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The 4 Lessons the Mobile Market Must Learn From MMOs

Today's post looks at the similarities between the MMO and Mobile markets, and what has me nervous about the state of mobile games and development.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

January 24, 2017

8 Min Read

Recently, I've talked about the issues with defining consumers from fans when it comes to the game market. One of the major examples of not paying heed to this would be MMOs of the last decade. MMOs rose in popularity to dominate the scene, before crashing down in the late 00's.  Looking at the state and growth, the mobile market bears some similarities, and I have a few words of warning for the mobile market.


pokemon GO (The Verge)

The MMO Crash:

I've already talked about this in length on my Critical Thought Vlog series which you can watch below. To recap, the MMO crash which caused a lot of games of and studios to shut down happened for several reasons. Following World of Warcraft, many developers tried to emulate WoW in an attempt at getting some portion of the fan base. Elements like basic combat systems, progression and the subscription model were used by other MMOs.

Of course we need to mention that Blizzard did look at previous MMOs like Everquest in terms of design inspiration. However, the success of WoW is what drove future designers and publishers to it as the model to copy.

MMOs were being compared to WoW because of their subscription model regardless of the design. Each year, Blizzard kept increasing their lead and shutting down the market for only a handful of MMOs.

The ones that did manage to survive the last decade did one (or both) of two things. They were either completely unique in terms of design and mechanics, or went with a different pricing model to avoid being compared subscription-wise to WoW. Today, MMOs other than WoW have kept going thanks to either freemium or going "buy to play." Freemium was a huge deal and how it has become the preferred model for a lot of MMOs, and gave a second life to struggling ones.

With that said, let's move on and talk about how this relates to mobile games today.

Mobile vs. MMO:

The mobile market is similar to the MMO in several ways. The mobile market has a few major hits that dominate the scene just like the MMOs. The rest are smaller games that are trying something different. The clout and accolades earned keeps these major games in the public eye. Many apps have been released in an attempt to emulate them in some way, shape or form.

One big difference is the smaller development times. Mobile games are designed and released a lot faster than MMOs; usually in a few months. On the other side, a MMO is easily several years’ worth of development.

Even though it may sound different, the use of monetization models is similar. MMOs were all originally subscription-based, and everyone was compared to each other (and WoW). With the mobile market, the use of free to play with in-app purchases has lead to similar designs and monetization models, because everyone knows to copy the most successful games in terms of monetization. In turn, many mobile titles have a similar feel to them due to their back-end monetization model.


Hitman Go

There have been great newcomer successes on the mobile platform, but their successes are few and far between

While I'm certain that there are mobile games like Monument Valley who succeeded with higher quality content, the ones that are most in the news are games like Candy Crush Saga, and those are the ones that the general consumer knows about.

Both the mobile market and MMOs of the last decade became incredibly popular in a few short years. Even though we haven't seen a mobile crash, there are several elements that the mobile market should be taking notes from MMOs.

1: Don't Directly Compete With Each Other

With every major mobile game, there have always been games released in similar fashion afterwards; either as homages or just straight up clones. Video games are one of the few products that normally don't directly compete with each other.

This has led to a healthy market of diverse games. More importantly, this allows different games to develop their own fan-bases. What that means is if someone plays game X, that doesn't mean game Y is now automatically off the table for them.


Invisible Inc

Unique titles stand out and prevent the market from being dominated by one specific genre

Competing directly with each other is always going to be a losing battle for later games. Like the MMO market, there's no hope of someone directly competing against WoW in terms of content and design.

WoW has developed such a stable of fans and a lead that it will be impossible for someone to copy them.

From the mainstream side, we have seen fewer games that are straight up competing against the big names, but it's still important to mention here.

2: Stand out in Design

One of the killers of MMOs was basing their designs on the popular games. So many MMOs released could have been described by saying: "This is like WoW, but with X." Going back to the first point, you cannot directly compete with the big name successes. They have more money, more clout, and more recognition in the game space.

If you can't change your monetization model, then you need to offer something different in return. Games like Hitman Go, The Room, and Monument Valley were popular thanks to having great gameplay and monetization built around content instead of a focus on micro transactions.

3: Be Ready for Long-Term Support

This point is more for mobile games built around multiplayer experiences rather than a singleplayer experience. One of the biggest challenges of MMOs (and mobile) games is retention, and a major part of it is having consistent updates.

If you want people to stick around and play your game, then there needs to always be more stuff to do. A major problem that many MMOs faced was the realization that it only took a few months for people to finish years' worth of content. One advantage that MMOs had was end-game design: Non-story elements that could be repeated in the meantime. However, once the majority of your player base reaches the end, there must be new content coming.


Guild Wars 2

MMOs have learned the importance of keeping their fans engaged

There's always that awkward period when the developers aren't sure if the game will succeed or not, and no new content is released. This is far less risky than developing months of new content and having it ready before your game is even out.

Due to developing less complicated gameplay for the most part, it is easier to support mobile games compared to MMOs.

4: Avoid Making Life Difficult for Your Consumers

With the move to F2P, MMOs have struggled with balancing the need for money with keeping their fans happy. We've talked about the F2P migration before and how developers try to add as many monetized elements as possible.

The problem with this philosophy is that it tends to piss off more people than make them spend money. We've seen games like World of Tanks and Elder Scrolls Online walk back on their monetization.

The Mobile market has been having trouble finding the next big monetization element. A few years ago, pay or wait mechanics were the popular norm. Today, that has changed to loot box design for mobile and F2P titles. Mobile developers have been trying to find that perfect option for earning money without losing fans.

Speaking to some people in the mobile analytics business, I've heard that ad watching has become another option. This is the point that has me worried about mobile games the most.

The Future of Mobile:

To wrap up this long post, let's focus on what I just wrote. MMOs did have a crash in the late 00's and the mobile market is still crash-free. The issue is that MMOs had wriggle room to adapt and change based on where they were at. MMOs were expensive to play, so developers went F2P. World of Warcraft was too popular to copy, so other developers went in a different direction.


Orcs Must Die Unchained

Loot boxes are the current popular option for monetization, but for how long?

The problem with the mobile market is that if there is a crash, there is nowhere else for the market to go.

They have already conditioned consumers to pay the lowest up-front costs. In turn, this has created a market where going against the grain is very risky for any developer.

If a crash does happen to mobile games, things may be unsalvageable for the greater market. The big names will of course survive as they've done for the last few years. Smaller developers looking to break in will find a closed off market.

The Game Industry has had a problem with discoverability in all areas of it, and the mobile market is one of the worst for it. I keep saying this, but it will be interesting to see the state of the mobile market by the end of the decade, and who's still in it besides the big names.

What do you think of the mobile market, and are there any unknown games worth mentioning?

This was reposted from Game-Wisdom, where we examine the art and science of games. Follow me on Twitter for the latest updates of new content.

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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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