From the classic Snake, through to Angry Birds, Pokemon Go, Candy Crush and Fortnite, mobile phones have undergone impressive transformation as a platform for gaming. In light of the rapid increase of smartphone usage across the globe – now especially prominent in populous countries like China and India – more developers and publishers than ever before are competing for our attention with an ever-expanding number of mobile games for Apple and Android.
With the player count soaring, so too is mobile game revenue. In fact, mobile games represented as much as 47% of the total gaming industry’s $134.9 billion revenue last year, according to GameIndustry.Biz. Smartphones lead the way in this increasingly dominant realm of gaming that is almost as profitable as PC and console gaming grouped together. This huge shift in the financial power balance has led some to claim that mobile gaming is the future of the games industry. But revenue numbers don’t tell it all.
Success is not just profit, but legacy
Whether or not mobile can be claimed to be the future of gaming depends on the framing of the question – are we discussing games in terms of craft or business? As a business model, moving the main platform of gaming to mobile makes a lot of sense. Mobile gaming has managed to target demographics that traditional video game platforms have failed to attract; notably older audiences and women, broadening the traditional audience of gaming and bringing it to a huge number of new potential consumers. Mobile games also have lower development costs compared to other platforms, making them potentially more profitable.
The biggest financial boon for moving gaming to mobile, however, is the huge revenue generated by the microtransactions that are endemic to the platform. Most mobile games are available for free with funding instead coming from purchasable loot boxes, bonus items and timers in-game. These “micro”-transactions all add up, in a significant way. Last year’s highest grossing mobile game; Tencent’s Honor of Kings, made a jaw-dropping $2 billion.
Such anticipated sales figures continue to draw gaming franchises away from other gaming platforms and towards mobile. Even franchises historically affiliated with PC gaming have seen exploration into the mobile platform with recent notable examples including Command & Conquer, Alien: Isolation, Diablo, XCOM and The Elder Scrolls.
Quality over convenience
Yet as a craft, mobile gaming has still not achieved the reputation of gaming on traditional PC and console platforms. Gaming journalists are frequently disparaging of the whole concept of mobile games. The award shows for mobile games, such as the International Mobile Gaming Awards, are nowhere near as closely followed or globally viewed as their counterparts for PC and consoles, such as The Game Awards – which was watched live by 26.2 million people last year.
Part of the reason for this difference is of course the higher performance of PCs and consoles compared to smartphones. The kind of graphical and sound quality achievable on modern gaming consoles is simply not (yet) available on smartphones. While mobile games offer accessible and convenient gaming, it is the more traditional consoles that allow for the type of gameplay which immerses players in a more meaningful way. On top of that, the concept of microtransactions and pay-to-win models is problematic and a turn-off for many gamers, as explained below.
The pay-to-win problem
While games on traditional platforms present a large up-front cost with few or no subsequent in-game transactions, mobile games fund themselves through a steady stream of in-app purchases. The necessity of mobile gamers making these purchases inevitably invites mobile game developers to design games and their mechanics in such a way as to maximally incentivise microtransactions. Unfortunately, this leads to so-called pay-to-win mechanics, where gamers who have purchased bonus items or abilities easily outperform or outcompete gamers who have not. And what is more incentivising to buying more powerful items in a game than being beaten by someone else who has done so?
The introduction of such mechanics at the expense of game balance has given mobile gaming a bad reputation from which it struggles to depart. This has not been helped by the online game industry’s influence on mobile games, with the progression incentive of mobile games now likening that of popular casino sites. As this and gaming submerge in these apps, many of the more traditional gamers and developers wish to distance themselves from the mobile gaming industry overall.
Console gamers are proud, loyal…and fervent
So while mobile is certainly now the financially more successful platform, it remains the lowest regarded in terms of its craft, as the burden of microtransactions robs developers of creative freedom. This distinction gives context to the discussion on the future of gaming. Depending on your perspective, either mobile gaming or console and PC gaming might be regarded as more successful in its artistic impact on gaming, and the respect its games garner.
Publishers, developers and gamers who value the financial success of games will continue to push gaming towards a mobile platform, while those more interested in performance, creative freedom, and quality of mechanics will favor PC and console. In general, fans of console gaming tend to be more loyal to, and passionate about, their favorite games – which gives console games a degree of pop cultural significance and enduring popularity on a degree unmatched by mobile games. The tension between profit and craft frames a fascinating flashpoint in the games industry – the resolution of which is hotly debated and unclear.