Everyone in the game industry is aware of multiple massive changes sweeping through the business over the last ten years, changes that have been daunting in their speed and scope. But it’s difficult sometimes to see where change is headed, or how it is touching all aspects of the business. It’s especially difficult to recognize and accept changes to fundamental business process and products and markets when those very things are what’s paying your salary.
We’ve all seen the swift rise of mobile games, from an obscure beginning on feature phones in the 1990’s to the multi-billion dollar business built on the fast-growing global market of smartphones and tablets. This year marks the ascent of mobile games to become the single largest segment of the game industry in terms of revenues, outpacing the revenues from console games.
The trend has been obvious for years just from watching the conferences that feature the game industry. The E3 show continues to shrink in terms of floor space, while mobile shows are growing every year. The tracks devoted to mobile games are become more important, and more well-attended, at the Game Developers Conference. Perhaps more significant are the exhibitors at these conferences, because they are spending money to display there. More and more, these companies are serving the mobile game industry rather than the console or PC game business.
Another early indicator has been the flow of jobs — look at the high-profile game designers and executives with long histories in the console and PC game business who are now creating mobile games. Many of the best and the brightest in the game industry have turned their attention to mobile games. Mobile game companies are growing rapidly, and many new startups are still being created. When was the last time a new console game publisher arose Or even a big console game studio Even the companies that build tools for game developers are creating their software with mobile in mind. The quintessential console game engine, Unreal Engine, is now also a mobile game creation tool.
If you want to know where popular culture is headed, look to advertisers, marketers, and comedy. Those creative businesses all thrive on being in touch with popular tastes. The zeitgeist is shifting to mobile games. Where South Park once parodied World of Warcraft, now it’s making fun of free-to-play mobile games.
Another place to look is at what threatens our youth, at least in the eyes of those who worry about such things. Once the threat to our vulnerable youth was dime novels and pulp magazines… then it was comic books, then the “vast wasteland” of television, then rock music, and for a time it was Dungeons & Dragons, which was eventually supplanted by video games. Now the worry is that kids are spending too much time playing games on mobile devices.
Once the holiday television shows were awash in console game ads, both for hardware and for software. Now what we see are likely to be mobile game ads, like Game of War: Fire Age‘s $40 million campaign, or the similarly immense TV spend put forth by King Digital to promote Candy Crush Saga.
The growth of mobile games is changing the entire industry. Everything from game designs to marketing to product development to finance is being affected by this shift. It’s past time for everyone in the game industry to re-examine all their fundamental ideas of how and why we do things. The simple, halcyon times when all games were sold in the same way to a similar group of people are long gone. While some of the old models may still work and generate profits, those models may not be the most effective way to do things any more. The audience has changed, the way they think of games and how to pay for them has changed, even the way they play and the length of time they play has changed.
Mobile has finally realizing the long-sought goal of the game industry: Reaching every demographic, everywhere on the planet. It seems clear that the growth of smartphones will continue headlong into all corners of the globe, as ever-cheaper devices reach broader markets. You can bet games will be a significant part of those devices, wherever they end up.
Does this mean games on other platforms are less important Not at all. In fact, it’s important to remember that the broad audience of people who play games really don’t pay that much attention to platforms. That’s a technical detail that’s much less important than the fun they get with a particular game, or the thrill of interacting with a favorite setting, character, or personality. People want to play games wherever they are, and on the best device possible. Some of the most successful mobile games have a strong Facebook version as well. Or look at the success of FIFA on mobile and console, where the synergy between the two FIFA games has driven greater engagement (and more revenues) than previously possible.
While the future of games will have mobile as its most lucrative and popular core, the maximum revenues may be seen from brands that transcend the mobile platform to find expression online, through consoles, and on social platforms as well as new platforms that may emerge in the future, such as VR.
Games are increasingly being thought of as brands, or at least the companies that want to maximize the success and reach of their games are thinking that way. Even though a company’s game revenues may primarily come from a segment other than mobile games, the gravitational pull of mobile is affecting them. Most major console games released these days have some sort of mobile companion app, at least for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Even Nintendo has started to release some mobile companions, albeit in a limited fashion.
The mobile game train is leaving the station, and you can either be on it in some fashion — or you risk being under it. No one is sure of where this train will end up, or exactly what path the the train will take. All that’s certain is that things are changing and will continue to change. We all need to keep checking assumptions regularly, and keep looking at the data coming in — and most of all, listen to what your game players are telling you. The future is bright for the games industry if we can keep adapting to the changes and creating better experiences for game players.