finally announced when its highly anticipated iOS game Super Mario Run will ship: December 15. And while the game will let you play for free, that apparently only applies to a limited part of the game (though you will be able to check out all three game modes, apparently). You can unlock the entire game for the princely sum of $9.99.
Now, if there's any company whose brands could command a high premium price for a mobile game, it would be Nintendo. But $10 for an endless runner game? That seems like a big ask, when there are plenty of free runners out there. Sure, it's a big discount from a 3DS game at $30, but that's not the point of comparison that most mobile gamers will be making. They'll be looking at free games, or maybe something like Minecraft Pocket Edition at $5.99 -- which seems like it packs in far more value than an endless runner, no matter the IP doing the running.
Of course, we don't actually know how much content there is that you'll get for your $10, nor how many hours of play you'd expect to get. Perhaps the game is a really good value at $10, delivering dozens of hours of game play. That seems unlikely, though, given the genre. It's not like it's a deep strategy game, or an RPG, or even a sophisticated platformer. What we saw demoed looked pretty simple, and not enough to justify the price.
Perhaps Nintendo can indeed command that price, and sell millions of units at $10. That would be great for the industry -- with Nintendo leading the way, we could make premium mobile games a real thing and not just a fluke. Let's hope that is what occurs.
I'm doubtful, though, because I think mobile gamers are less concerned about the brand and more about value. I think Nintendo will easily get millions of downloads, but getting people to drop $10 will be much, much harder. I don't think the problem is $10 per se, though there are few apps of any kind that demand that. It's a value question -- do you really get your money's worth? More than 20 million people have paid for Minecraft Pocket Edition at $5.99, so it can be done. But compare what you get for $6 to what Nintendo is offering for $10, and I don't think Nintendo compares very well.
Now, one of the many great advantages of digital distribution is that price changes are easy. Nintendo could (and should!) experiment with its price point to find the optimum level -- the point at which Nintendo maximizes its revenue for Super Mario Run. (In other words, selling 100,000 units at $10 each is not as good as selling 20 million units at $1 each.) That optimum level may be $10, or it may be $1, or $5. Only testing would reveal that. That said, I'm doubtful Nintendo will actually test various prices, because that's something they are not used to at all. I'd like to be pleasantly surprised, though.
While the upside for the $9.99 price is that it may help others in the mobile game business charge more for premium games, there's also a possible downside: Nintendo could create a great deal of ill will towards themselves and their brands if the value isn't there. The company's first mobile "game" Miitomo was a pretty clear failure, though it really wasn't a game per se (another mistake -- why should a game company release something that isn't a game, especially as their first foray into mobile games?). Nintendo might be hurting their future titles like Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem (both announced for mobile, coming sometime next year) if Super Mario Run is a big disappointment.
We'll see. I think Nintendo is trying to create mobile games that are very different from its handheld console games, to avoid cutting into those sales. That's a remarkably shortsighted idea, though. Here's a simple piece of data that should convince you why that is: Pokemon GO has been downloaded or 500 million times. That's an order of magnitude more than any Pokemon game, ever, and more than all of them combined by several times. So why in hell wouldn't Nintendo give up low-margin hardware and just make killer mobile games (with a very high margin) that can attract an audience at least ten times larger than any they've ever had?
OK, hedge your bets a bit and do one or two mobile games first to demonstrate you can actually do that well before you give up on hardware. I can see that. But Nintendo's Switch is never going to sell more than a tiny fraction of the number of smartphones out there, and therefore any Switch game will be microscopic in sales compared to a good mobile game. There are no multiple mobile games that generate over a billion dollars a year in revenue with a profit margin greater than 50%. No Nintendo game has ever generated that sort of profit, and few indeed have ever created that kind of revenue.
It's going to be a very interesting product launch to watch, and come January we should have some idea of how successful it is.