One of the biggest themes of last year was the launch of core games on touchscreen devices. First, Apple featured Super Evil Megacorp's Vainglory in their iPhone 6 launch then Hearthstone launched on mobile devices, and it seemed like mid-core players would start migrating to "timer free" core games. But things on the top of the charts stayed relatively unchanged from 2014. Supercell's Boom Beach and Clash of Clans still dominated the mid-core market together with Machine Zone's Game of War. King kept players crushing candy in two of their games. Slots games solidified themselves as top grossers and we saw an IP game enter the top ten as Kabam's Contest of Champions made $100M in it's first 7 months on the market.
I don't predict there to be huge changes in 2016 as the market has matured to a point, where top publishers hold on to their spots by creating entry barriers through massive advertising spend. I do believe, however, that core games will affect the mid-core market, though in a way they didn't expect. I also believe that alternative growth platforms, such as streaming services, will become more viable drivers of user base.
1. Mid-Core Games Will Be Redefined
Clash of Clans launched almost four years ago in June 2012. Boom Beach, which soon will turn two years old, having launched in March 2014. These two games by Supercell have pretty much defined, evolved and dominated what we know as the mid-core games category on touchscreen devices.
Since Clash of Clans launched in 2012, the market has been flooded with Clash clones.
Despite light incremental innovation to actual gameplay over the last four years, the game loops of mid-core games have stayed essentially the same: build a base, raise an army, and battle other players. We’ve taken this loop as a given for years, and in the process exhausted players on building and troop training timers.
Blizzard’s Hearthstone, which launch on mobile in mid-2014, was the first game that successfully introduced a new type of game loop that didn’t involve building or training timers. Hearthstone opened a path to a new type of game loop where players don’t have to grind to get to the fun part. Instead of building and training timers Hearthstone incentivizes players to invest their time in learning and perfecting new strategies with different card decks.
In 2016 Supercell will launch Clash Royale, which I believe will redefine mid-core games by monetizing through meta-game, just like Hearthstone, instead of building and training timers. In my mind, Clash Royale will have a massive effect on the industry. I believe that Clash Royale will fair better than Hearthstone because it was designed for mobile first. In my experiences with it, Clash Royale has been able to hold on to the depth and strategy of gameplay while at the same time shortening the session length by removing turn-based gameplay of Hearthstone.
I believe that Supercell's Clash Royale, which is currently in soft launch in Canada, is bound to reform the mid-core games. This synchronous player-versus-player battlers has ditched daunting base building and embraced a gacha driven meta-game as the main driver of monetization.
I predict that in 2016 the asynchronous build and battle games will start to become outdated, as Clash Royale will launch a new wave of synchronous PvP battlers which attempt to monetize with their meta-game instead of through rushing timers.
2. Mobile Streaming Platforms Will Grow
During the last year we’ve seen Twitch, Mobcrush and Kamcord, among others, invest into the growth of mobile games broadcasting. Games like Vainglory have been able to use these platforms to boost their growth due to their e-sport focused synchronous player-versus-player gameplay.
Streaming platforms, such as Mobcrush, will offer new growth avenues as mid-core games focus on battle instead of building.
I predict that the redefinition of mid-core games from asynchronous build and battle to synchronous player-versus-player battlers will benefit mobile streaming platforms. Not to mention the ever increasing CPIs, which force developers to seek for alternative growth drivers.
3. Core Games Will Remain a Niche
Over the past couple of years, several studios have proclaimed that touchscreen devices are finally ready for “real games” aimed at core players. These companies, usually founded by developers behind AAA titles, aim at delivering a PC/console experience on touchscreen devices. Companies like Hammer & Chisel, Industrial Toys, and Super Evil Megacorp argue that core gamers want to play the same type of games on their touchscreen devices that they play on their consoles and PCs.
Companies that create core games for touchscreen devices like to position themselves (jokingly) as the rescuers, whose mission is to liberate players from the horrible freemium games available on mobile devices.
The problem with their position is that PCs and consoles differ from touchscreen devices not only through controls, but also through usage patterns. As we very well know, median sessions on mobile tend to be relatively short, well under ten minutes. Mobile users also tend to prefer easy controls that don’t require great amount of accuracy or fast reaction times.
Vainglory by Super Evil Megacorp is a great example of a niche core game. Since its initial release, Vainglory has received a tremendous amount of support from major growth platforms such as Apple, Amazon, Mobcrush and Twitch. Yet after a year of being live, the game is hardly cracking the top 100 grossing charts. To be fair, the game has grown, and is likely profitable, but with the amount of work and support it has received, the expectations are likely higher. On the other hand, core games which have seen commercial success on touchscreen devices, such as Hearthstone and World of Tanks Blitz, are designed with the mobile player in mind. Their controls are relatively simple and their session length is under control.
Core games like to position themselves against traditional mobile games and tout their controls. However, based on their lack of market success, perfected controls and lack of timers is not what players are looking for.
Overall, Super Evil Megacorp's success is far better than other highly touted startups have experienced. For example Hammer & Chisel has been forced to pivot away from game development after trying to keep their MOBA, Fates Forever, alive and growing for a year.
I predict that as long as makers of core games for touchscreen devices continue to ignore learnings from casual and mid-core games, they will remain a niche.
Deconstructions of Core Games:
4. More IP Based Games
Facing ever increasing user acquisition costs and a constant flood of new games to compete against, many developers on mobile are utilizing well known IPs to give their games an extra boost. The benefit of a strong IP is that it allows a game to stand out in the crowded app market while at the same time increasing its accessibility. Put simply, players are more willing to give the game the benefit of the doubt if they’re familiar with the IP.
Kabam's Marvel Contest of Champions is one of the most successful IP based games. The game mitigates the issues of a large app size, heavy battery consumption and complicated meta-game with a strong IP and beautiful graphics.
Kabam’s Marvel Contest of Champions, EA’s Star Wars: Galaxyof Heroes, Glu’s Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and Zynga’s Wizard of Oz Slots are all great examples of successful use of intellectual properties. Great in the sense that without an IP these games wouldn’t likely stand out but with a proper use of a brand they’re able to rise above and beyond their competitive titles.
I believe that in 2016 we’ll see more IP based games than last year. I also believe that the IPs will have less of an impact on each title than they did last year, as is already happening with the Star Wars IP. At the moment there are high production value Star Wars games from EA, Kabam and Disney in addition to dozens of other games from smaller developers. An oversaturation of IP based games combined with developers overpaying for the right to use those IPs will eventually balance itself by the end of this year.
More games finding success with an IP leads to the saturation of IPs in the market. For example, there are several Star Wars titles made by large publishers, all of them competing for the same Star Wars fans.
Deconstructions of IP Games:
5. More High Production Value Games
Core games, such as Vainglory, are not the only ones pushing the technical limits of touchscreen devices. Games like Need for Speed: No Limits, Marvel Contests of Champions, and Dawn of Titans are all examples of how much the devices and the games have progressed in the last couple of years.
Games with high quality production values tend to get the top spot on Apple’s featuring carousel, which can be worth millions in user acquisition. The downside of a high production value is large app size, increased battery consumption, longer loading times, and slower content cadence. In other words, this means high production values tend to decrease the overall accessibility of the game.
EA's Need for Speed: No Limits and Natural Motion's Dawn of Titans are so beautiful that it's hard to comprehend that they're actually mobile games.
Kabam has publicly stated that they will be “shifting strategy to put more resources behind every game (source: Venture Beat)”. They’ve already experienced mixed results with hits like Contest of Champions and misses like Star Wards Uprising. The problem is that a high production value miss is just a much more expensive miss.
I believe that in 2016 we’ll see even more games with ever-higher production values. We’ll also witness once again that graphics don’t make a game successful no matter what the platform is. A game with poor gameplay and best-in-class production quality is destined to fail while a game with amazing gameplay can overcome poor graphics and succeed. That’s just how games have been always been.
6. King Will Continue Its Decline
Candy Crush Saga has been for the longest time the biggest game on mobile. It's sequel, Candy Crush Soda Saga, is an impressive top ten hit. The third iteration of candy crushing, Candy Crush Jelly Saga, is a very good game hovering somewhere in top 20. Based on the last three candy crushers, the fourth iteration will likely continue the downward trend and end up as a solid top 50 game.
Candy Crush Saga was followed by Candy Crush Soda Saga after which Candy Crush Jelly Saga was launched. In addition to matching candy, King also launched a dozen similar candy colored puzzle games, each less successful than their predecessor.
Candy Crush is King’s biggest brand and it’s oversaturation and decline paints a picture of the company in general. King seems to be stuck in a mode of incremental innovation, as if they’re afraid to do anything new. While the old saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" may have worked the past couple of years, the fast-moving world of mobile games is set to leave King behind. King's conservative approach to game design is evident even with their acquired studios such as Z2Live. Z2Live's biggest game is Paradise Bay, which is essentially Hay Day with 3D graphics, light story elements, and a tropical island theme. While it's a very nice game overall, it offers nothing new to players who are tired of optimizing production of a farm and has struggled to stay in the top 50.
With the recent Activision purchase, you may think that King is destined to succeed, as they’ll now have all the IPs to take over the mid-core market. The problem is that pretty much all of the King’s games are puzzle games and in my experience cross-promoting players from a puzzle game into a simulation game doesn’t work. Puzzle game players are not interested in anything other than puzzle games. King’s players can crush candy in three different apps but they refuse to farm a single coconut in Paradise Bay.
The only way for King to stop its decline is to allow its studios to try something new. The company employs some of the best talent in the games industry (hello to my ex-Digital Chocolate colleagues in Singapore and Barcelona) that just needs to be set free to make great genre defining titles. If they don't try something new soon, they will continue to see less success with each new title they release.