On July 10th, Nintendo launched its fifth mobile game Dr. Mario World. After 30 days on the market, the free-to-play game's sales from microtransactions pale in comparison to Nintendo’s other mobile offerings, despite the game garnering 7.4 million downloads.
Dr. Mario World features a new spin on the classic Dr. Mario gameplay from way back in the NES era. The original game played kind of like Tetris but with a twist. Instead of blocks, the game featured randomly falling colored pills that players had to rotate and stack on top of cartoon viruses in order to get rid of them. A giant Mario sprite dressed like a doctor stood on the side and tossed the pills into the game field. The game would increase in speed, and players would lose if the screen filled up before they eliminated the viruses.
The new game works similarly, except for instead of the pills dropping from the top, players grab the pills from the bottom and drop them in place. The game also swaps out the randomness factor for delivering the pills in a specific order which adds a new wrinkle to the game. Instead of simply eliminating the viruses before the screen fills up, players must eliminate them using the least amount of pills possible. Run out of pills before eliminating the virus and the player loses.
The game hit big in the Nintendo era. Many folks who played Nintendo during that time remember Dr. Mario as one of the console’s best titles. So why has the new one failed to find an audience?
Before digging into why Dr. Mario World didn’t hit as big as other Nintendo mobile efforts, it helps to give some context. Not including the Pokémon titles, Nintendo has released five games since it took the mobile plunge with Super Mario Run in 2016. The chart above, put together by Sensor Tower, shows the revenue for each of these five games during its first month compared to its initial install base.
Nintendo’s mobile efforts include Super Mario Run, Fire Emblem Heroes, Animal Crossing Pocket Camp, Dragalia Lost, and Dr. Mario World. As the chart shows, Dr. Mario World has made just $1.4 million in revenue, which seems like a lot for one month, but is tiny compared to the number two earner Animal Crossing at $13.4 million. At 7.4 million downloads, that comes to only a $0.19 spend per download for Dr. Mario World.
So that begs the question: how can a mobile puzzler with the face of Mario in the era of Candy Crush flop so epically?
A Less Recognizable Franchise
Nintendo has released a couple of Dr. Mario games since the NES era, but non of them have garnered the kind of affection heaped onto the original. They have all dropped with minor fanfare and middling reviews. According to review aggregate site Metacritic, no Dr. Mario game received better than a 70% since 2009.
These days, most Nintendo fans probably know Dr. Mario from the Super Smash Bros. games, and if they have an idea of how the Dr. Mario franchise plays, they have probably conflated it with Tetris. The original NES titles have a lot of similarities and they both gained most of their popularity at around the same time. This new Dr. Mario title differs greatly from Tetris.
But despite these issue, the game did receive 7.4 million downloads. If anything, this proves that the Mario brand still has viable mass appeal. It’s safe to assume that many of those downloads came from folks who at least know Mario if not Dr. Mario. If the recognizability of the character proved strong enough to build an install-base, perhaps the brand recognition ended up hurting the project in a different way.
Disappointment About Gameplay
If the assumptions about the install-base hold weight, it means that the majority of downloads likely came from fans expecting a Tetris-style experience or fans expecting a Mario-style experience. Dr. Mario World does not provide either of these things.
The game replaces the signature falling block design with a tap and drag style of gameplay that feels different from both Tetris and Dr. Mario but similar to other mobile games. This might have put folks off if they expected something else. The game does feature a traditional Super Mario-style world map after all.
On top of that, falling block games have a lot of room for error. The games have a randomness factor that makes players feel like they can experiment and learn how to adapt. This new game doesn’t have that randomness. It has a set number of pills and grades the player on their performance. This makes for gameplay that requires a lot of thought. The game feels like it has a correct answer, and that can lead to a kind of stress that sees folks putting the game down for good, especially if, after that failure, the game asks for money in order to continue.
In Dr. Mario World, the monetization comes from diamonds which players can spend on hearts. Each level costs one heart per each attempt. The hearts refill over time, but over a long play session, players who run out of hearts will either have to wait, or pony up.
This method of monetization coupled with gameplay that can makes players feel like they have the “wrong answer” creates a negative feedback loop. Games like Candy Crush or Tetris have enough randomness to create a gambling sensation. Players feel like they are competing against the game and it incentivizes them to spend money because that tiny bit of perceived chance makes them think that if they try one more time, they might get the result that pushes them over the winning edge. It’s predatory, but it works.
Dr. Mario World has no randomness. If the player fails, they just did it wrong. Every single time a player retries a level, the level presents the same circumstances. Players understand that losing means trying the same thing again until they get it right. The lack of chance can push players away. Dr. Mario’s strict puzzle design has the unfortunate design flaw of insulting the player’s intelligence and then asking them for money.
Dr. Mario World has only been available for a month. It remains to be seen if Nintendo can find a way to pick up the pace on the profitability of this mobile game.
Dr. Mario World is available now on iOS and Android.