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Nintendo’s mobile game monetization sucks way more than you realized

My loss is your gain.

Nintendo mobile games monetization structure

Like many people, I spend a lot of time piddling away at various mobile titles. You may already be familiar with my love/hate experience with Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. It’s possible you recall when KnowTechie tried to review Dragalia Lost. I’m sure you’ve caught wind of people complaining about how Nintendo monetizes their mobile titles, but I’m here to clarify just how money-hungry Nintendo can be when it comes to the mobile sphere.

I spent the last few weeks playing all of Nintendo’s mobile app games that were available on the Google Play store. These games were; Pokemon Masters, Dragalia Lost, Fire Emblem: Heroes, Mario Kart, Dr. Mario World, and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. I’ve also decided not to include Pokemon GO! into this mix, but honestly, Nintendo doesn’t have a lot of say in that title.

My goal here was to not only highlight how bad Nintendo monetization is and how absolutely nasty the strategies are within these games but to make sure you know why these are issues overall. We’re going to explore which games utilize which strategies and give a letter grade at the end.

Gotta catch em all, with your wallet

Pokemon masters real money shop nintendo

Image: Josh Knowles / KnowTechie

One of Nintendo’s mobile strategies is to give you just a taste of what you want. This can be letting you temporarily use a famous character in a brief challenge, giving you a few high-value pulls or keeping the possibility of the character or unit just out of the reach of your free to play means.

Let’s look at Pokemon Masters, the game allows you to improve your strength by recruiting trainers and one of their Pokemon. The game features 3v3 Pokemon combat and having the right types with the right moveset can be the difference between failure and victory. Early on, the game “rewards” you with a 5* Rosa and her Snivy. Rosa easily out levels your other trainers and seems incredibly strong. In truth, she’s one of the weakest of the 5* trainers but you’ve already seen what a 5* trainer is capable of. Unfortunately, you need to buy gems to be able to use the reduced price pulls and the in-game gems are a finite resource.

It doesn’t help that the game has such limited content out right now. The current content seems to be built around those stronger 5* base characters and after your first victory over difficult content, it’s just a matter of repetition. I personally played the game from launch and had a few lucky pulls but this game is just around currently to make money off of the Pokemon faithful. Even the game’s director has apologized for a lack of game.

Final Grade: Something below F – The value for your money here is essentially nonexistent. There’s a super strict meta that nearly requires two different characters. If you don’t get them, too bad. It’s a blatant cash grab at this time.

The generous drug dealer

Fire emblem heroes mobile game from nintendo

Image: Josh Knowles / KnowTechie

Fire Emblem: Heroes uses a slightly different, but familiar, strategy here. Most transactions within the game will cost orbs. These orbs are given to players on a daily basis and are fairly easy to stockpile. You will need strong units for each color type and each part of the weapon grid. It actually follows the Fire Emblem formula faithfully and functions as a true blue Fire Emblem game.

Fire Emblem: Heroes‘ generosity is compounded further with the fact that they give players one free pull on every new banner. You can even see what color-class the other possible pulls are, so if your free pull isn’t ideal, you can spend discounted orbs to keep trying. Unfortunately, you’ll quickly run out of orbs and those free opportunities will just keep coming. Maybe it won’t hurt to buy just a few more orbs…

The strategy works. Over the course of the lifetime of Fire Emblem: Heroes, the game has made money hand-over-fist. With a gross earnings total at over $600 million, the drug that Nintendo is selling is orbs and it just takes a few free tastes to get hooked.

Final Grade: B – Fire Emblem is one of Nintendo’s current winning franchises. Heroes definitely never makes the player feel like they HAVE to spend money. It just encourages it with plenty of gameplay to convince players to support.

Paying to win, without insurance

Nintendo dr mario world on mobile

Image: Josh Knowles / KnowTechie

Dr. Mario World is one of Nintendo’s more insidious attempts at making money from the player. Dr. Mario World features assistants, doctors, and tools that you can purchase in the shop. In order to reach the shop, however, you have to go through 18 missions that give you free energy and unrestricted access to tools. It seems like a straightforward affair and a fun time killer. That is until you open up the shop and drop the gems you’ve been rewarded on purchasing a new assistant. Wow!

Soon after getting started in the brave new world of the pay-to-continue Dr. Mario World, you’ll see that you will be prodded to spend more gems when your energy is exhausted. You’ll also discover that the one-time-use tools will also carry premium currency price tags. Nintendo’s strategy here is to charge for small transactions that add up before the victim realizes what they’ve done. In fact, in Dr. Mario World, the game’s first few worlds actively encourage you to use those items that you need to pay money for.

Final Grade: D – It’s pretty rough. A Candy Crush wannabe that doesn’t do anything special. The game quickly tries to make as much as it can from you with contrived levels and timers that nickle and dime the player.

Selling value and convenience

Dragalia lost mobile game from nintendo

Image: Josh Knowles / KnowTechie

Dragalia Lost is one of Nintendo’s biggest grossing titles. Still paling in comparison to Fire Emblem: Heroes, Nintendo’s monetization strategy has been way different. On the list of games here, it does offer the most robust and traditional gameplay arguably beating out Fire Emblem: Heroes. Dragalia Lost is a bit of the exception from the outright mind games and gambler’s fallacies Nintendo runs in different games because Dragalia Lost is their only original IP on this list.

Interestingly enough, at a year old as of this month, Dragalia Lost has a ton of upside for Nintendo’s wallets. The game uses a special premium purchasable currency alongside an in-game special currency. Like Pokemon Masters, you can only utilize the purchased currency for discounted pulls and Dragalia also tucks a lot of decent bundles behind that premium currency as well.

The caveat with Dragalia Lost is that the value is within the unit itself. A rare 5* unit has an incredible amount of upside and potential but during summon fests, the game does like to dangle a few limited units that can only be acquired during short events. I’ve played the game since day one and spent plenty of that earnable currency and have yet to get one of these characters. This allure causes players to drop tons into those 10-pull purchases and with special bundles that do things like guarantee one of those units, Dragalia isn’t above selling you the convenience.

Final Grade: B – I play Dragalia Lost and have since launch. There’s a lot of gameplay here and I’ve spent a total of $20 here just to support the game. Nintendo cares about this game’s community and wants this IP to succeed, so it seems spending money here is almost entirely optional.  Almost.

Chasing that dangling carrot

Mario kart tour store

Image: Josh Knowles / KnowTechie

Mario Kart Tour is Nintendo’s latest jump into the app-pool and features some real mind games to earn your cash. With rudimentary gameplay that features some of your favorite Super Mario Bros. characters and Mario Kart tracks, the nostalgia is strong with this one. Nintendo knows this without a shadow of a doubt and has lined up plenty of ways to make sure that they are cashing in off of you.

Spending money in Mario Kart Tour will earn you different kart racers, vehicles and add-ons. All of these items can be improved over races to become better on the track, with the rarer characters and items having a much more extreme upside. My first racer was Princess Peach, a relatively common, but popular, character. From the sounds of it from others I spoke with, she’s definitely one of the few scripted characters you start with.

After finishing up the first cup, the game allows you to play with the titular Mario for all of 15 seconds. Of course, for fans of everyone’s favorite plumber, the game initially allowed you to buy Mario from the shop with a cash purchase. Right now, as you read this, you can buy Diddy Kong, his kart and 20 tugs on your pipe for $40. I also neglected to tell you that there’s a monthly “Gold Pass” that is $5 a month and includes some goodies as well as the 200cc race class. Mario Kart: World Tour wants you to spend well over what a full game would cost to play it the way it was meant.

Of course, there are purchases you can make with coins that you earn in-game. The racers rate pretty dang low on the tier lists and it would take you roughly 20-25 races to potentially unlock. That’s a lot of work for not a lot of results. It’s a lot like the game itself. Spend that $5 on Apple Arcade or Google instead.

Final Grade: F – I had to play this game for a few hours to get through enough to open up all the spending options. Playing the game creates a desperation that is strongly implied to be improved by greasing Nintendo’s palms. The value per dollar is so low in this game that if it does end up being successful, I could see them kill future games to continue to get blood from this stone.

Window shopping is free, the catalog is not

Animal crossing pocket camp money shop

Image: Josh Knowles / KnowTechie

The last game I want to take a moment to dig into is Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. This is a pretty bog-standard Animal Crossing game and I was absolutely shocked to find out the Dragalia Lost just recently surpassed it as the #2 earner within Nintendo’s list of get-rich-quick games. The thing with Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is that it features Nintendo’s most simplistic monetization.

Pocket Camp is a simple little game. Your villager is in charge of a small campsite where you can decorate and visit neighbors. Slowly by doing events and playing the game, you will unlock various different costumes, furniture or decorations. Unfortunately, you are forever at the whim of fate when it comes to all the good stuff so Pocket Camp allows you to purchase items with tickets. There’s no gacha pulls or blind boxes, you simply go through the catalog,  click on the item you want and pay for it with tickets.  Of course, tickets cost real-world money and, of course, the game has grossed over $100 million in its lifetime.

Final Grade: C – I mean, the value per dollar isn’t incredibly horrible here. At the same time, why would you want to spend money here? Probably those people that want to one-up their neighbors. 

We’re not the first, but this is one of the most detailed looks you will find

Nintendo mobile game money

Image: SensorTower

Nintendo famously recently bemoaned the fact people were spending so much on their mobile games. As you can see from all the different ways they are manipulating their player base at a mental level, that’s simply just lip service.

With the incredible earnings of Fire Emblem: Heroes, Dragalia Lost and the supposed success of Mario Kart Tour, they know what they are doing. Nintendo has also recently stated they do not want many microtransactions in their Nintendo Switch games. It’s entirely possible that their heavily monetized mobile games are filling that microtransaction void while chewing up and spitting out player’s wallets with over a handful of games in the top spots in both Apple and Android marketplaces.

There are many game companies out there that utilize all sorts of methods to make money. I don’t want anyone to think that Nintendo is the only one out there trying to earn a few quick billion dollars off of kids with cellphones. However, Nintendo is definitely the “nice guy” when it comes to all these companies. They are saying all the nice things to get everyone to let their guards down. It appears many people have been taken to pound town because SensorTower is reporting they are killing it.

In order to give you a pretty good rundown on how much gouging Nintendo is actually doing with these mobile games, I had to actually play each and every one of them. Most of these games required a decent bit of play before they really lifted the veil on the worst parts of their monetization or even to unlock the cash shops. Hopefully, my sacrifice means you can be more aware of exactly what Nintendo mobile titles are really like. Personally, I’m going to detox with some Fortnite Chapter 2 and Borderlands 3. I need it.

What do you think? Are there any Nintendo mobile games you are currently playing? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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Longtime games journalist and Florida resident. I'm a Guinness World Record holder, wordsmith extraordinaire, MOBA fan, devoted dad and husband. I'm here to spread the gospel of video games.

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