Nintendo has just released a free-to-play mobile version of its famous license, Mario Kart. How does it compare to games developed by freemium experts?
It is clear that the Japanese publisher offers us a game that has a lot of strengths: Its level design is superb, the controls work well for a touch screen and game mechanisms are as effective as ever. In short, the gameplay is here.
Nintendo has also integrated the fact that a mobile game must be enriched and renewed regularly to keep its players active and increase its chances of generating revenue. Finally, its monetization strategy is rather clever, even if it comes dangerously close to pay-to-win.
And yet, Nintendo "missed" on one of the key aspects of freemium games: onboarding. As a reminder, the latter describes the construction of the user experience during the discovery phase of the game. Good onboarding is fundamental for a free-to-play game because of the large number of players who abandon a game after one or two game sessions.
So, what are the weaknesses of Mario Kart Tour's onboarding?
It starts with the mandatory registration of your profile with Nintendo, along with many questions: Gender, date of birth, country of origin and ... email address. If it is understandable that a publisher wants to create a direct link with his players. But asking for as much information as possible before starting the game and even blocking the game if they have not answered, is a good way to turn new players off. Nintendo probably does not care because of the weight of its license but this practice is strongly discouraged.
Once past the "police check", players are properly taken in hand. They discover the game interface, get used to the control on an initiation circuit, then start their first races ... and win because they play against bots.
But things are spoiling quickly. The progression system is convoluted, poorly explained, and players are quickly drowned in many screens. Nintendo lets players to their own means to understand. That’s too bad. A freemium game can offer a rich experience and complex progression mechanisms but these must be progressively brought. Indeed, players who are not "hooked" by the progression mechanism or who feel lost in a game they discover are players who are likely not to return. This is one of the great lessons to be learned from mega-successes in mobile gaming. They offer superbly crafted onboarding were players are not left to their own until they understand why they should engage in the game.
Finally, the absence of true multiplayer brings a new source of misunderstanding because it is one of the pillars of the franchise. If the latter is planned, why not say it in the game?
We work in an industry characterized by many changes: Technologies, distribution channels, genres, usages and ... game design. The latter is no exception, it too changes and there is a lot to learn from game design developed for mobile games.
My previous blog entries on freemium design:
Quantitative design - How to define XP thresholds? FEATURED BLOG
Creative director & game designer, freelance
24+ years of experience serving studios and publishers