Both of Nintendo’s mobile game payment models are fine

Super Mario Run

In the past decade, smartphones have rapidly developed into these incredibly innovative devices that are more powerful than one might have ever imagined for a gadget that fits into the palm of your hand. Obviously, all that power has to be used for something; it doesn’t take much to make a phone call or send a text. Multitasking between the web, productivity tools, social media, and media streaming are some of the most common ways to use a smartphone to its full potential, but surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly) mobile gaming has also taken a strong foothold among users as well.

Although many smartphones have specs that can rival and even outperform traditional computers, the way mobile games are developed and played are held to different standards than that of PCs or consoles. Oftentimes, mobile games are free – to start, at least – but mobile games can sometimes require in-app purchases to progress past a certain point. While this isn’t always a problem, sometimes it can be. In a recent segment on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, entertainer Jack Black revealed that his son fell victim to these in-app purchases in a game targeted towards children, racking up a massive $3,000 bill on in-game currency.

Speaking from personal experience, companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon have done a much better job cracking down on these “unauthorized” in-app purchases over the years. It isn’t hard to receive refunds. However, it’s important to note that not all charges are made by unknowing children. Many times, these in-app purchases are made by adults who are free to spend their money as they choose, sometimes getting addicted and willingly spend thousands in the process. It’s not hard to see why games like this keep popping up despite their exploitative nature.

When Nintendo announced last year that they would start making mobile games, there was a question of which model the company would go with. Nintendo has employed the use of microtransactions in some of their more modern console games like Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart 8, keeping some characters and DLC behind an additional paywall, albeit not game-breaking. It was possible for Nintendo to head down that route if they wanted. As it turned out, they didn’t at first.

For their first mobile title, Super Mario Run, the process was pretty simple: You can download the game for free and play the first three levels, but if you want to progress through the story beyond that, you’ll need to pay $10 to unlock everything. While some might consider $10 a steep price – especially for a mobile game - I think it’s an acceptable asking price for a solid mobile-optimized Mario game. Additionally, the game has already gone on sale for $5 at one point, and there was an update included to add more content just a year after its launch at no extra cost.

Super Mario Run

But Nintendo received a lot of flak for asking $10 for the game (and probably more for inexplicably requiring an Internet connection to play, despite the game being mostly a singer-player experience). Since Super Mario Run, Nintendo has released two more mobile games: Fire Emblem Heroes and, as of yesterday, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. These games deviate from the “freemium” model of Super Mario Run and instead are considered free-to-play with optional microtransactions.

Fire Emblem Heroes players can pay between $1.99 and $74.99 at a time to purchase orbs, the “hard currency” of the game, and users can buy them as often as they like. However, as one player found out after spending $1,000 in the game, even spending an exorbitant amount of money won’t guarantee you a complete set of heroes when randomly generated outcomes are involved. Fortunately, there are ways of earning orbs for free just by playing, and many people find that the game is perfectly enjoyable without spending a dime.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp operates similarly, albeit the microtransactions don’t reach as high for a single purchase. Users can spend between $0.99 and $39.99 at a time to buy Leaf Tickets, the Animal Crossing equivalent to Fire Emblem’s Orbs. Obviously, I haven’t played Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp for more than a day, but there appears to be no shortage of opportunities to earn Leaf Tickets in the game. Judging by Fire Emblem Heroes, I expect people will be able to have a great time on the game without spending any money if they don’t want to.

That said, I’m torn between Nintendo’s two models. Given the choice of paying a reasonable set price or being able to play for free with the option of paying for microtransactions, I prefer the set price. But that’s adult me with a job talking. Children, on the other hand, don’t always have the option of using real money for games, so being free-to-play with optional microtransactions appears to be the best scenario to give everybody a chance to enjoy the game regardless of wealth status. Interestingly enough, free-to-play with in-app purchases is also the model that makes the most money, even when you pit one successful Nintendo franchise against another.

I’m not the biggest fan of microtransactions in general, but as long as those microtransactions don’t involve game-breaking benefits (where the game is heavily skewed in favor of those with real cash to spend, thus becoming less "free-to-play" and more "pay-to-win"), then I find that they’re easy to ignore. Overall, I agree with Nintendo’s stance that a one-time purchase a la Super Mario Run is more consumer-friendly, but their free-to-play models are equally as enjoyable in my opinion, and I haven’t paid anything towards either one (and am admittedly having a really good time with Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp). I think Nintendo has done a good job with their mobile game lineup so far and look forward to checking out titles they release in the future.

Readers, what are your thoughts on Nintendo’s two mobile game models? Do you think that a one-time purchase is preferable to free-to-play with optional in-app purchases, or the other way around? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!