What makes mobile games so popular? Is there a formula to their success?
The untrained eye might think that cute graphics and a nonsense ‘-y’ adjective are the way forward but is there something deeper?
Moving house in the last few weeks, with my consoles packed up and no Internet, I’ve been resigned to playing games on my phone. Returning readers might notice that this is something unusual for me but not unheard of. We’re all familiar with the 2048 addiction of yesteryear.
Now, however, I find myself coming off a high of Waverun. Seeking something to occupy myself, I gave into peer pressure. My workplace has been abuzz with Crossy Road fever lately and, though late, I got onto this bandwagon.
It’s no secret that mobile games are money-making machines but how is it they are so successful?
One of the ways is obvious: make a quality game that requires a cost to download. A small fee to start playing is nothing for the player but amounts to lots when powered by social media. Candy Crush is an absolute behemoth at this. Forcing players to either pay, wait, or ask their friends for lives encourages them to introduce each other to the game.
This sort of dissemination through Facebook or whatever platform of preference allows for exponential growth. It cultivates water cooler moments among friends as we all opt to save money and keep playing. To spread like wildfire, the games must be carefully designed.
Each game must be interesting enough to maintain interest but simple enough to have little or no barrier to entry. A steep learning curve can act as a disincentive to new players.
For this reason, it seems we are seeing a resurgence or reimaginining of old arcade titles. Crossy Road being a modern take on the classic Frogger, and Flappy Bird is a member of the helicopter game family. Perhaps more of the old classics will be coming to smartphones with the vibrant and cute graphical style.
Games that are free to play have a more interesting strategy for monetisation. Microtransactions are hugely popular. As a MOBA player I can attest to how surprisingly tempting the latest skins or avatars are.
As the old adage says: “Something is only worth what someone is willing to pay”. Digital goods, like new characters are nothing to scoff at.
This is all well and good but what if someone doesn’t want to pay for the products? How do we make money from them?
There are always going to be anomalies where they refuse to pay and cannot be monetised.Otherwise, players can be made to work for the developer. The implementation of advertisements allows each player to generate revenue simply through playing the game.
This strategy requires, of course, players to be recurring. As someone who simply installs a game for a few days or weeks and then moves on, this is a salient point.
How do we keep a player’s interest? How do we draw them back in after they have become bored?
This is something that Candy Crush‘s life system and Crossy Road‘s free gifts do well. Binging on a few rounds leads to boredom.
A free gift, and the resulting notification, gives the player a reason to return. It reminds them of the game and suggests that his or her next free moment should be spent investigating this free gift.
This is something that Nintendo’s Mario Kart DLC strategy is reminiscent of. I’m already bored of it and bonus tracks at release would only extend that initial period by a small amount.
By waitjng months, they can draw players back in and cultivate replayability. The same is true for mobile games. Especially if the free gifts expired – you either log in and use it or you lose it.
For me, games will always be console or PC. I guess I’m outside the target market of mobile developers but, given the popularity of the iPhone 6 and Android smartphones, it’s without question that mobile games are the future for companies wanting to make serious money.
The Question is: Are They Good or Are They Bad?
The answer to this is a curious one. I think it depends on how we, as gamers, see mobile games. As I said before, I’m a dyed in the wool follower of consoles or PC. I really don’t have the time to invest in (what I see as) a less substantial experience.
If mobile games are drawing people away from consoles then I would suggest their success is bad for those of us who love having a controller in our hands. In some sense, with time as a resource, any time spent playing mobile games cannot, by definition, be spent playing on a console. So competition is natural. On the other hand, if mobile games are a gateway drug to building audiences for ‘hardcore’ games then it’s a very, very good thing.
Or maybe there’s a third option that I haven’t yet considered. Perhaps mobile games are what we can fill the times when we can’t game in front of a television? The train journeys, the long car rides, the awkward parties we can’t be bothered with.
In the end, I think we need to consider mobile games as part of the larger gaming family and more people playing interactive media is better.