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Opinion: Nintendo Might Have Finally Hit the Mobile Jackpot with ‘Fire Emblem Heroes’

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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.

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