BY COLIN CAMPBELL, JOURNALIST AND WRITER
Still expanding fast, mobile gaming cannot afford to stand still.
The video game industry as a whole is likely facing a post-COVID growth contraction, but mobile gaming is one sector that’s roaring ahead. Recent research predicts that the mobile games market will grow by at least 23% per annum, through 2026. That growth is being fuelled by increased smartphone penetration around the world, but also by game design and branding innovation.
While the longer-established console and PC gaming market has some room for creative retrenchment – especially during a financial squeeze – the mobile sector has no choice but to surge ahead. The business is booming, and its entire model is based on the short-attention spans of its consumers, and by the lure of novelty.
MOVING TOWARDS THE FREE-TO-PLAY MODEL
The good news is that consumers tend to respond positively, and en masse, when they perceive a hot new game. Boldness is rewarded.
Blizzard’s Diablo Immortal is a free-to-play mobile game released in June. It’s a dungeon-crawler based on a much-loved franchise that has previously used a full-priced model, mainly focused on PC. When the game was first announced, many fans were aghast that the franchise was moving into the free-to-play mobile. Yet, in its first month after release, Immortal users spent around $50 million on in-game items and boosts.
More than 30 mobile games have grossed at least a billion dollars in revenue, all of which use the free-to-play model, and are built for quick snatches of gameplay. These include cultural touchstones including:
Clash of Clans, in which players take on the role of a village chief, who builds power by attacking neighbors.
Candy Crush Saga, a colorful puzzle game in which players try to line up three matching pieces of candy.
Genshin Impact, a fantasy combat game in which players explore a lush world, gaining power through combat and magic.
While mobile gaming is associated with softcore games – people who play in short bursts, mainly to pass the time – all of the above games are cleverly focused derivations of hardcore games of the past, like WarCraft 3, Tetris, and the Legend of Zelda. Those classics were originally designed specifically to be played for long periods at a time. But it was a fresh crop of game companies that recognized how they could be remodeled for a different business environment.
In their earliest incarnations, the established game companies sought to replicate the mainstream market, on smaller devices, releasing modified games at high prices. But they were outflanked by a new generation of companies that saw greater potential in driving uptake by creating games specifically designed for mobile and offering them for free.
These games are monetized via their most dedicated players, who use them both as a time-killer, and as a social platform.
Sometimes, these games are referred to derogatorily as “gacha games” in which players are forced to spend money to progress. Certainly, mobile gaming has attracted predatory gameplay mechanics, such as loot boxes. But many of these games, including Immortal, are generous with their free content, or they base their revenues on selling personalization items, such as in-game clothing or weapons skins.
Research shows that players are spending money and have multiple reasons for doing so. A new report commissioned by Google’s gaming department found that 36% of people pay to progress more quickly, but almost as many (more than 30%) say they spend in order to achieve a personal goal, to access new content, to better compete against friends, or to expand in-game collectibles.
Mobile games are consumed differently than console and PC games, and by different audiences. What do mobile gamers want? Personalization and individual expression are extremely important. This is likely to remain mobile gaming’s defining characteristic.
Google’s research found that, when looking for a new game to play, the feature that players find most attractive is more diverse characters, and character creation options. The report found that 30% of players are willing to spend money on “customizing the appearance of characters and items”.
With advanced new technologies coming through, like Epic’s MetaHuman character creation tool, this trend looks likely to continue.
Google’s report also highlights how people play mobile games. More than half say they primarily play when they’re feeling bored, or they have some spare time, or they just need to take a break from real life. Around a third of mobile gamers say they play when they’re invited by friends, or when they feel like they need mental stimulation.
Mobile ADVERTISING GOALS
Social interaction in gaming is key for gamers. 36% of players use in-game texting tools, while 27% use in-game chat. 30% share in-game content with their friends on social media. An astonishing 50% say they interact with other players outside the game, via social media.
Mobile gaming is also proving to be a self-sustaining ecosystem. A third of players say they find new games from in-game ads, while roughly the same number act on recommendations from friends. 35% say they are prompted to try new games by ads on social media, which are often generated based on the player’s own activities and interests.
Google found that 40% of respondents enjoyed in-game ads, finding them either “very positive” or “positive”. Only 25% found them to be negative or very negative. More than 50% said they tap on an ad at least once a month, in order to sample the product, which is very often a game.
A word of warning though to game developers – players cited “too many ads” as the second-biggest reason for quitting a game, behind only “the game is not fun” and equal to “too many bugs and glitches”.
The future for mobile gaming
The relatively recent flourishing of cross-platform gaming (which allows iPhone users to play with Android users, for example) is proving popular, with a third of players saying they make use of this feature, which is available for hits like Minecraft, PUBG Mobile, Pokemon Go, and Words with Friends 2. Cross-platform play is likely to become ubiquitous.
Mobile is also a sector that has proven to be most welcoming to new trends like Augmented Reality (AR). Pokemon Go (2016) is a case in point; which generated revenues of $56 billion in its first five years.
Mobile gamers say they are ready for the future, with 39% expressing an interest in jumping into the metaverse and 21% interested in AR. These numbers are likely to rise as playable examples arrive on the market.
Mobile gaming could well be at the forefront of innovations, especially those in which individuals create digital personas to inhabit virtual spaces that are playful, personalized, and social, and those that are amenable to brief and preferably free interactions. Mobile devices will be central metaverse hubs for consumers as they discover and inhabit online communities where they play, socialize, and spend.
At Dialect, we’re an integrated agency specializing in creating content that connects brands with gaming and tech audiences. If you want to discover more about how we work or collaborate on a project together, get in touch!
Header Image: DALLE-2