Just under two years ago, Nintendo announced a partnership with DeNA to bring their games to mobile devices. It was a huge deal for two reasons. First, Nintendo would be developing games for non-Nintendo hardware for the first time since the 1980s. Second, they would be entering a sector of the games industry that they had very little experience in, one that presents a very different challenge from what they might be used to. Depending on who you asked in the wake of that announcement, Nintendo was either going to completely change the mobile market, or totally sell out their cherished brands to the free-to-play mobile devil.

Their first release ended up not really going in either direction. Miitomo [Free] was a quirky social networking app featuring Nintendo's well-known Mii avatar characters. It was free to download and use, with some IAP for tickets that could be used to try to win cosmetic items for your avatar. It was also imminently Nintendo, with all the benefits and drawbacks that implies. For everything it lacked in terms of ease-of-use and common sense features, it almost made up for with its charm and polish. Almost. Miitomo did quite well in the beginning, and for what it was, it did okay overall, but it dropped off fast. It was not a product well-suited for mobile audiences who, even without downloading a single other app, already had several ways of communicating with their friends, and with fewer limitations at that.

Amusingly, the guiding light for Nintendo's future mobile releases came not from within their own walls, but through a third-party game using a brand they maintain partial ownership in. Pokemon GO [Free] was a phenomenon the likes of which we've rarely seen in the history of gaming. For a couple of months, it was everywhere. Even after cooling down, it has still hung around persistently in the top grossing charts. Even better, it generated excitement for the overall brand, boosting sales on all kind of Pokemon goods up to and including Nintendo's 3DS games. Pokemon GO could not have succeeded to nearly that extent without the brand attached, but it also wouldn't have gone over half as well if it weren't on mobile phones. Pokemon GO is designed around mobile phones, not just in terms of technology and input capabilities, but in terms of how people use their phones.

One of the big questions about Nintendo's entry into the mobile market was as to how they could balance seemingly opposing interests. There is absolutely no question that mobile has bitten off a significant portion of the dedicated handheld gaming market, a sector that has long served as Nintendo's safe harbor when the home console seas get too choppy. Doing half a job on the mobile side is nearly pointless, as Sony has already discovered. At the same time, the main selling point of Nintendo's hardware is that, well, it's the only place to find Nintendo games. How can you put a proper effort into making games when common sense says that doing so will hurt your own hardware business?

Pokemon GO offered an answer to that problem. A carefully-designed mobile game using the brand can serve as a hit money-maker and send players back into Nintendo's ecosystem. Not only can they co-exist, but they can thrive off of each other. The only trick is that if the balance is off even a little bit, you'll end up devaluing the main product or wasting money on a mobile dud. For their part, Nintendo seemed to have identified two of their more mobile-friendly brands when they announced their next two games would be based on Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to picture either of them succeeding on mobile.

Instead, Nintendo decided to turn to their big gun for their next release, bumping the others down the line a bit. Super Mario Run [Free] wasn't a bad effort by any means, but Nintendo once again tried to drag the mobile market to them. While it looks like it was originally designed as a free-to-play game, at some point Nintendo must have lost their nerve and opted to make it free-to-start with a hard paywall that could be removed with a single IAP. This is not typically a very successful model in the mobile market.

To their credit, they did better with it than just about anyone who isn't Nintendo could have. For all the complaints about the pay model, those who bought the full game unlock were generally quite pleased with what they got, and we did see a bit of a boost for Mario game sales on Nintendo's own platforms. Still, like most paid games, Super Mario Run tailed off fairly quickly. Nintendo has said they were slightly disappointed with its performance, which suggests that they overestimated Mario's capability to swim against the tide.

Both Miitomo and Super Mario Run show Nintendo trying to make the mobile audience come to them, with results that were disappointing, at least to Nintendo and their shareholders. With Fire Emblem Heroes [Free], we see Nintendo taking a very different approach. This game shows a Nintendo that is far more savvy (or perhaps cynical) about the mobile gaming market. Instead of fighting the tide, they're swimming with it, and I suspect it's going to go far better for them.

Embracing a full free-to-play model with stamina meters and random gacha pulls in all of its glory, the basic monetization model of Fire Emblem Heroes doesn't look out of place beside games like Puzzle & Dragons and Monster Strike. It hasn't betrayed the original brand to do that, either. Rather, it feels like the designers came at it with the approach of how to wed Fire Emblem's strengths with the kinds of games that the vast majority of mobile players prefer.

It's already making serious bank in the Japanese App Store, which is to be expected to an extent. Social RPGs aren't quite as popular in the West, but the Fire Emblem brand is fairly strong right now, so we'll have to see how that goes. The basic structure of the game is such that it can be updated frequently with new content, which should give it a longer shelf-life than previous Nintendo releases. At the same time, it's definitely a lighter experience than the real thing. For many players, including some that simply don't have the time or inclination for anything heavier, it will be enough. For those wanting a more complete Fire Emblem experience, Nintendo has them covered. It's similar enough to whet the appetite and satisfy some, but different enough that many players will want to drop the money on the full games and perhaps even the hardware to play them.

I believe that Fire Emblem Heroes is going to be Nintendo's first unqualified success on mobile. It has the potential to be a huge earner over a long period of time, and can work both as excellent marketing for upcoming full Fire Emblem releases and to help keep the brand in the minds of players during gaps in the release schedule. It fits the kind of game that is popular in mobile gaming, but is merely a tantalizing snack for the hardcore. While many may lament that Nintendo didn't put a full-priced $40 Fire Emblem game up in the App Store instead of a free-to-play social RPG, I think they made the best call all-around here.

I'll grant that if anyone could have gotten away with that kind of model, it would be Nintendo, but what possible benefit would it serve to their dual goals of making strong profits off of mobile game releases while protecting their own hardware's viability? Nintendo is finally making games that fit the mobile market rather than trying to subvert it, and I suspect they're finally going to see the rewards they were hoping for all along. They would be wise to take a similar route with the upcoming Animal Crossing mobile game, too.

  • curtneedsaride

    Well, I'm bummed because they went with stamina... It's kind of played out. The best solution to get money out of everyone would be to offer an IAP to remove stamina, giving players a choice to spend more upfront to eliminate the forced break or to wait OR to pay a little to refill stamina. The current monetization will result in me paying them nothing for this product. BUT, if I was given the ability to play whenever I want (even though it's online and has many other F2P mechanics), I'd probably consider paying that larger sum for the IAP to remove the stamina. Seems like a no-brainer in pleasing all three types of players: the free player, the casual player, and the premium player.

    • Aaron C

      People in the industry will tell you stamina is not there to get you to pay money.. it's there to get you to play in short bursts and make a habit out of the game. It's to feed into your natural addictive instincts which keep you coming back every day. If they can keep you hooked and coming back every day, then you're much more likely to spend money.

      • WhoaManWtF

        But I have a short attention span, it often ends up with me forgetting about it.

      • Aaron C

        Maybe for you... but averaged over the population.. it works 😉

      • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

        Maybe you personally, but the numbers don't lie.

      • JamGela

        I really enjoy the stamina and timer based games! I use to spend hundreds of hours in MMORPGs and I really couldn't play anything else because all my time would be wrapped up in 1 game. Now i play about 10 mobile games, twice a day and I burn through all my staminas then go do something else and periodically collect my free items throughout the day!

      • scottsoapbox

        This made me laugh. Stamina meters saved me from my single game addiction and now I have time for multiple games, a job, my family, and even sleep! And it's funny because it's true. We all know/were someone that disappeared into a game so long friends started to worry. I personally dislike F2P, but that is an actual positive to stamina meters. Kudos.

      • CodeREd

        I agree with WhoaManWtF actually. In the short term it may become a habit coming back to the game throughout the day. But as time goes on and you download more games to your mobile you eventually forget about it.

      • mabus51

        Haven't seen a new mobile game since 2009. Just reskins of the same thing constantly begging for money to remove a timer or refill a health/stamina bar.

      • Zaraf

        Very good point. Also if there is no stamina meter, people tend to play the game a bunch and burn themselves out on it instead of slow nibbles. Stamina systems are good for long term playing.

      • curtneedsaride

        Guess I'm just more disciplined then. I'm about to beat it, having come back to it every day since its release. I'm more a pay-up-front guy. So, they lost with me I guess. I'm sure I'm not the only one who would've paid upfront for a more premium experience, even if characters were still IAP.

    • Saucepolicy

      You will never see an IPA to remove stamina from game developers who understand how game economies work. I don't get why this is so hard for TA commenters to understand. The F2P business model is built upon uncapped microtransactions, in that the minority who are willing to pay subsidize the majority who aren't. Offering an IAP to remove stamina kills a revenue stream from players who would otherwise monetize more, which is necessary to the ongoing support of a live service game. You cannot cater to both premium and F2P players in one app, because each business model has implications on the game's economy that are mutually exclusive. Developers who try end up releasing a product that is for all intents and purposes free. Obviously that's great for players at first, until the revenue dries up, and the developer stops supporting the app completely. Game development is not a charity.

      • curtneedsaride

        Of course it's not a charity. I'm happy to pay $100 for a quality game that won't die because of servers being pulled or whales closing their wallets. I'm just saying that they could offer a free app for those who trick themselves into thinking that they will pay less by buying micro transactions AND they could offer an expensive PREMIUM game for those of us who won't spend money on micro transactions. I would've bought this game for $10-20. But, since that wasn't an option, I've played it completely for free, and am about to finish it. There are a bunch of us TA'ers who have done the same. So, instead of getting my money, they just gave me a free game. It's their loss.

      • boydstr

        So that implies that when you spend money on a game in the AppStore but you have no guarantee whatsoever about how long the game will work?

  • Jerutix

    Yeah, I think they'll do really well with this one, and I think it will also push some towards a more full experience. For Animal Crossing, though, I think they would be better off making that a mobile-only IP. Animal Crossing is basically a MMORPG with simple graphics, which would be so at home on mobile. If they can get the pay balance right, I bet they can hook players on it for years, myself included.

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      Animal Crossing on the 3DS already has gacha mechanics out the whoa, you just can sort of control them if you get involved in the metagame of trading cards with people online. I would be very, very shocked if they didn't do something identical to the amiibo cards in the mobile Animal Crossing.

      • mabus51

        Deleting my posts Eli cause you can't handle truth? REEEE enjoy your free medical that the rest of us pay for you dead beat.

      • spsummer

        You're attacking him over his medical insurance? What is your problem? Maybe find a different site, if this isn't for you.

      • mabus51

        LOL do you have a reading disability? Or do words just generally confuse you? Obviously that wasn't my first post as my first one was deleted. I simply stated AC on mobile will just be happy home designer and you pay to decorate your home with items. There will be no "game". You liberals, tiny minds you have.

      • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

        Nothing is getting deleted, your posts are just getting stuck in the mod queue (or being flagged enough times by other commenters to get kicked back to the mod queue) and I haven't approved them because they're all just as toxic as this one.

    • MintCity

      Amen.

  • Luci0

    I'm just happy to have fire emblem on my phone 🙂 I bought 3ds just to play fire emblem , spent 300$ , but then again fire emblem is my fave, since I first played it so many years ago. I'd like more content always, so hopefully they will keep adding to it

    • mabus51

      At least the 3DS version is an actual game. This is not

  • titivivi

    Add me : 5415511246

  • korkidog

    F2P isn't my thing, so I'll play Fire Emblem on my 3DS and skip this.

    • Peter Kellstrand

      cool story, tell me more.

      • Stormourner of the Nature

        wait....it's you!! I didn't know you were back 😀

  • HelperMonkey

    To draw from Shaun's words in that last paragraph, it's Nintendo's "dual goals of making strong profits off of mobile game releases while protecting their own hardware's viability" that a lot of dedicated mobile gamers miss. We can get myopic and see our preferred platform as the most valuable, and everyone always wants more of what they want where they can get it. But as a business, Nintendo has to find a balance that benefits their brand. They want to be known for making fun and accessible games, they want to be a profitable long term venture, and they want to continue to build on the legacy of video gaming in general that they have historically been a huge part of both in hardware and in software.
    This is not Nintendo selling out and surrendering to the state of the market. This is Nintendo branching out and pursuing a persistent imprint on the market. As long as their focus remains on people having fun with their products, I wish them endless success.

  • rayray307

    Not gonna lie I already spent $12.99

    • curtisrshideler

      For what? Orbs for heroes and upgrades? Not stamina, right?

  • korossyl

    Could someone write a Wikipedia article on "Social RPGs"? I'm still not entirely clear on the concept, but it's well-documented across the internet, and I'm really surprised there's no article yet.

  • Ethan Einhorn

    It's a polished game, and it has a nice core loop, but for fans of the series, Intelligent Systems has done the equivalent of turning chess into checkers. There is no perma-death. If you fail a stage, you can pay to continue - making the product pay-to-win. The small map and limited number of characters you can control in battle make the experience more about the stats of your cards than your strategic skills. Gacha is less consumer friendly and far lower value than the novel solution 3DS provided for Fire Emblem Fates: buying an Amiibo of a legendary character (like Marth), which you can scan in, battle, and add to your team. FE Heroes also requires an internet connection, which makes it vulnerable to sunsetting. It's a real Fire Emblem game, but it's also a series low point - the "Superman IV" or "Phantom Menace" of the series. Play "Fire Emblem Awakening" or "Fire Emblem Fates" on 3DS instead if you can.

    • Shaun James Musgrave

      The funny thing is that I know plenty of FE fans who think of Awakening and Fates as series low points already and would laugh at anyone recommending them. But I think you hit the nail on the head with the chess vs checkers thing. Some people love the simplicity and straightforward nature of checkers. It's enough for them. Others seek out the more complex game using the same board, but why do they seek it out rather than another complex strategy board game like Go? Perhaps because of the familiarity gained through shared iconography with the game they already played.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • boydstr

    In my view Nintendo can do much better when they releasing the well known Nintendo IP's I am gladly paying €15,- for the Nintendo 64 Zelda games.

    • mabus51

      If you want actual Nintendo games, buy a Switch or a 3DS. You won't find any in the phone market.

      • boydstr

        I don't know if you're a sleep but Nintendo released games on the mobile phone market only they are not my type of games.

      • melvin2898

        The mobile games are only met to be advertisement.

      • boydstr

        😳.....

      • http://www.twitter.com/BB8orR2D2 David

        This! I just purchased Fates Birthright for the 3DS. I've never played a FE game before (Heroes on iOS was my first taste), so yes... the game accomplished exactly what Nintendo wanted it to accomplish. It converted a first-time user.

  • Thiago

    Somehow, this made me realize that Pokémon Go won't really get the features I would like it to get, since that would "take me away" of the proper versions on consoles. Even though I understand this, I still think it's a shame that pokego will never become a game on its own. As for FE I have never played any of those titles so I won't be picking one to reminisce of what I never knew, Lol

    • mabus51

      Apps designated as "games" on smartphones aren't. Look elsewhere if you want an actual game.

  • vicsark

    Great piece, even a FE newbie but TBS lover like me enjoys it. FEH does a good job making me want to know more about the series and maybe buying a Nintendo console again one day.
    But I'm still confused about a lot of the items and stats though. A guide would def prove itself useful 😉

  • Luci0

    I fully realize that this is not a "full" fire emblem game like on switch or 3ds or wiiU.. but I DO really like the mobile fire emblem a lot for what it is.. I am having fun. I payed for orbs immediately lol. I haven't played any f2p games or gacha style games, this is my first. And it's ok. I way prefer premium and I pay to support premium (even games I don't like , like Isaac).. I bought and deleted just to support premium. I may actually play it one day too lol. I think like one TA user said, I like to buy games but rarely get to go through the huge backlog of premium games I own. At least I have a 256 gig 7plus to play on so I can keep most on my device lol. Go Nintendo!

  • Modjular

    Yeesh, so much hate over a guy doing something he likes.

  • Reign

    Are Nintendo actually developing these games with DeNA or are they just publishing them and allowing them to use Nintendo's IP's I ask cuz DeNA games seem to be heavy IAP games with step prices.

    • Michal Hochmajer

      DeNA and Nintendo collab.
      My guess?
      Nintendo design document, ip, money, INTELLIGENT SYSTEMS and quality control
      DeNA rest.

      Old article:
      "Indeed, DeNA stated in its operating results that it's "reallocating resources, with a focus on the Nintendo partnership" and that the much anticipated Super Mario Run remains on track for December while Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem are still planned for the 2016 fiscal year. DeNA reportedly has around 100 people internally working on all three Nintendo mobile titles."

      • http://www.twitter.com/BB8orR2D2 David

        I will say one thing... these Nintendo DeNA games are super polished. Everything just works.

  • TigerMoth

    I don't like them either, but you're tilting windmills here. Save your rage for something worthy of it, and go play a game that you like. If you can't find one on mobile, try another platform. We are dinosaurs yelling at the asteroid as it strikes.

  • CyberData4

    I'd rather play the real fire emblem on my 3DS. Manipulative mobile gaming mechanics are the worst and not worth celebrating.

    • boydstr

      But that's understandable a 3DS version of the game sets you back some 40 dollars so an mobile version have mechanics to let people spend money to play the game there is no "F2P"one way or another they have to make money.

      • CyberData4

        Exactly. I'd rather just pay the 40$ up front and have the full game than "free" with "stamina" timers and orbs that hate the user to have to spend far more than 40$ over the long run. I wish the game had a IAP for 40$ to just unlock a full fire emblem experience.

        I have no problem with devs making their money. I just wish it could be done so without compromising the integrity of the game.

  • baldeagle86

    Great article!! I'm too excited for AC mobile though....

    • http://www.twitter.com/BB8orR2D2 David

      Oh heck yeah, Asheron's Call will be SICK on iOS! Or do you mean Assassin's Creed? Or maybe Age of Conan? Or perhaps Ace Combat?

  • boydstr

    Are you sure you are on the right forum? maybe it could all be better but a lot of people have a good time by playing games from the AppStore there is nothing wrong with being critical but the posts you make are all about the fact that mobile gaming are "software packages and money dumps" a little bit short-sighted.