It’s tough to remember sometimes that the mobile game market, while it’s been around for more than a decade, is really in its infancy in many ways. We’ve had handheld gaming since the 1970’s (with Mattel and Milton Bradley), though they were primitive single-game devices. Nintendo really popularized portable gaming with the original Game Boy back in the 1980’s, and games were on cell phones since the 1990’s (with Tetris in 1994 and Snake on Nokia phones in 1997). Really, though, the modern era of mobile gaming began in 2008 when Apple introduced the App Store for iPhones. The mobile game industry has since become a $9 billion global market growing at over 32 percent per year, with over 500 million players, according to Newzoo.
Still, there are plenty of critics of mobile gaming, particularly those who have been in the game industry a long time or are hardcore gamers. These mobile games are not sustainable brands like the billion-dollar brands of the console business that have been around for decades, like Call of Duty or Mario or Madden or Halo. There’s some reason to be concerned about the longevity of mobile game brands,as recent news demonstrates. Rovio recently announced that its revenue grew only 2.5 percent in 2013, and profits dropped substantially as the company invested in future growth. The underlying factor, though, was that Angry Birds is no longer the chart-leading juggernaut it once was. Licensed products now make up nearly half the company’s revenues of â‚¬156 million.
King has seen a slowing of growth in Candy Crush Saga revenues, and investors have expressed concern over the company’s long-term potential when 80 percent of its revenues come from Candy Crush Saga. Other mobile games that were chart leaders a few years ago are no longer in the top ten or twenty, and sequels to mobile games don’t seem to follow the example of console games or movies where sequels are often bigger than the previous release.
The more ephemeral nature of mobile game brands so far is not inevitable, nor is it a consequence of the platform. Rather, this is to be expected when you see games appearing on a radical new platform. The first games to appear on radically different new platforms are usually simple games, and simple games usually don’t have brand longevity.
First, let’s make it clear what a radically different platform is. That’s not the latest version of a console; the interface and functions of an Xbox One would be perfectly easy to grasp for an Xbox player. The jump to a smartphone or a tablet, with a touch-screen interface and multiple sensors, is radically different.
Faced with a radically different platform, what you get first are versions of games from other platforms, and new games that are usually pretty simple in design and execution. Simple games are easier to design and program, and generally have a broader audience appeal. As we’ve seen, the vast majority of mobile games so far have been casual, from simple action and arcade games to puzzle games.
Simple games tend not to be enduring game brands. Tetris is long-lived, recognizable brand, and so is Pac-Man, But neither of those holds a candle to the biggest brands in video games (and the latest Pac-Man game is hardly recognizable compared to the first one). Mario began as a very simple game, but with dozens of titles based on the character and increasingly complex games and mechanics it has transcended that origin. The latest Mario games are in no way simple or casual games.
Enduring game franchises tend to have greater depth; they aren’t classified as casual games. Minecraft. Halo. Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Madden Football, League of Legends, World of Tanks. These are deep games. The controls may be simple, but the story or the strategy is deep. These a rich, immersive experiences that create great engagement with players. One important thing to note here: Minecraft Pocket Edition has sold over 21 million copies at $6.99 on Android and iOS, so successful mobile games don’t always have to be free-to-play. The right game can command a premium price.
There’s no inherent reason mobile games can’t be deep, and in fact we’re starting to see mobile games with deeper game play and correspondingly deeper engagement. Exhibit A is Clash of Clans, along with other games like Clumsy Ninja, Game of War: Fire Age, The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle Earth, and even games like Blizzard’s Hearthstone. We are seeing deeper games on mobile, and with that we’ll see the emergence of long-term, billion-dollar game brands that will eventually rival or perhaps surpass the biggest console game brands.
More likely, there will be a convergence between the top console game brands and mobile games. Look what’s already happening with FIFA, for instance, or the increasingly popular “companion apps” that are becoming standard for new AAA console games like Watch Dogs. Those tails may be small now, but someday that tail may be wagging the Watch Dog.
Let’s remember that we’re still in the early years of the modern mobile game market, and designers are still exploring what’s possible with the platform. Most of the biggest video game brands didn’t emerge until the platforms had been established for a long time, and that’s probably going to be true of mobile game brands as well. There is still plenty of opportunity ahead in the mobile game market, and it’s a great time to begin building those billion-dollar brands of the future.