Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

Investors hoping that Nintendo Co.'s release of Animal Crossing for mobile will bring the Japanese game maker another blockbuster may be focusing on the wrong goal.

Nintendo is expected to provide details of the smartphone app's launch at noon Tokyo time Wednesday. Having enjoyed immense hype over Super Mario Run, there's a lot of pressure on the company's latest console-to-mobile convert.

Part of the social simulation genre, Animal Crossing already has many competitors in the smartphone market in a way Super Mario Run never did. That's not to say it won't be a success. But the definition of success needs to be reimagined.

Run
Investors see a rebound story in Nintendo's Switch, along with its related console titles and a move into smartphone games
Source: Bloomberg

Super Mario Run was unique on so many levels. For one, it featured Nintendo's most famous character, reprising a 31-year-old game with a lot of nostalgia. Run's business model was also unusual in offering free-to-play for the first few levels, followed by a one-off charge to unlock the rest. As a result, Run hit the top of the iOS game rankings by download in 151 countries tracked by App Annie. The Android version, released four months later, managed the same feat in 94 nations.

Speedy
Super Mario Run became the top-ranked iOS game by downloads in 151 countries
Source: App Annie

Figures on gross, which take into account revenue from the app, point to a slightly different story. The iOS version of Run still reached the No. 1 spot in 89 countries, but the Android version never achieved that, instead managing just 30 entries in the top five, according to App Annie data. This anomaly isn't too much to worry about, but it does show Mario wasn't all-conquering.

Including Fire Emblem Heroes, another game that was launched in February, and the Android version of Run that dropped in March, Nintendo's smart-device-related business brought in 20 billion yen ($176 million) of revenue for the year through March 31, accounting for 4.1 percent of total sales. That's impressive given Run was available for less than half that period, and only on iOS.

What's notable, though, is the incredible drop in interest for Super Mario Run. It ranked a lowly 42nd in the U.S. iOS games store by downloads as of Oct. 22, and 217th by gross. By comparison, Candy Crush Saga is currently the top grossing game in the U.S. despite being first released in 2012. It's remained in the top five for much of the past year.

Flame Out
Once a raging success globally, Super Mario Run has plummeted in smartphone app rankings
Source: App Annie
Note: Data is for Oct. 22, 2017.

Nintendo's revenue for smartphone games and related intellectual property was 9 billion yen in the first quarter ended June 30. That's 5.8 percent of total sales, quite a bit lower than where you might expect it to track given the early success of Super Mario Run. Remember that the Android version underperformed the iOS one, which was itself looking long in the tooth.

Sales Boost
Nintendo returned to sustained revenue growth in the past three quarters after the release of its Switch console, with assistance from new smartphone games
Source: Bloomberg

That's why investors need to look at Animal Crossing differently. While Run was an explosive hit, Nintendo should hope its next few games achieve more of a slow burn. They don't need the same boom and bust hype as Pokemon Go (a Niantic Inc. game that licenses Nintendo content), but instead require a slow accumulation of loyalty, akin to Activision Blizzard Inc.'s Candy Crush franchise, or Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s Clash series.

Even Nintendo executives have been circumspect about the future of smartphone games. Yet for this to be a sustainable business longer term, investors should hope Nintendo's Animal walks, not runs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net