To my mind, the word ‘gaming’ means consoles and controllers long before it conjures up the image of a smartphone. Even the most casual gamer will likely think similarly, and it can be surprising for some when the revenue and user statistics are put in front of them. According to research from Newzoo, the global smartphone gaming market will surpass that of the console this year, making up 32% of the $108.9 billion industry to console’s 31%. By 2020, the same report predicts that smartphone gaming will make up 40% to console’s 28%, which says more about the pace of growth in mobile rather than any kind of decline in console gaming, with mobile gaming likely to make $64.9 billion on its own.
At the recent E3 expo, TechCrunch asked gamers for their opinions on mobile gaming as an industry, and the responses were largely very similar. The prevailing opinion seems to be that mobile gaming is inherently casual, and that the success of positioning it as a serious medium for serious games will depend on the development of smartphones’ power. The (mostly) small screens and relatively low processing power holds the smartphone back, yet it continues to be a booming industry. 75% of revenue generated from the iOS App Store is through mobile gaming, and people spend 43% of their mobile app time on games. Why?
The reason seems to be that there are far more casual gamers than there are gamers who own consoles. When every worker has a smartphone and an hour to kill on their commute, the uptake of inexpensive, throwaway, distraction games goes through the roof. Candy Crush Saga is a prime example. The game itself is initially free, but its popularity has allowed developers King to introduce in-game monetization. Of the people who do pay, the average spend is about $25 a month. This may not seem a huge amount, but with over 340 million monthly active users (down from 550 in its peak of Q1 2015) the game has been a resounding financial success, and King’s $5.9 billion 2016 takeover now sees it as part of gaming giant Activision Blizzard. Mobile gaming also boasts almost equal popularity between men and women, with 51% of men and 49% of women saying that it appeals to them - compare this with the fact that 65% of console gamers are men and the size of the market for mobile gaming becomes clearer.
For mobile gaming to move to the next level among serious gamers, though, it will need to develop not just technologically but also in ambition. Puzzle games are by far the most popular mobile game type, and the industry will need to diversify to grab its projected audience. As the devices themselves become more powerful game designers will likely stop seeing quite so much of a distinction between a ‘mobile game’ and, well, a game.
Pokémon Go is an interesting case because it asks the player for a level of commitment closer to that of a console game. It takes time to establish yourself, there is a clear overarching goal, and you even have to move around in the real world to further your progress. The Pokemon brand name and the augmented reality (AR) capabilities that the game exploits go some way to explaining its popularity, while the latter also played a role in its current decline. Once users stopped being wowed by the nascent technology - and it is always quite striking how quickly they do - user numbers fell off a cliff and the hype all but died. Another thing about Pokémon Go is the fact that it was free, and you have to wonder whether the relatively simple game would’ve picked up nearly as much traction had it come with a price tag.
One company trying to bridge the gap between mobile and static gaming is Nintendo. Notoriously good at designing handheld devices, the Japanese giant is clearly looking to capitalize on the significant market shift by throwing resources into on-the-go gaming once again, a whole 28 years after the release of its original Game Boy. The Nintendo Switch packs a lot into a small package, and its plethora of features is a reminder of quite how far smartphone gaming needs to come to be considered a serious medium. The Switch has a large 6.2 inch touch screen along with two detachable ‘Joy-Cons’ which act as both a controller in the traditional sense as well as pointing devices. It can also be docked into a TV and used as a traditional console, and Nintendo believe it could sell more units than its wildly successful Wii.
It’s difficult, at this point, to imagine a gaming experience on mobile that comes anywhere close to that of a console, even if Nintendo’s Switch is a valiant effort. Hardcore gamers may well dismiss mobile gaming, hardware issues like processing power and screen size will remain a drawback, and top game studios will continue to focus their efforts on their fuller console offerings. Even so, the mobile gaming market is vast, and it’s about a lot more than just Pokemon Go.