Who’s more popular: Mario or Brad Pitt?

Mario Kart Tour and the evolution of gaming from a developer’s lens

A formative moment in my youth occurred the day my father brought home our first Nintendo Entertainment System. This introduction to gaming was exhilarating for a twelve-year-old and pivotal in ways I couldn’t yet comprehend. 

Armed with the “Super Mario Bros.” cartridge included with the system, my brother and I played this game to death. From that point forward, all pocket money was dedicated to buying more Super Mario games.

While my first Nintendo system solidified a deep-rooted love (some say addiction) to gaming, it was Super Nintendo that changed my life. Released in the UK in 1992, this new system included Mario Paint and a peripheral mouse. The program was designed for painting pictures, but what enthralled me was Mario Paint Music Composer. 

All of a sudden, I had the power to make music. I could compose songs by dropping notes on the staves with my mouse. Something I considered to be relatively straightforward (a gaming system) revealed itself to be so much more: It was a tool for building and creating. 

That mindset shift clicked solidly into place. Before I knew anything about computers, I discovered what it felt like to have interactive experiences and construct new things with technology. I was hooked. 

Fast-forward to 1996, and I was a seasoned gamer who wanted to compare myself to the best global players. The burgeoning internet offered me the opportunity to achieve this goal, and I built my first piece of software: a rankings web page for computer games. Soon thereafter, I created my first game, which (shockingly) was a go-kart racing game akin to a 3D Mario Kart game. 

Needless to say, I always stay true to my first loves: gaming and Mario.

How gaming evolved into a universal phenomenon

As a lifelong gamer, the biggest change I’ve seen is the transition from a nerds-only hobby (guilty as charged) to a universal pastime. Today, we live in a world where Twitch has more than 15 million daily active users, and competitive eSports players can win multi-million dollar prizes as “digital jocks.” Recently, over two million people tuned in live to see Kyle Giersdorf win a $3 million grand prize in the online Fortnite tournament. This staggering viewership demonstrates how huge gaming has become. 

Three key factors have contributed:

  1. Approachability: This shift happened over ten years ago when gaming became accessible and relatable for new demographics. In 2006, I brought home my Nintendo Wii at Christmas. My father, who had never touched a console game, stood up and started playing tennis without instruction. As he swung his Wii Remote, I realized gaming wasn’t only for people like me anymore. (Even Queen Elizabeth II has used a Wii console!)


  1. Mobile app availability: The biggest seismic shift came with smartphones and the launch of app stores. When anyone can download gaming apps onto a phone, gaming consoles cease to be a prohibitive factor. Even better, consumers quickly realized that mobile games are a welcome distraction from life’s mundane moments. 


  1. Ease of game creation: With mobile devices came the dawn of an indie movement in game development. Licensing and distribution were no longer restrictive forces, and people rushed to develop gaming apps as demand soared. Even a teenager sitting in his bedroom could hack together a game (just like I did!) and self-publish through the app store. Barriers to entry were completely smashed. It was on like Donkey Kong.

Where brands and demand meet

Three pillars of entertainment have equal standing in the industry today: film/television, music, and gaming. At long last, video games have found their place at the grown-ups table. 

Part of this equality is due to gaming segments like eSports. As gaming has evolved to become character- and story-driven, many consumers find it just as entertaining to watch gamers play “Detroit: Become Human” as they do to watch an episode of Game of Thrones or a new Star Wars movie.

Another reason is the synergistic overlap between film/TV and gaming. Popular culture now demands that big franchises have high-quality video games that extend the brand’s story and exist on par with their film/TV counterparts. In recognition, studios like Warner Brothers have created gaming departments for their commercial heavyweights like Harry Potter to ensure every aspect of the game remains true to the brand’s universe.

While it’s easier than ever to build software games, customers are more demanding, and speed-to-market is crucial for success. As a result, fast coding happens, and more bugs get created. Despite sounding bad, bugs are necessary. You’ll never launch an error-free game, but it also shouldn’t be a disaster. Users must have a strong first experience that entices them to continue playing. Too many bugs or crashes can ruin a great game concept and lose users. 

Worse, if a game launch goes sideways, the brand can be permanently ruined. In today’s market, developers are beholden to all users because everyone is a reviewer. App stores make it easy to kill a game’s chance for success with bad reviews and poor ratings. Not only will app stores stop promoting low-rated games, but the press often picks up on the buzz and spreads the word.

What’s a company to do?

Some companies launch lightweight games and then add content and game modes over time. For example, Pokémon GO started out as a relatively basic mobile game, but the developers introduced new features with regularity and speed. The key is to keep users interested by constantly adding new stuff without introducing major problems. Since everything’s digital, this strategy is easy to execute, but all new releases must be monitored closely to ensure they’re performant and stable. In short, fix early and fix often. 

Another increasingly popular strategy is to use fans for testing. By creating “early access” beta versions, rabid fans can provide feedback that helps developers stamp out critical bugs before GA. The brand is safeguarded from scathing reviews, and superfans get the inside track on new games. Case in point, Nintendo did a closed Android beta to give select players an early look at the new Mario Kart Tour. 

Here we go!

I’m delighted that a third mobile game has been added to the Mario series, especially since go-karts are a favorite of mine. Mario Kart Tour’s launch on September 25 demonstrated that I’m not alone: the app was installed over 20 million times on its first day. That’s approximately three times more downloads than the previous 6.7 million record, held by Pokémon GO. 

Not only did Mario Kart Tour secure the top ranking in the iOS App Store in 93 countries and score 4.7 and 4.3 ratings on iOS and Google Play, respectively, but it also gave Super Mario Run a boost with 36% higher downloads than its 30-day average. 

It’s tough to say whether Mario is as popular as a movie star like Brad Pitt, but he’s definitely a “star” in the gaming and entertainment world. His iconic blue overalls, red cap, and mustache are recognizable the world over and likely to appear again on Halloween with his new game fresh on everyone’s mind.  

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mario’s new game rivals Brad Pitt’s new movie for buzz in the coming weeks. As Mario would say, "Oh, yes! Ha-ha!"

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