Although the global mobile game market is expected to top $ 52 billion this year, recent studies show the outlook for gaming apps is not all sunshine and rainbows. That’s right, mobile games once again became the most popular app category worldwide in Q3 2017 with 23.4 billion downloads on the App Store and Google Play. However, the usage of gaming apps – namely, the number of gaming sessions and their length – declined by 16% last year. When it comes to game genres, the biggest losers were role-playing and casual games with 29% and 23% decline in app session length, respectively. And while dev studios are starting to experiment with different monetization models, elaborate gameplays and new technologies including Virtual and Augmented Reality, one thing is for sure: this year game developers must go the extra mile to re-engage bored players. What trends will shape the future of mobile game development and marketing in 2018?
Top 5 mobile gaming trends for 2018
- Further evolution of casual games. Casual games are a relatively young yet overstuffed market which is currently dominated by endless runners, Match 3 and hidden object games. Although a typical casual game still targets softcore players and has a relatively simple gameplay, 2017 proved it might be too early write such apps off as a promising (and profitable!) game genre. Look at Rovio Entertainment whose revenue increased by a whopping 94% in Q2 2017 and has been growing ever since. The company decided to revamp their staled Angry Birds franchise and incorporated new content and mechanics including user account and bird upgrades, as well as daily challenges and rewards into the game’s sequel. Also, they added several vectors of progression, thus enabling players to focus solely on character updates or moving from level to level and unlock one feature at a time. In the end, Rovio managed to create a mature free-to-play (F2P) casual game with a broad appeal and engaging, almost midcore gameplay. Certainly, they make use of microtransactions (MTXs) which is a necessary evil on mobile – but Angry Birds 2 at least offers a plenty of awesome content that is actually worth players’ money;
- Greater transparency of microtransactions. In the previous paragraph I called MTXs mobile’s “necessary evil” and I’d better elaborate on it. In a world where a simple Match 3 game like Candy Crush costs about $ 90-110 thousand to make (provided you address a software development firm outside the United States, of course), you can’t just put the $ 0.99 price tag on it or – what’s even worse – make it freemium in the hope that some crazy player will pay for the level upgrade one day. Studies prove most users aren’t keen on microtransactions, too; in fact, only 1.9% of players are willing to spend money on virtual currency, loot boxes and character updates. However, those guys bring up to 90% of all mobile gaming revenue! Last year the MTXs model faced heavy backlash from both players and dev community as PC and console games started to abuse it, too. The results soon followed. Several prominent websites including Business Insider, Rolling Stone and Intelligent Economist published lengthy articles saying MTXs brought little value to players and ruined competitive spirit in multiplayer games. In December Apple forced developers who sell loot boxes and other random game artefacts to disclose the odds of the likelihood of players getting different types of artefacts. The use of microtransactions and loot crates in video games is already being investigated by several government entities, so the chances 2018 will be the year of “less MTXs, more meaningful content” look pretty good;
- Proliferation of in-app ads. Globally, in-app ads generated $ 33 billion in revenue last year. Although it’s $ 4 billion less than in-app purchases made, high-quality ads are often considered a great alternative to obtrusive microtransactions. The cold hard truth about mobile gaming is that very few players purchase virtual artefacts to unlock gameplay faster, get extra lives or revamp a character’s look. Advertising is basically the only way to monetize those non-paying folks; by luck, they don’t really mind watching ads as long as they get something in return. Dynamic and static ads, interstitial ads, native banners and ads seamlessly integrated into gameplay will still be a thing in 2018; however, it’s rewarded ads that are bound to take center stage. Contrary to popular belief, players who receive free loot boxes and in-app currency for interacting with ads are 5 times more likely to make an in-app purchase. According to Facebook’s recent study, 54% of mobile gamers would rather watch a rewarded ad than pay for premium digital content; it’s no wonder mobile app advertising revenue will top $ 51 billion in just two years!
- Increased adoption of Augmented Reality. Although AR’s made it to every other 2018 game development trends list out there (again!), the number of people who seek Augmented Reality game development tips on the Internet is close to zero. I’ve checked it. And while the general public’s interest remains low, game dev pros including Aaron Fothergill (co-founder of Strange Flavour), Tanya Short (Creative Director at Kotfox Games) and Pavel Shylenok (CTO at R-Style Lab) believe 2018 will be a huge year for Augmented Reality. There are several reasons for that. First, Nintendo is working on an AR game based on Harry Potter novels, and it looks like their new product will be even bigger than Pokemon GO. Second, iOS 11 and its updates are set to usher in a flood of great AR apps; the OS runs on every Apple smartphone starting from iPhone 6s, so the market is getting too large to ignore. Finally, AR might be the magic pill that will cure players’ fatigue and make mobile gaming great again;
- Growth of third-party app stores and alternative monetization models. 2017 turned out to be an unprofitable and rather uneventful year for the majority of game dev studios, although it’s indie developers who (despite Apple’s efforts to improve independent games’ discoverability!) suffered the most. This year, even more small game dev studios will go bankrupt or turn to alternative app stores with milder competition. Besides Amazon and the famous Chinese Baidu app store, there’s a plenty of less well-known platforms that distribute mobile games and have a loyal user base. These include 1Mobile (Android only, 1.6 million apps), Aptoide (Android only, 750+ thousand apps), Mobile Gaming (cross-platform, most apps use the freemium model), etc. Some indie app stores even take a nonstandard approach to game monetization and marketing by offering users cashback on in-app purchases or enabling developers to set up their own app stores within their store (aka “shop-in-shop”). Considering the fact you can no longer successfully market a Match 3 game with less than $ 50 thousand in your pocket, moving in another direction seems like a good idea, doesn’t it?
If you study App Annie’s latest US mobile game analytics, you’ll see that there’s not much happening on the market right now. Candy Crush and Clash of Clans still rule supreme. Minecraft – which is the #1 paid app on the list – is only 44th top grossing game on the App Store.
But change doesn’t happen overnight. I believe 2018 will be a turning point for both mobile and video game markets. Major publishers have abused the MTXs model for too long; as they bear huge losses and try to reinvent themselves, independent developers might fill the gap and release more cool games to the market. Yes, the average price of a mobile game or IAP might grow, too. However, authentic game content which takes weeks to sketch, develop and polish, is worth players’ money.
What do YOU think?