Freemium unlocks are dead. Dead dead dead. Nintendo just proved why they do not work, in one stunning example. The Wall Street Journal's Takashi Mochizuki reports on a Nintendo earnings call that Super Mario Run [Free] has gotten 150 million downloads, but Fire Emblem Heroes [Free] has brought in more revenue on less than 10% of the downloads. That's right, folks, we live in a reality where a Fire Emblem game can out-perform a Mario game. Nintendo says that their goal was for 10% of Super Mario Run players to pay for the game, but they haven't reached that yet.

The lesson is here is that the freemium business model doesn't work. It combines the two biggest downsides of trying to sell mobile games: the limited revenue generation of a one-time game purchase, and the paid-user conversion struggle of free-to-play. When not even Nintendo, with a brand-new Mario game on mobile, can struggle with revenue generation to the point where a Fire Emblem game is making more money, it should be clear to everyone who participates in the mobile games industry: stop making freemium games. For readers, I know this is rough since it's a very consumer-friendly business model. But unfortunately, it just does not work that well. Not for tiny indies trying to make it in the market, and not for Nintendo with a freaking Mario game.

  • Ash1138

    Anecdotal evidence that ignores the fact that the game just isn't very good. The only proof this article offers is that less than 10% paid for Mario. Freemium isn't the problem. Uninteresting games are.

    • Mr. Charley

      Completely agree. Totally does not take into consideration that the Mario game might just not be what the masses wanted regardless of its payment just wasn't anything special...and truthfully only a Mario game in name. It was a far cry from the Mario games that most people grew up with and loved

    • Yavga

      Yeah, it isn't really the hard evidence that the article likes to make it look like is it? There are so many more important factors to weigh in. Let's try to figure them out first before jumping to easy conclusions that aren't accurate per sé.

    • Jared Nelson

      It is the biggest of many, many, many examples over the years. Free with one time unlock has not worked for a very long time. As an aside, I love Super Mario Run and think it's a fantastic game, as do a lot of other people.

    • Zachery Jensen

      Same thing that came to mind for me as well. I actually paid for Super Mario Run but kind of regret it. It doesn't become more interesting and fun as you go, it just becomes more asinine and annoying. Part of it is autorunners just suck, but, bottom line is it's not fun. I don't know anyone personally who was convinced by the "free" levels. I only bought it because I'm sort of a Nintendo fanboy I guess.

      Fire Emblem is a much better representation of its genre, though, I did get bored of it mainly due to the intense level of repetition required to make any progress. But, if I have any inclination to put time into an SRPG on my phone it's pretty much still the go-to. And I'd say so far it's the best example I've seen of a mobile game making me want to play the "real" games much more. I've played some of the real Fire Emblem games in the past and this mobile game regularly makes me think "shit, I should go give that another run-through."

      Perhaps ironically Super Mario Run kinda has a similar effect but in a much more negative way. It makes me think "god this is terrible compared to literally every mario platformer ever. I should just put SMW on here with an emulator."

    • Doctorossi

      I came here to post this. I didn't fail to "convert" on Super Mario Run because of its freemium business model; I failed to convert because it wasn't what I want from a Mario game. Make the Mario game I want to buy and I'll freemium it so fast your head will spin. A single title is too small a sample size for the "study" this article is performing.

    • bilboad

      I agree. I actually suspect that Dotson's conclusion is correct: that on mobile, F2P games have greater earning potential than one-time unlocks. However I don't think this single example is the slam-dunk argument that the author seems to think it is. I personally loved SMR and felt like I easily got $10 worth of fun from it. However I can think of other pretty likely explanations for why it didn't sell so well other than the payment model. For example, maybe if it was sold for $5 instead of $10, or if it was more like a typical Mario game, it might have done better? I don't know the answer, but Dotson doesn't provide any evidence that he knows the answer either.

      • Eli Hodapp

        What's amusing is that over the years we've posted post mortem after post mortem from developers who did the one-time unlock thing and failed. Yet, each time we post one, we get the same comments of "Oh well this is just one example, there's many reasons why this game didn't do well." If you've been paying attention, this is a recurring trend, which, amusingly enough, is always dismissed as anecdotal because we shouldn't take THIS specific instance as any kind of indicator of an actual problem.

      • TigerMoth

        I bet if they had offered an unlock of an actual Mario game, we would be having an entirely different conversation.

      • Eli Hodapp

        Easy there, tiger. Your edit triggered our spam filter, but I appreciate how little you think of us that this is the conclusion you'd immediately jump to.

      • TigerMoth

        And, another reply that was completely deleted. Nothing spammy. Just not agreeing.

      • Eli Hodapp

        Comments are not always posted instantly. Please settle down.

      • Von Strubel

        This is probably true, but SMR being a lackluster and quite uninteresting game for many also is true. So it still is a somewhat bad example.

      • Eli Hodapp

        Oddly enough people find a reason for why every one of these we post is a bad example. 🙂

      • Doctorossi

        Maybe, then, you should prepare an article that actually compares a number of single-unlock freemium titles (of various success levels) with a number of free-to-play titles (also of various success levels). However many other articles you've posted, this is still an article that extrapolates a SINGLE example of the business model. This is the reason studies that want to draw conclusions about an entire category look at more than one example of that category.

      • Eli Hodapp

        Good idea, I'll be curious to see how people spin that into why all those examples don't count. 🙂

      • TigerMoth

        Actually, the numbers will definitely come out in favor of F2P. My issue is not that premium games make more money; or even as much. My issue is that F2P shouldn't because it is a bad deal for most gamers, and Toucharcade is part of the problem as I put articles like this into the category of propaganda.

      • Bill Madison

        The plural of anecdote is not data.

        But perhaps a story on the trend instead of one that states that the conclusion is *proved* in one stunning example would garner different responses.

      • bilboad

        I'm not saying it isn't true that the pay model doesn't work well on mobile. I'm just saying that Carter's assertion that "Nintendo just proved why they do not work" is unwarranted. I think you just made a much better argument than this article did. If you pick any single example of a one-time unlock that didn't do well, then I think it's completely justified to question whether we really know what caused that particular game to do poorly. However if you can show that most games which use a one-time unlock sell poorly, regardless of their quality, then you've got a good argument, since now your argument is based on data instead of just a single anecdote.

      • Luigi_Mario

        Correct, it is not even remotely debatable. All you have to do is look at the list of top grossing apps.

      • moominzo

        That would be a good article to read - examples of freemium unlock games (big and small releases) that haven't worked, and why.. and any examples of freemium unlock that have worked, and why.. because I've paid for unlocks in the past, but didn't with Mario because, as others said, the free levels weren't very interesting, and I'm not keen on autorunners. So i think there's more to it than freemium unlock as an issue per se, and it might be nice to hear you guys' analysis.

      • Edwin Ramirez

        But how many of those developers had a name as big as Nintendo? And a IP as big as Super Mario? When are we going to face the fact that Nintendo screwed up by thinking people would blindly throw money to them?
        Really? When are we going to face the fact that $10 was asking too much and that if they lowered that to 3 or 5 then maybe they would have reach that 10% they wanted?

    • Sloany

      The only reason I came into the comments was to say this exact thing. It's purely down to mario being a poor gaming experience. Don't get me wrong I was soo looking forward to mario on my phone but when I played it I was totally let down. Not only did I not want to pay to unlock more content to play, I didn't even want to play the free content!

  • leogodoy

    Have you considered that this has nothing to do with the model but with the fact that the game is not good? Had the original mario, with its suberb lvl 1-1, used a similar model, I bet more people would have paid to unlock the full game.

  • Yavga

    Wait, how is freemium consumer friendly? I fail to understand, as freemium usually comes along with addiction exploitating gameplay...

    • Carter Dotson

      Theree's a reason I said "freemium unlocks" as I mean the business model of "free to download with a one-time unlock" much like Super Mario Run. Versus the free-to-play model of Fire Emblem Heroes.

      • Yavga

        Right, thanks for clearing that up!

    • Tom Kidd

      I think he means freemium as in one-time unlocking, like SMR does. That's consumer friendly.

    • Sebastian Gomez

      Free download turning into premium content via IAP. That's the most consumer-friendly model I know of.

      Players get to try the games and decide whether they purchase or not, based on how they think the core game and initial content is.

      The problem is that making games is a business, so freemium might not be developer-friendly, because it means more work which might not end up being paid for.

      F2P allows the developer to make not so deep games (which probably require less work) and exploit users' "addiction" to the basic mechanics they offer. It's just natural that someone who likes a F2P enough to spend money on, will end up paying many times the price of a single purchase premium unlock.

      And still, games vary according to their price. Pay an upfront price for a premium game and you'll have a set amount of time you'll be able to play it until you clear it (unless you play it many times). F2P will probably be a model in which people will just struggle endlessly to climb leaderboards or collect every card/character/monster in the game, based on a sense of "satisfaction" which comes at a random dose...

      Anyway... I don't know what I just said.

      SMR =! FEH.

  • Glen McKnight

    It is definitely a difficult thing to accept. It makes sense, but I think we like to imagine that people will pay for good content, even if they have to pay a lot up front.

    But I often compare it to any consumable in the real world. Coffee costs $2-5 every time you go to starbucks. And we all understand that. No one expects to be able to pay them $100 and drink coffee for life for free. And we all know if a coffee shop tried that, we would all instinctively know its not going to work.

    But it has taken a while for it to sink in in this market. I think its mostly because the biggest performers use the model in what many consider "greedy" ways, but it doesn't mean they are wrong. Let's just all work to understand why free 2 play works, and make better games that use it as a model. We don't have to compete with Clash of Clans, or be Candy Crush to respect how people want to play and spend their money.

    • Modjular

      I really agree. He only way forward seems to be making more respectable FTP modelsz

    • Paul

      The issue is that IAP becomes the gameplay driver.

  • Ethan Einhorn

    As a consumer, I just can't get behind games that combine heavy-handed habituation techniques with gambling mechanics and uncapped spending. There's simply no time for that in a world that also offers Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the go. Thank goodness a different block of customers have voted with their dollars to make the Switch a smash hit, eh? No virtual currency, no sunsetting, no problems. That's where all of my mobile dollars will be going in 2017 and beyond.

    • Jared Nelson

      I too own a Switch and play it constantly, and yet that has not prevented me from enjoying the literally hundreds of fantastic mobile games that are to my liking and ignoring the ones that aren't ¯_(ツ)_/¯

      • Ethan Einhorn

        Thanks for the reply! Perhaps a softer way to express my sentiment is that premium mobile gaming is still very much alive, and it is embraced enthusiastically by consumers... on other platforms (like the Switch and 3DS). Since I've learned that F2P games aren't for me, I'm glad there are still mobile platforms that cater to my tastes.

      • Jared Nelson

        That's the thing though. I have hundreds of non-F2P games on my phone that I could never finish them all in an entire lifetime. I enjoy those games, and I enjoy my Switch, and I enjoy my Xbox. It is not a zero sum game, all these platforms can exist alongside each other and offer different experiences.

      • Ethan Einhorn

        I'm giving this one to you, Jared. Your position is more reasonable and grounded than mine. In my excitement over Switch, I somehow forgot about magical experiences like Lara Croft Go, Badland 2, and Leo's Fortune.... and even non-whale hunting F2P games like Pktball. Thanks for pulling me off the ledge :).

      • Paul

        Sadly though for mobile, dev's will see the IAP model as more successful and Premium could potentially die, albeit slowly, on mobile. Which would be a shame.

    • Mike Walko

      I feel like there are good experiences on both sides of the fence. I love both Horizon Zero Dawn and Monster Strike.

      P.S. - Still friends with Chris after taking a look at RUA3? Just kidding.

      • Ethan Einhorn

        Ha. Yes, Chris is a good sport on this topic... We discussed why as a parent I define F2P as a 21+ activity (like gambling and alcohol) in the newest Player One Podcast. 🙂

    • Doctorossi

      If the Switch was actually portable in a way that worked for me (pocketable size, screen protection, better battery life, etc.), I'd be all over it.

  • Sebastian Gomez

    Even if they had made the same SMR using a F2P model, FEH would still have over-earned.

  • Joshua Taylor

    Um.. both games are freemium. Mario Run is a free-with-paid-unlock game, and Fire Emblem Heroes is a free-with-gacha game.

  • YankeeBlue000

    I don't think freemium unlocks are completely dead. It just has to be done right. Paying $10 for a runner and not necessarily the kind of classic Mario gameplay people were expecting is what hampered sales, I think. I think if it had a $2.99 or maybe even $4.99 price tag it would've done better. All-in-All a f2p is always going to win out in sales just because people don't want to spend any money

  • bpcookson

    I've paid for both, but never finished SMR because FEH came out and that's all I play on my phone. And somehow I struggled to pay $10 for the former yet have no problem throwing the same disposable income at the latter hand over fist. And for reference, I generally don't ever spend money on F2P games except for two exceptions: FEH and previously Hearthstone. They're just good games that I sink a lot of time into so spending a hundo seems ok.

  • qubetrader

    Agreed that the mario game just isn't any good. All other mario's=jump on top of enemy. This Mario, climb on top of enemy and then jump off. Um, no thanks.

  • Brendan Charles

    What is dead may never die. But rises again harder and stronger.

    I laugh every time some random writer claims something is "officially dead." I didn't know we had prophetic journalists here on Toucharcade.

  • Doctor Malcom

    Here's an easy way to get more than 10% of people to pay for Mario: drop it to $4.99 instead.

    • Doctorossi

      It's an unappealing game to me. I'd no sooner pay $5 for it than $10. If it was the kind of Mario game I want, I would happily pay $20 for it.

      • Edwin Ramirez

        It wasn't a good Mario game but at least it was a decent mobile game. I would pay 3 dollars just for going through all the levels but the idea of grinding the same levels over and over again ain't the idea of fun to me.

  • Tim

    This sentence doesn't make sense: "When not even Nintendo, with a brand-new Mario game on mobile, can struggle with revenue generation to the point where a Fire Emblem game is making more money, it should be clear to everyone who participates in the mobile games industry: stop making freemium games."

    • bilboad

      Yeah, I think the author confused his point a bit by saying "Freemium" several times when he meant "free with one-time unlock". By the normal definition of "Freemium" at least as used on this site, I would say "Fire Emblem Heroes" is a Freemium game, and SMR is "free with unlock". So I think he unintentionally said the opposite of what he meant to say in a few places.

  • MarsMachine

    I can't speak for Hero Emblems, never downloaded it but I agree Marion Run was just no good. I played two-three runs, unlocked the full version for 10 bucks, played another two-three runs and never touched it since. Sorry, it just isn't fun! And no, I don't wanna collect every orb (in different colours) in a game! I gladly paid 7 bucks on the 3ds virtual console to play the original mario. They could have ported that and made TONS of cash. Yes, using a better model. Free with ads. Then coindoubler, extra lives, save points IAP to disable ads. I just spent over 10 bucks on the free indie game Guns of Mercy. So simple but so much fun! I keep playing & paying. Nintendo tried too hard to make a mobile, one-handed, suited to baby/kids/adults/seniors game... Just make a fun game that you as a dev want to play! Don't market research the thing to death! Rant over, sorry.

  • TigerMoth

    What premium gamers need is a mobile gaming site that showcases premium gaming successes, and their inherent advantages for real gamers rather publishing premium post-mortem after post-mortem. When I find a site like that, THEY can have my Patreon money.

  • Mrbestapps

    Maybe If super mario run wasn't built as a free2play game, it would have done better.

  • Fade to Slack

    There were two factors at play. The unlock was basically a demo. That demo was unimpressive. I was pretty excited for the game, but that demo was enough to kill all that excitement. I'm sure people who paid had a good time, but I wasn't betting ten bucks on it.

    I think, had they just made it a fully premium experience, it would have sold better. However, they wanted those insanely high download numbers to create buzz. Instead, it became, "Yeah, I played that. It seemed kind of lame, so I deleted it."

    Fire Emblem, though, just banks off of gachapon pulls and hope exploitation. I don't really NEED any more units, but I definitely WANT more units.

  • fabell

    Arghhhh, I'm so confused! How the heck is his game a top grossing game? What the heck are people buying?! It only has one currency and you can freaking earn that currency in-game (that's what I've been doing). I've already got more heroes than I know what to do with. Using up all your stamina takes a freakishly long time, so unless people are sitting at home and basically spamming the crud out of lunatic difficulty, who is spending this money? Or is this basically Nintendo spending money as an investment in their own game to keep it at the top of the charts? I'm not normally one for conspiracies but when you compare this game with any other game on the store, you barely need to break open even your wallet to have a good time with this one.

    • Wizpiggleton


  • Bill Madison

    Runners are officially dead.

  • Eli Hodapp


  • Reignmaker

    Now that I can play Zelda Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart 8 on-the-go with the Switch, Nintendo's mobile offerings have been rendered completely irrelevant...practically overnight.

    If not for Hearthstone, mobile gaming would basically be irrelevant to me. I now have zero incentive to go back to Angry Birds, Clash of Clans and its ilk.

  • zinkdogg

    I enjoyed Super Mario Run for what it was. Biggest disappointment for me was the online connection. I think the game needs more levels too. I really don't see why they won't put out a more traditional "Mario" game. Not an auto runner. A remake of the original NES games would sell way better!

  • Cameron Mulder

    I was really looking forward to Fire Emblem on mobile, but the game is horrible, being a mash up of everything I hate about mobile games. Now Super Mario Run was something I wasn't expecting to care for but actually love it. It is probably one of my favorite mobile games.

    I really hope this doesn't force Nintendo to shift everything towards the crappy Fire emblem heroes type games...

  • DunHiLa Craftera

    This is perhaps the worst article I have ever read on Toucharcade.It doesn't prove anything and also has a grammatical mistake in the second paragraph which baffles me for such a small amount of text.The reason Marion didn't sell so well is because people had the chance to test the game before buying it and they ended up not liking the gameplay,you just tap the screen to make Mario run-it's a simple runner game that doesn't do anything new and gets boring quick and not to mention that the game costs 10USD to unlock,there aren't that many people who would spend such an amount on a runner game.
    Fire Emblem Heroes on the other hand is an RPG,that has turn based strategical combat. The game has a campaign and and is more complex than the Mario mobile game,that is why it is doing far better.Even I downloaded the game today and played it to find it quite interesting because you can also collect heroes and it's damn addictive to play.

    I get Toucharcade pushing the free-to-play narrative on us time and time again but just like before I thing most people aren't buying it.There are thousands upon thousands of free-to-play games out there that haven't made any serious revenue even being user friendly and even some of them skipping on most timers-one example is Galaxy on Fire 3,that game is not doing well on the Appstore and general interest in it has died rather quick.The reason for that is because GOF3 lacked what most of the hardcore GOF fans wanted from the game therefore making it a bad game and that is why it isn't making large amount of money for DeepSilverFishlabs.(yes the logic isn't that sound but I am doing my research half-assed just like in this Toucharcade article)

    So again-the premium model isn't dead Toucharcade,stop trying so hard to make us believe it.

  • Paul

    I would prefer to go back to just Premium and demo versions. IAP is a bane as it becomes the deciding gameplay factor. IAP games are NOT about trying to provide the best gaming experience, it's about rinsing the player to get through it.

    Mario's freemium model isn't great either and just an extension of digital making any long term gaming purchase impossible.

    /probably old and bitter, but like to collect games.

  • Dahaka_101

    Instead of a 9,99 freemium game, Mario Run should have been a 2,99 premium game from the start. The 9,99 price point is just to expensive for mobile games.

  • Devoid21

    Freemium doesn't work for the same reason demos don't work. For some reason giving people the chance to test out a game leads to lower sales almost always.

    • Nightxx

      The people who pushed the download button were baited into thinking the game was actually free. I believe providing a demo is pretty healthy for both the consumer and developer. Otherwise you going to see a lot of people asking for refunds if the game happen to be underwhelming/ broken/ etc.

  • schail

    Premium games just don't work on mobile. I am with the toucharcade writers on this one.

    How many of those premium games stay on the ios revenue chart for at least longer than a month these days? Exactly. None or close to none. And what do people want with their $5 money? Continues updates. Yeah sure that helps the gamers but never the developers. It's just not enough for them to even make a living unless it's a one man developer.

    The point about the Mario Run game that I think is that, it just sent a clear message to top developers to not take this route. Thing is $10 might be pricy for the usual mobile gamers but not even close from Nintendo's perspective who are so used to charging people quadruple for their games. Sure the game isn't what we expected. But so was the fire emblem game but look where that got them. Continues revenue stream flowing in to their pockets. Both of them were disappointing efforts but the latter is performing as they have expected.

    The Mario Run might not be a $10 worth of a mobile game since lots of mobile gamers are so used to paying so less for premium games but it might have been much less of a disappointment should it have released on a console platform. I mean if you pay around $10 in that platform, you usually don't have high expectations at all. Not saying the console gaming scene is superior or anything but just to clarify that mobile gamers 'in general' just won't pay enough for premium titles compared to the console gamers. That includes lots of you that are both mobile and console gamers just like me. Might be the small screen, inferior control scheme, sound systems or whatever the reason that make the mobile gaming experience not so premium enough for gamers. The important thing is the neither the freemium nor premium model is going to survive in the modern mobile gaming world.

    Will we ever see a true premium nintendo game on the IOS ever? Highly unlikely when Switch is doing so well. And why should they? They don't need to give apple the 30% cut when they have a solid gaming platform with high spending gamers on board. I think it's time we accept it's a losing game for people that only buy premium games on mobile since there are so few of us who actually end up spending.

    • Nightxx

      Please go check mobile game earnings and come back. You're pretty much clueless or living under a rock.

      • schail

        Have you checked those stats really? Its only the gacha freemiums that are racking up the revenue. Obviously you don't read anything thoroughly.

      • Nightxx

        Premium titles can do well too if done correctly and they gave people what they anticipated.

        Its pretty evident why SMR didn't do great... had it been a faithful Mario game the numbers could have been off the charts but Nintendo got what they deserved for being a stubborn mule...

      • schail

        The question would be how well? Right? F2P games earn millions of dollars per day if they are in the top 5 spot. How many downloads does a premium title require to reach that number then? Say you price your game at $5. To reach a similar number compared to F2P top games you need 500,000 people downloading your game each day. How long can that last? How many updates do you have to make to keep people happy that just paid $5 and want to have 100+ playing hours? You just can't keep up with the F2P model anymore.

        It's simple math and that fact gives developers zero or close to zero incentive(porting might make sense) to release an original premium title in the mobile gaming world.

      • Nightxx

        That same analogy can be applied to titles on pc where your main revenue comes from one time purchases and dlc second.
        The better the game perceived by the masses the better numbers you get, the more returns you get back.

      • Nightxx

        Also, why are Nintendo upset about not reaching their presumed goal. I'm pretty positive they made more than $50 million after the price cuts that came at a fraction cost to develop this simple game with re-used game assets.

  • melvin2898

    They should have just put Mario on mobile. Nintendo tried so hard to make it a unique experience when all people wanted was Mario, not Mario The Runner.

    Fire Emblem Heroes is definitely different from the main games but I play it almost everyday. I deleted Mario.

  • Nightxx

    Total downloads means literally nothing; one can download and literally delete it the next second. What they should be doing is comparing the numbers server-wise ( people who actually play the games). This is the reason why Mario got numbers with no merit as apposed to FE.

    • DunHiLa Craftera

      Agree with you but Toucharcade half-assed this article and won't comment on post such as yours.

  • Edwin Ramirez

    When are we going to face the fact that Nintendo screwed up by thinking people would blindly throw money to them?
    Really? When are we going to face the fact that $10 was asking too much and that if they lowered that to 3 or 5 then maybe they would have reach that 10% they wanted?

    • DunHiLa Craftera

      Go explain this to Toucharcade staff who half-assed this article.

    • Nightxx

      I'm pretty certain if the opened a virtual gateway in the AppStore or GooglePlay they would make millions from these old titles. People are already emulating their shit for free on these platforms so why not make it a source of revenue instead.

      Its the same old story with music / movies / tv shows before iTunes existed. iTunes filled that gap and made it legal to download and obtain digital media. The same with Steam and other platforms. Lets face it, Nintendo by its own cannot reach to one billion users they will forever remain limited to the customers who own their branding.

  • Matthew White

    Perhaps if it wasn't a sucky one-button casual game.

  • kreylix

    Just because these games are Nintendo branded doesn't mean they should be compared like you are doing.

    Buying rest of game Buying orbs to acquire (hopefully) better Heroes.

  • Chowderbatter

    (A *GOOD*) Zelda on iOS or GTFO, Nintendo.