By announcing its plans to start a presence on mobile, Nintendo has practically sealed its fate in that part of the market. But, as with many advanced announcement, details of those plans haven’t been fleshed out or, in some cases, might be totally non-existent. Nintendo isn’t divulging much of its plans for the future but, at a recent shareholders’ meeting, CEO Satoru Iwata revealed one aspect of its mobile business plan. It wants to distance itself from the negative image of “free-to-play” and will instead adopt a “free-to-start” business model. In other words, we’re back to the days of demoware.
Currently, there are two and a half predominant business models in mobile gaming. One is premium titles, which sell games for an upfront price, most often, but not always, without in-app purchases. This is used by the likes of Square Enix or mobile ports of some PC games. On the other end of the spectrum is the free-to-play group, which makes the game available for free. This, however, intersects and is sometimes muddled with freemium games, games that are free to play but have IAPs to unlock certain advantages over non-paying players.
For Nintendo, premium is out of the question. Iwata says that premium games are generally not doing well, and it remains to be seen if the likes of Square Enix agrees or not. The price of premium games are sometimes prohibitively expensive, going as high as $20. On the other hand, Nintendo doesn’t want to be associated with the free-to-play games that are notorious for either their lack of quality or their obvious attempts to milk players out of their money.
So what’s Nintendo’s battle plan? Well, simply to use another name for the same thing. Iwata wants people to call it “free-to-start” because that’s literally what it entails. You’re free to start playing the first parts of the game without limitation. But if you want to move forward to the end or get some perks, then you’ll need to cough up some dough. In other words, it’s basically a different spin to the same freemium model, but putting a cap on progression rather than features. It’s a subtle change of words, but one that could get Nintendo off the hook in lawsuits, as it doesn’t say the game is free to play but only free to start. Those old enough might also remember the days of shareware and demoware that are reminiscent of this model.
It’s not really surprising to see Nintendo take such a turn. After all, it’s going to mobile just to strut its name but to actually make money and making money has been its biggest concern in trying to target smartphones and tablets. That said, if it has Nintendo’s name on it, people will probably gobble it up regardless. At least, as long as the pricing is actually reasonable.