No, Super Mario Run isn’t too expensive, you’re just too cheap

Like most people, I picked up Super Mario Run from the App Store recently and have been playing it over the past few days. The game is a lot of fun, and for a mobile game the quality is extremely high. The content is more limited than you’d expect from a full Super Mario console title, but we all know what we’re getting with a $10 mobile game.

So why is it getting underwhelming reviews?

A 2.5 star average, largely driven by the 1-star reviews

While most of the reviews are very positive, the average score is only 2.5. What’s bringing the score down is the many, many 1-star reviews.

Overwhelmingly these reviews are about one thing: price.

In an app store where price has been thoroughly driven down by freemium and $0.99 games, it seems a traditional approach to pricing up-front for quality content leaves a sour taste in user’s mouths.

In the console and PC gaming worlds, AAA titles from large publishers are typically retailed at $60, and run a range of playtime between 2 hours for shorter titles, up to 100 or so for the longer RPG types, and up to effectively infinite playtime for those highly repayable competitive games such as Counter-Strike or Overwatch. So it’s not that surprising that a traditional publisher like Nintendo might see $10 as a very low price.

But, this is the app store, where everything must be less than $5, or it gets slammed in the reviews.

So let’s think about those other games for a moment. While Super Mario Run is the top grossing game right now, there are other games that seem to always be top grossers, and they all have an icon with a picture of a cartoon guy screaming.

These games are designed to keep players playing, and eventually, keep them paying. There is no charge up front for most of these, but the game mechanics themselves drive players to spend money on in-game transactions.

These games also have pretty favorable reviews, mostly hovering around 4 stars.

Pay to Play

I think the reason these guys don’t have the same issue is because these games offer a way to play without spending money, even if that “play” mostly consists of waiting around until the next timer kicks in. The timers in these games are designed to manipulate it’s user base, turning their products in to habits. Only then will most of these ask for any payment.

Mario on the other hand, asks for a payment after only playing through a few levels, and continuing to play through tour mode is not an option. It is basically the end of the content after the first world. This isn’t really the end of the content, since player’s can continue to play in tour mode, but the game makes no real effort to drive players towards that after their “trial” ends.

This revenue model is one where the player pays for quality content, in the form of 5 unique worlds. This seems to be the crux of the issue.

Our experiences with mobile apps are, like it or not, driven largely by the revenue model the apps use to generate a profit. Follow the money, and you’ll understand the design intent.

If a game is free, but sells consumable (repeatable) in-game items, you can bet their plan is to keep you playing for as long as possible, regardless of whether or not you’re enjoying the experience. They want to keep you continuously buying more and more in-game items. It’s expensive for these companies to constantly sell new content (like new Mario levels), so instead they sell something that takes almost no effort to create, fake money.

This is usually presented as some themed item from the game world. Whether it’s a “bucket of gems” or “barrels of honey” or just “gold”, there’s always some fake currency to buy. This keeps the player feeling like they are getting something new, although in most cases they are not. This is all designed to keep players spending small amounts of money, for basically as long as they can keep them distracted.

You can easily confirm this for yourself by looking at the top in-game purchases for Mobile Strike, Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, or any of these skinner-boxes-in-disguise. Do you notice a trend among the top In-App-Purchases for these top grossing titles?

All three of these games offer in-app-purchases going up to $49.99 and $99.99 for in-game currency!

Holy smokes, the reviews should be 1-star across the board!

These $99.99 IAPs don’t even get you everything available in these games. It’s just a bucket of gold or a basket of gems, or some other consumable that you can blow through within a few days. These in-game currencies get exchanged, more often than not, for different in-game currencies. Eventually these add up to some other currency, or ability, and finally what does the player get?

Usually… they get to quit the game.

Some timer or repetitive task goes away. This is not about having fun, it’s about avoiding loss. Loss of your crops in FarmVille, your troops in Clash, or whatever skinner box loss aversion scheme they happen to be running in the particular game.

So what about Super Mario Run? It makes it’s profits from IAP as well, right? For Super Mario Run, it looks like this:

Just one IAP, and when you make the purchase, there is nothing else to buy. The entirety of the game is available for $10.

It takes a few hours to get through, so for less than the cost of your average movie ticket, you get several hours of AAA quality entertainment. If you enjoy the Rush mode in the game, it can last much longer.

Or if you play through and try to complete all the purple coin challenges within the levels (offering increasingly difficult challenges by moving the locations of purple gems), the game is packed with an almost endless amount of gameplay content, even now.

There is no “basket of gems”, or “bundle of gold”, it’s just content. Instead of abusing the in-game systems to drive players to continuously dump money in to the game via IAP, they are charging for something that actually took effort to create, content.

This content is new interesting, and can engage the senses in ways that just having more gold can not. This is part of the art of games, and it’s being lost with the IAP-driven design of most mobile games today. These games don’t win awards for creative excellence. They aren’t viewed as adding to the art of crafting games. No, they are more akin to something else that rewards players for playing with an alternative currency devised by the system… slot machines.

The slots, blackjack, poker, and other gambling games all use the same system. You go to a casino, make your In-Casino-Purchase of a “bundle of chips”, and then you are set to go lose all of it at a slot machine that is designed in such a way that you will always eventually lose.

The house is rigged, and everyone knows this.

These games prey upon the addiction centers of the brain, and it’s time for us to recognize this fact. These games are not about fun. They are simply about money. The players are victims of this abuse, and like many abuse victims, they have a form of stockholm syndrome. And that is why they have to 4-star averages.

Don’t believe me?

Scroll down just a little bit on that Top Grossing chart. These systems are so incredibly similar to the casino business model, that many of the top grossers have simply done away with the metaphor of a themed game, and simply are selling casino-themed apps. Take a look:

Big Fish Casino, Slotomania, DoubleDown Slots & Casino, Jackpot Party Casino, and many more of these games create all of the same addictive types of behavior as a real-world casino, with a key exception. You can not actually win real money. You would think that’s a deal-breaker if you thought rationally about it. But that’s just the problem. This isn’t rational; this is addiction. It is an abuse of a core flaw in the human psyche, and these developers should be ashamed for abusing their customers like this. They might as well be selling cigarettes to children, which just happens to be the most common demographic to buy In-App-Purchases.

So what’s the lesson here?

Perhaps Super Mario Run just has a user experience problem. Super Mario Run presents it’s level structure linearly, but then stops the ability to play more levels, moving instead in to requiring an upgrade at $10. If Super Mario Run made a mistake, it’s that they didn’t recycle their content and put players in a skinner box, but I don’t think so. This is a case of customer’s being pennywise and pound-foolish.

Players avoid paying $10 one time, and instead pay $0.99 50 times, or in some sad cases, much much more. Like this guy, who spent $1 million dollars on Game of War In-App-Purchases. Seriously, you can’t make this up. On average, mobile gamers spend $87 per player on their “free” games. Tim Cook himself was forced to reckon with this abusive type of monetization after being probed by the FTC, and Apple ended up refunding $32.5M for in-app purchases made by kids.

So what is the real price of a “free” game?

You could say it’s the average spend, which is $87 as we mentioned before. But this doesn’t represent the real cost. The real cost is we are raising a generation of gambling addicts. We are throwing out all the value in the art and craft of storytelling in games. We are abandoning everything that makes the experience of playing games valuable, and replacing it with cheap thrills. “Free” never means free, you’ll always pay one way or another. Not only do we face these real-world costs, but at the end of the day users also end up paying even more than $10 for their addictive, abusive games.

Until this mentality changes, we will be stuck with skinner box games like Clash of Clans, who abuse and take advantage of players with a lack of self-control. We will be stuck with “free” apps that make all their money by stealing, hoarding, and then selling your personal information. We will be stuck with business models that prey upon the weak, making millions of dollars in a cynical, bastardized model of entertainment product monetization.

Super Mario Run is not too expensive

I know this because I know people are willing to pay much more for much lower quality games. I know this because for years Nintendo has run a highly successful company shipping Mario titles at 5x or 6x the cost of this title. Super Mario Run isn’t too expensive if you value quality over quantity. Super Mario Run isn’t too expensive if player’s want artfully crafted experiences. Super Mario Run isn’t too expensive at all, we are just too cheap.


Nefarious now in closed beta on Steam

Ever wanted to play as the bad guy? We have been working on a platforming game where you play as the villain, and it’s coming out very soon! It’s called Nefarious. We’re in closed beta right now. Check it out!