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The increase of the crease: mobile gaming on a foldable phone

After trying out the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 for over a week, I share my experience of playing five popular games (of different genres), as well as my thoughts on challenges and opportunities this form factor brings to mobile gaming.

Game Developer

August 25, 2021

6 Min Read

Couple of weeks ago, we published Omdia’s Mobile Games Report covering 1H21. It just so happened that Samsung also announced its latest folding smartphones, the Galaxy Z Flip 3, and the Galaxy Z Fold 3, which I’ve been trying out for over a week. I sensed an opportunity to provide a few highlights from our report, while sharing my experience and thoughts on what it’s like to play some of the most popular mobile games on a foldable smartphone.

In the first six months of 2021, games saw a 7% HoH revenue increase across App Store and Google Play combined. Global mobile games revenue has continued to rise thanks to deeply entrenched titles, as well as new entrants. For full details, view Mobile Games Report – 1H21, which was produced in partnership with Sensor Tower to provide insight into the global mobile games market.

Genshin Impact dominates the action genre in terms of global revenue

Genshin Impact is a free-to-play open world RPG in the vein of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It was released on PC, mobile, and PS4 in late September 2020 with full cross-platform play. Since its launch, Genshin Impact has seen 56 million downloads worldwide on both app stores, generating nearly $1.4bn by the end of 1H21.

Genshin Impact is one of a growing number of Chinese mobile games experiencing major success internationally. Its success underlines the opportunity for triple-A – or premium gaming experiences – to be translated to mobile. Omdia expects to see more of these types of mobile games to emerge in the near future.

The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 has two displays: a 6.2-inch cover display and a 7.6-inch foldable display. Notably, the unfolded screen utilizes an under-the-display selfie camera for the first time: although the hole-punch camera is visible upon close inspection, it remains hidden well enough not to interrupt gaming (see it circled in red above). As far as I’m aware, Genshin Impact wasn’t specifically optimized for the Galaxy Fold devices, but it looked and felt as if it was: the game switched between the displays with no issues, and the graphical fidelity on the 7.6-inch display was truly astonishing.

Pokémon Go remains the poster child for the geolocation AR category, five years on

As a location-based title, Pokémon Go was expected to suffer huge losses when the pandemic hit, but changes implemented swiftly by Niantic to render the game more lockdown-friendly managed to offset any negative impact. Pokémon Go generated $642m in 1H21 - higher than its pre-pandemic revenue.

Pokémon Go has found a niche, and its formula has yet to be successfully replicated, despite attempts to capitalize on the popularity of the location-based AR genre with similarly global IP (e.g., Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and Minecraft Earth). In terms of revenue, there is a huge divide between Pokémon Go and other mobile AR games: it generated 2.5 times more revenue than the second-highest grossing game and 39 times more than the third.

Pokémon Go is one of the few games where the cover screen’s oddly narrow 25:9 aspect ratio is actually an advantage, allowing you to easily catch Pokémon with one hand; meanwhile the larger display provides an immersive map view when scouting the local area. Like Genshin ImpactPokémon Go allowed me to switch between the displays without interrupting the gameplay.

Call of Duty: Mobile is still a huge international success

The shooter genre has continued to grow globally, with a 12% HoH net revenue increase. Since its launch in October 2019, CoD: Mobile has been a runaway success, which effectively leveraged Call of Duty’s global appeal and allowed Activision Blizzard to significantly expand its audience beyond console and PC gamers. CoD: Mobile was the third top grossing shooter game in the first half of 2021.

As most mobile games haven’t been specifically optimized for dual-display smartphones, the experience of switching between the displays can vary greatly by game. CoD: Mobile was one of the games which required me to relaunch the game completely so it could readjust resolution (see above). Although CoD: Mobile utilized the unfolded screen well enough, the game’s resolution didn’t look very impressive, suggesting that optimization is still very much necessary.

Magic: The Gathering Arena and other tabletop games saw big gains in the first half of 2021

Tabletop mobile games revenue grew by 33%, compared to 2H20 – making it the fastest-growing genre in this period. They continue to have an enduring appeal globally, generating $826m through consumer spending in 1H21. In my opinion, card games (and tabletop games in general) truly shine on the larger folded out display – providing a detailed view of the cards and items.

Xbox Game Pass downloads maintain good pace, boosted by cloud gaming

The Xbox Game Pass app saw 2.6 million app downloads across App Store and Play Store worldwide in 1H21, making it the most popular cloud gaming app. Undertale (pictured) and the recently released Hades are among 80+ games which offer touch controls, allowing you to play games without a game controller. Speaking of game controllers: none of the existing controller clips extend widely enough to fit the unfolded Fold 3, meaning that unfortunately your only option is to prop it up against something when playing.

As all cloud gaming titles on Xbox Game Pass run in 16:9 (widescreen) aspect ratio, they can’t make full use of Galaxy Fold 3’s large 7.6-inch display (due to its square-like 22.5:18 aspect ratio).

It’s still early days for foldables, but there is real potential

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of unoptimized games and apps which worked well on the Galaxy Fold 3, but it’s still hit and miss: certain apps worked flawlessly across the two displays, others had to be restarted, while some were clearly unsuitable to the phone’s unusual aspect ratios.

This is Samsung’s third commercial iteration of the Fold device - when compared to the original Fold, it’s clear how far it has come in terms of display size, durability, and overall experience in the space of just two years. That is not to say that foldable smartphones have been perfected and that they are ready for mass market adoption – more work still needs to be done.

Gaining wide game developer support will be a tough challenge for foldable smartphone manufacturers. It’s clear that foldables can enhance certain mobile gaming experiences, but it remains to be seen when (or if) game makers will take full advantage of these form factors. As one example, I can certainly envisage games adding a Nintendo DS-like controller interface with a partially folded display (what Samsung calls “Flex Mode”), akin to Microsoft’s recent solution for Xbox cloud gaming on its Surface Duo device (see below photo from The Verge).

The reality is that the number one priority for all mobile game makers is to reach the biggest audience as possible. Limiting unique features to a small percentage of gamers with foldable phones conflicts with that strategy. I nevertheless remain optimistic: the decreasing prices, attractive trade-in/payment plan offers, and increasing quality of foldables on the market today (and in the future) point to an acceleration of the uptake of folding smartphones.

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