of Japan’s biggest hits in recent years, most notably Granblue Fantasy, a game that has not only proved very lucrative, but spawned both an anime series and a console spinoff from Nier: Automata developer Platinum Games.
According to Dr. Serkan Toto, CEO and consultant at Japanese firm Kantan Games, Cygames is an ideal partner because they offer something that Nintendo lacks. “Unlike Nintendo, Cygames also has proven to be very clever in terms of monetization,” he explains. “If they have a hit, they know very well how to generate handsome revenue out of it.” If you combine this market know-how with Nintendo’s penchant for making memorable games, it creates the potential for a big hit that’s popular even outside of Japan.
“With its design, Dragalia Lost seems to be targeting a mostly Japanese and Asian user base,” says Toto. “It’s still a bit early to tell for sure, but the game’s potential should be biggest in this region of the world. If this game can become a global hit will depend on how much Nintendo magic it contains: so far, establishing Japan-made 3D action RPGs on mobile abroad always resulted in failure. An average title will not cut it.”
We were able to try a brief demo of Dragalia Lost last week, and the game played like a unique blend of Final Fantasy and Blizzard-style role-playing games. It looks and feels like a typical mobile RPG, but with an added layer of polish typically reserved for console experiences. The game also has a heavy emphasis on characters, much like Fire Emblem, as well as common free-to-play systems like stamina and virtual currencies. However, it was unclear just how pervasive the monetization was from our short time with it.
What is clear, though, is that Dragalia Lost represents a new mobile strategy for Nintendo. Initially, the company said that expanding to smartphones was primarily about exposing new audiences to its enviable lineup of characters and worlds. “I feel like Mario was what introduced millions of people to video games and interactive entertainment, and I think that Mario will continue to serve that role,” Miyamoto told me in 2016. “And I think with Super Mario Run that’s exactly what’s going to happen.” Dragalia Lost, on the other hand, is a brand-new property designed from the ground up for mobile, with the help of a company that knows how to make money on the platform.
Of course, this doesn’t represent the only future for Nintendo’s mobile games. The company is still working on a mysterious smartphone version of Mario Kart, and there have been rumors of other franchises like The Legend of Zelda making the leap as well. But after the very public disappointment of Super Mario Run, the developer has been forced to change its tactics. “I think Nintendo is clearly still experimenting on mobile,” says Toto. “Trying new things is just in this company’s DNA.”
Nick Statt contributed to this report.