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I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar

08 Oct

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In late February, Hong Kong hedge fund manager Seth Fischer called on Nintendo to start developing mobile games and to “just think of paying 99 cents to get Mario to jump a little higher.”

Now, one thing I’d like to make clear ahead of time is that I don’t actually think that there should be a Mario mobile game where you pay 99 cents to make Mario jump a little higher. That’s a horrible idea that would taint the brand and reeks of an exploitative attitude. This entire post is a thought experiment.

For the sake of argument, let’s take Mr. Fischer up on his suggestion. Let’s think of paying 99 cents to get Mario to jump a little higher. Let’s start by dissecting his sentence. His idea is made of three parts:

  • Pay 99 cents
  • Mario
  • Jump a little higher

Pay 99 Cents

99 cents is not a lot of money. Adding additional moves to a Candy Crush Saga level costs 90 cents worth of hard currency. This is the price you charge for for something minor or temporary, like a convenience feature.

Mario

Everyone knows Mario, but more importantly, everyone knows what Mario does: Run and jump. Mario’s been in games that don’t involve that, but for the sake of the thought experiment, let’s assume Mr. Fischer is talking about a platformer where Mario runs and jumps. Those are the two primary verbs.

Jump a little higher

This is self-explanatory. Mario can jump a little higher. Maybe a block or two of height, with a block being defined as half of Mario’s height.

Putting it all together

When all three sections are placed next to each other, the game design implications start to get complicated. Platformers are all about traversing levels, and jumping is one of the tools players use to get around. When you’re giving Mario jump height, what you’re really giving him is access. You’re giving Mario access to higher platforms with powerups or access to new routes to progress through the level.

What this means is that when you sell users additional jump height, you aren’t selling them anything with inherent value. The only benefit that players get out of additional jump height is whatever benefit comes in the level design. Every single level has to be designed for someone without that jump boost and for someone with that jump boost. There has to be level design effort directed into creating content that is inaccessible to non-paying players, which I must emphasize will make up at least 90% of your audience.

Let’s say you start trying to solve that by making those parts of the level accessible to people without the boost, but only if you do some tricky platforming challenges. Players with the jump boost can bypass this. Now you end up with another problem. Challenges are fun. What you’re doing now is asking players to pay money to skip the fun part. The game is now more engaging if you don’t pay money. On top of that, players will now be able to burn through your content more quickly, which is bad in a business model where you want to keep players playing as long as possible.

Some might suggest that jumping makes Mario better at fighting enemies, but in over 20 years of playing Mario games, I struggle to come up with examples where additional jump height would be a valuable asset. There are enemies that fly or are hard to reach, but I certainly don’t feel any particular need to be able to jump higher to hit them. Being able to take additional hits or having ranged projectiles, sure, but jump height is not high on my list of demands unless we’re talking about Lakitu. Lakitu is best used in levels specifically built to include ways to climb up and fight him, so then you run into the problem of users paying to skip the fun part again.

There are also issues of a more mechanical nature. Mario can correct his jumps in mid-air, but how much extra leeway does he get with this extra jump boost? If Mario can jump higher, is his air time the same? Does this mean he goes up and lands faster? If not, how do you deal with hazards like giant Banzai Bills where you want to be back on the ground as quickly as possible? Is the extra jump height dependent on how long you hold down the jump button, or is it just a flat multiplier to jump height that permanently increases your minimum jump height?

I could go on and on about these all day, but you get the idea. Mr. Fischer wanted people to “just think of paying 99 cents to get Mario to jump a little higher,” and I did. A 99 cent jump boost introduces a major split in design work, forcing levels to be designed around boosted and unboosted players. It’s like introducing a power in an MMORPG that would allow a character to phase through walls. It provides an unclear and inconsistent benefit to players who buy it. These are just the practical problems associated with his notion. There are a host of game design problems that probably don’t even begin to make up for the revenue brought in by that dollar. As bad as all of this is, it doesn’t even get into broader problems like the immediate ridicule it received when the idea was first introduced.  How much angrier would people be if they saw it in an actual game?

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Posted by on October 8, 2014 in Game Thoughts, Monetization

 

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