The Wild West of Mobile Gaming

I’ll play the version of Candy Crush where I get to smash monsters to a pulp.

Popular games like Candy Crush, Farmville, Words with Friends, and others have been maligned by serious gamers and institutions for years now. These games are often accused of being designed solely to maximize attention. Largely focused on turning a profit more than anything else, these games, subject to little oversight, are accused of utilizing every trick in the book to turn a profit. In this mobile gaming Wild West, due to mobile users’ general resistance to paying for apps, attention becomes the name of the game. The longer these mobile games can hook their claws into people, the more profitable the game becomes. These aggressive monetization strategies take many forms, but what you always end up with are mobile games that are both unappealing in design and substance.

Combine all of this with a system that incentivizes borderline psychological manipulation, and all of this gets amped up into overdrive. An endless supply of free games means competition skyrockets, quality is driven into the ground, gems get lost amongst the crowd, and the goal becomes perpetrating a vice grip on whatever tiny piece of the pie you’ve managed to lock in and never letting them go. Lost is any motivation or incentive to make a great game. Before you know it, you’ve shelled over hundreds and hundreds of dollars in micro-transactions to these game makers without even realizing it.

Nevertheless, much of my family and many others love mobile games. Mobile gaming’s simplicity is hard to beat. It makes everything from waiting in line to sitting on the toilet a more enjoyable experience. In fact, most of the world prefers mobile gaming to its older console and PC cousins.

Some fun stats:

  • There are now 2.2 billion mobile gamers worldwide. 203 million of them are in the US. 56% of them play more than 10+ times a week.
  • By the end of 2018, Candy Crush generated $1.1 billion and Fortnite — $1.3 million in daily profits. Pokemon Go topped the chart with its $1.4 million in daily profits.
  • 21% of the Android and 25% of iOS apps downloaded are games. But 78% of the players worldwide belong to the android game markets.
  • 51% of global revenues is attributed to mobile games, as opposed to 25% to console and 24% to PC games.

Simultaneously, mobile gaming finds itself at a point where many other creative mediums have found themselves before: enjoying widespread appeal while mostly being ignored by tastemakers, content creators, critics, and others. Mobile gamers are viewed as casual and quickly dismissed as not real gamers. Publishers that decide to cater to mobile gamers are seen as cashing out or selling out.

Perhaps the most emblematic example of this type of disdain for the medium is in 2018 when Blizzard announced Diablo Immortal. To say people were shocked is an understatement. Fans were furious. It amounted to a major PR disaster that year. Accusations of Blizzard selling out traversed the web, people lamented the death of the Diablo franchise, and no one believed a Diablo game only playable on mobile would be anything more than a mockery of itself. This is in spite of the fact that Diablo Immortal received surprisingly good reviews in its recent beta and is on track to outperform expectations.

The irony of all of this is that this is a story that was once true for film, television, PC gaming, console gaming, advertising, design, poetry, theater, and many other forms of creative expression. Is it possible for mobile gaming to muscle its way into this elite club of expression? Anything’s possible, but getting there will be a challenge.

Apple Arcade exists as a faint light on the horizon.

Ever since I got to art school and got converted to using a Mac exclusively, my strongest hope was that Apple would one day put a modicum of effort into improving the experience of gaming on a Mac. To this day, to say the experience is bad doesn’t really do it justice. It’s just nonexistent. What I didn’t realize was that Apple was thinking about games, just not in a way I had originally hoped. In late 2019, they introduced Apple Arcade, a new subscription-based product offering people a suite of games free from advertisements, in-app purchases, data tracking, and online requirements. Additionally, Arcade offers support for game development and bases the whole model on a revenue-sharing framework. New games are added every couple of weeks, and all games are fully playable offline.

Mobile gaming’s problems seem like the exact set of problems a subscription-model package could be designed to solve. Consumers who balk at paying several bucks for one game might be convinced to pay the same amount of money for several. Due to a lack of monetization constraints, game developers can focus most of their attention on making their games fun experiences, and consumers might be more willing to try out many more games available to them.

It’s important to think about incentives as well when considering solutions. A free-for-all strategy incentivizes homogeneity and capturing attention aggressively. A pay-wall could incentivize quality and diversity in games. The framework in which these games operate is almost more important than the games themselves. If the framework is set up right, then good games will automatically follow.

Are subscription-based mobile game services really the answer?

I can confidently say that after a year subscribed to Apple Arcade, the service largely delivers. I’ve spent many hours enjoying several different types of mobile games. Everything from a version of Candy Crush where I get to smash monsters to bits to a touching story about Legos to a variety of quaint city builders is on there. It’s amazing how radical the mobile gaming experience changes when you aren’t aggressively pushed in any direction. I think many people automatically write off mobile gaming because of the medium, but that’s just as illogical as writing off TV or film back in the day.

Does Apple Arcade solve every single one of the issues with mobile gaming sufficiently?

No.

It was reported in the middle of the last year that Apple canceled several contracts with various game studios citing that their games didn’t have high enough “engagement.” Ad Colony reports, “ Reports have indicated that the change in strategy may be a sign that subscriber growth is not as strong as expected. Currently, Apple Arcade’s subscriber count numbers are not publicly known. “ Apple using engagement as a metric is a bit worrisome. Having one company control the fate of these games is a problem too. Instead of the push and pull of the free-for-all mobile market, you have the whims of one company taking precedent.

There are also issues with Apple controlling both the platform by which a significant chunk of mobile games are delivered to users and a monetary stake in a service that actively promotes certain games over others. This potential conflict of interest becomes even more important to highlight in the wake of several anti-trust lawsuits filed against tech companies this past year.

I would love to see alternatives compete with Apple Arcade. Whether it’s via game designers themselves, other start-ups, or third-party companies, the mobile gaming space isn’t as saturated with giant corps as other creative spaces. Obviously, the Android market is a place that could benefit from a Google or some other company’s version of this. Mobile gaming is a massive space that still has lots of room for different subscription models to compete. I would love for other companies to jump in.

Competition would solve one of Apple Arcade’s biggest drawbacks too. After the initial announcement and release, Apple been very quiet. The games introduced to the service have slowed down, and Apple is back to designing absurdly expensive hardware. The only other minor announcement they made concerning Arcade was to include Arcade in Apple’s version of Amazon Prime. I’m worried that Arcade is being relegated to a set-it-and-forget-it service similar to some of what Amazon Prime offers. In other words, if Apple Arcade’s main point is to be a cherry on top for Apple One subscribers, not a feature that is iterated upon and receives continuous investment and development, it will fail.

For now, all we can do is wait and see, and if you haven’t tried out Apple Arcade, give it a spin. The games on there are worth it, and more games are being added every month.

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This post was originally published as part of a free gaming newsletter at https://thevirtualregister.substack.com. If you like what you’ve read and want more content like this, you can check out the full newsletter here.

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