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Nintendo adds monthly subscription to 'Fire Emblem Heroes'

How do you solve a problem like FEH?
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Fire Emblem Heroes (FEH) is Nintendo's mobile money-maker. The free-to-play RPG has pulled in, according to SensorTower, $656 million since its release three years ago -- over $200 million more than all of Nintendo's other mobile games combined. That money train is running out of steam, though, and Nintendo wants to curb that with a $9.49 monthly subscription plan called Feh Pass.

Despite being the company's most-successful mobile title in 2019, revenue was down significantly to $156 million, which is almost half that of the $295 million revenue from its 2017 launch year, and 23-percent down on the $205 million it made in 2018. This is a fairly normal pattern for a gacha title. Gacha games rely on a small number of high-value users spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on in-game currency (Orbs, in FEH's case). As the number of users playing a game drops, the number of high-value users typically drops in tandem.

Enter the subscription. Nintendo was a latecomer to mobile gaming, and has been experimenting with various monetization methods. Gacha has been the most successful, but its links to gambling have led to bans in some countries, and bad PR in others. More recently, Nintendo has pushed subscriptions in both its Animal Crossing and Mario Kart mobile games, with some success.

For their monthly $9.49, Feh Pass users will get a mixture of heroes, quality-of-life features and missions. The main draws are "Resplendent" heroes, which are buffed versions of existing characters in the game, a rewind mechanic to fix errors (similar to the feature in Three Houses on the Switch) and an expansion of the Summoner Support system to cover three heroes.

A subscription service is not likely to extract significantly more money from high-value users. Instead, it's a way to lock in more casual players that might prefer spending $9.49 monthly instead of occasionally dropping a few dollars on Orbs. Keeping mid-tier users active is a proven way to keep top-tier players spending.

Nintendo revenue chart

As SensorTower's data suggests, FEH is far from dead, but Nintendo's other mobile titles are not performing well. Granted, building mobile games costs far less than producing games for the Switch, but even so, titles like Dr. Mario World have been misses.

Community reaction to the subscription service so far is mixed, with critics pointing out that many of the new features locked behind the fee are standard in other gacha titles. The like-dislike ratio on Nintendo's announcement video is fairly brutal, made worse by the fact it coincided with the game's third anniversary. It was an occasion where players were expecting a giveaway, rather than a give-us-more-money plea. The most-vocal users in gacha communities are often not the ones spending the money, though, and many FEH announcements have seen heavy dislikes followed by an increase in revenue. Feh Pass will be available in-game from February 5th.

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