With an estimated install base of 2.4 billion phones, it’s no small wonder that mobile gaming has all but buried the handheld market. Unless you’re in Japan, where the devices such as the 3DS and Vita still sell respectably, tablets and phones are quite clearly the devices of choice over consoles. These days, at least in the West, an all in one device reigns supreme over a dedicated gaming machine, and the evidence of that is plain to see.
With mobile phones tucked into the back pocket of both the young and the elderly, record breaking software – albeit a short-lived one – such as Pokemon GO, and even the very biggest Hollywood stars being used as tools for promotion, mobile gaming is everywhere. It would, therefore, be an easy mistake to assume that the mobile gaming market is a healthy one, but nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, the mobile gaming market is a total disaster, a convoluted mess that is both unprofitable and unsustainable, and it needs fixing.
Let’s get one thing clear: to those that would argue that the mobile phone as a device isn’t capable of producing tactile gaming experiences, I call bull. There’s no good reason why a multi-purpose device, which is essentially a powerful computer, cannot be made into a good platform for gaming. The issues that now plague the mobile gaming industry are not about its capability. They are, in fact, multi-factorial and cannot be explained by one singular problem, but rather by three separate clauses; the current business model, the lack of curation by publishers and the absence of talented developers.
Mobile gaming’s reliance of the free to play (F2P) business model has seen the market descend very quickly into a rut that the industry seems incapable or unwilling to break free of. Sure, there have been some examples of success such as Clash of Clans, Mobile Strike etc., but by its nature, the model is limited in application and typically only works with these sorts of strategy based games. The truth of the matter is that F2P simply does not work for the majority of video game genres.
So, how did this mess occur? The micro-transaction/F2P model has been adopted by publishers because of its ability to attract a broad variety of users by casting the largest possible net. The idea is then to establish a renewable revenue stream for continual profit. The concept does work in practice – view the App store and you’ll notice that the top 20 mobile games are all F2P. What you’ll also notice, though, is that they are limited to 2 or 3 genres; building games, casino games, strategy games.
F2P just doesn’t work for action, platforming, racing or role-playing games in an effective way. What we have, therefore, is a host of publishers and developers sitting on IPs that they believe will only be profitable through F2P, so they then shoehorn the F2P model into games that aren’t designed to accommodate it. The results are poor experiences that don’t sell chart, thereby convincing publishers/developers to abandon quality IPs to instead make generic casino games that turn over profit. The issue, then, is as much about the market being starved of viable monetization methods as it is a lack of quality.
The lack of curation in the mobile market is a massive problem, too. Both Google and the App store are currently an abysmal mess of games that are not required to adhere to quality control. There just aren’t enough barriers, no oversight or certification process that requires a publisher agreement, as there is on Xbox Live or PSN. So, what we’re left with is over a million un-curated apps – how can anybody be expected to find quality gaming experiences? Should it really be for the consumer to sift through thousands of apps to find the best ones? Of course not. That should be the job of the provider, the curator, without which the best games are being lost amid a sea of trash.
Consider that there are around 650,000 games available on the iPhone. 650,000! That’s more than the libraries of every game console ever made combined. If you removed 70% of those games, would that affect the bottom line in any way? Surely not. In this environment, there is no respect for quality, with publishers relying on so-called “whales” – the individuals that spend big in F2P – to earn money, and that simply isn’t sustainable.