How Nintendo missed the boat with Super Mario Run

- Written by Code Camp co-founder, Ben Levi

So this week millions of people downloaded ‘Super Mario Run’… 

Nintendo had the opportunity of a lifetime

  • Arguably the most recognisable game character ever (Mario)
  • Without a doubt, the greatest ever App Store marketing campaign (clearly a brilliant commercial relationship with Apple!)
  • Releasing just before Christmas and the holiday period 

Where did it all go wrong?

If you’ve read the tech or business press you’d find plenty of articles stating how Nintendo and Super Mario Run have failed to live up to customer expectations. Their share price even dropped a whopping 16% this week!!

So what could Nintendo have done better?

… And what can our Code Camp students learn from Nintendo’s failure with Super Mario Run?

Firstly, let’s go back to basics - what makes a game both engaging and addictive?

On day one at Code Camp we ask our 8-12 year old students a few questions:  Which are their favourite games, why are they fun, why are they addictive, why are others not, and what makes you drive mum and dad crazy to purchase in-app purchases?

There are always many answers, but over the years the apps which keep jumping out are Clash of Clans, Cookie Clicker, Flappy Birds, Angry Birds, Candy Crush, Happy Jump or Crossy Road.

Firstly, note that all of the above are free to download apps (easier to convince mum and dad to download)...

And why are they addictive?  The answers always end up with games which look incredibly simple yet are super easy to fail (or die).  The kids continually want to try one more time to get to the next level or get a higher score. In the tech world we call this ‘gamification’ which is a combination of user experience, psychology, point scoring and game design. 

While these are all incredibly difficult pieces to get right, Nintendo have the experience and resources to hire the best of the best.  For the few who do execute this well, the results are ridiculous.

  • Candy Crush turned over A$3bn in 2015 (yes, billion!)
  • Clash of Clans developer Supercell also turned over A$3bn in 2015

So what can we learn from Super Mario Run?

1.    Look simple, be challenging…

The magic in the original Super Mario Bros., Mario Kart or even Rovio’s Angry Birds is that they look so simple, yet are frustratingly hard enough to keep you just falling short of your expectations… and keeping you always wanting to try ‘just one more time’. (It is with both a touch of pride and embarrassment that I’ll admit to having spent way too much time and having three stars on every level of the original Angry Birds series!)

Another example - Flappy Birds.  A one button, one player, one-hit wonder from nowhere.  It looks so simple until you hit the very first pipe, over and over again!

Now, Super Mario Run is the absolute opposite - you see the first pipe coming your way or a little brown character (Goombas) and you have to do absolutely nothing! What? The game jumps over your enemies for you??  Well that’s kinda boring…

2.      Let your users keep playing for free until they’re absolutely addicted!

Candy Crush have mastered the psychology and user experience of when to first ask for money (in-app purchases) to continue playing.  Just enough gameplay to be totally addicted, but not enough to have had too much.

It’s quite the opposite with Super Mario Run…. after 5 minutes of fairly boring game play the paywall barrier popped up.

3.    What’s your revenue model?

Two levels in and $14.99?! Say what? There is a lot chutzpah in that price tag, and especially the way they’ve gone about asking the amount!

Users are confused - is Super Mario Run trying to be a premium app (one-time cost) which had a small trial period (deceivingly sold as a free app with in-app purchases), or is Super Mario Run an app which will have ongoing in-app purchases? 

If you want try the former, be upfront and let people know, especially parents who ended up downloading a trial for their kids. I would assume there are many people today who have spent the $14.99 to keep their kids happy, yet after decades of loving Nintendo have had their first incredibly negative experience with the brand.

4.    Offline play

Provide an offline version too - especially if charging $14.99!

I’m currently sitting on a plane, midway through 24 hours of flying. I cannot even open Super Mario Run. The positive here is that I have had time to write this blog post, and start and finish Andre Agassi’s biography via audiobook.

5.    Marketing and distribution

Nintendo actually nailed this.  They did this better than anyone else, ever.  Kids, if you’re going to build an app you need people to know to download it.  Nintendo obviously created a pretty sweet commercial deal with Apple - they’ve been marketing the app for months and have now taken over the App Store!  There is also a lesson to be learned around timing; choosing to launch a kid-friendly app a week out from Christmas would not be a coincidence.

At the end of the day Nintendo failed to build an app which people love.  They also failed to engage people enough before asking for a seriously high price point.

Although, one thing Nintendo did achieve with such a price tag was to create a little nostalgia.  I vividly remember all those times as a kid I was begging my dad to buy me the new Nintendo game (you know you paid $50 for a cartridge to pop into a machine, and that was before you had played any level!) - how times have changed!!


Code Camp have taught over 10,000 kids all across Australia to code! Enrol at one of our school holiday camps today.



Benjamin Levi