A lot of ink is spilled on the trials and tribulations of the AAA game industry, and to be sure, it’s a cesspool of greed, abuse and excruciatingly stale game design. But it’s important to put it into context. When we talk about AAA games, most people imagine the hottest (stupidest) new Assassin’s Creed game running on a Xbox Series One X Pro. As Visual Capitalist’s awesome chart makes clear, however, console games are now a mere fraction of the market. Mobile games bring in more money than console games. And PC games. Combined.

I emphatically don’t want to denigrate the mobile game playerbase, which is often belittled with cries of “filthy casual, you aren’t real gamers!” But I also don’t want that ridiculous attitude to protect this segment of the industry from criticism. Let’s look at the market, then, both in how mobile games are designed and how they’re monetized. But of course, as anyone who’s ever played a mobile game knows, those things are inextricably linked. In my mind, there are three distinct types of mobile games worth examining each one to see if there’s reason for artistic optimism in this space going forward.

The first type of mobile game is the freemium/free-to-play/gacha (i.e., lootboxes, i.e., gambling) game. The second is the subscription service, specifically the Apple Arcade ecosystem. The final is straight up purchases of made-for-mobile games, with no in-app purchases.

(There are some additional categories: PC/console to mobile ports; ad (or malware) riddled clickbait; and casino gambling apps. I don’t think any of the above fit in the scope of this discussion, but if you disagree, take us to task in the comments!)

Let’s start with free-to-play games, as they’re the most prevalent and successful. They’re also the most manipulative, nakedly greedy and mechanically uninteresting of the bunch. The original incarnations were about as insipid as it gets. Drop a boatload of cash to spend more time playing a match-3 clone less interesting than the free one that came with the Xbox 360. If this is the future of games, we’re doomed.

But let’s be fair; modern incarnations of these games, despite remaining predatory as hell, actually have some mechanics that could be considered “fun” as opposed to “addicting.” Collectable Squad RPGs like Raid: Shadow Legends, Marvel Strike Force and Galaxy of Heroes (which I myself have been sucked into) are little more than clones with a skin of your preferred IP bolted on, but dig deep enough and there are some legitimately interesting character interactions, especially when it comes to the larger-scale PvP modes. That said, would these games have much appeal without the gacha aspect? Probably not. Once that Skinner box, “I’m SOOO close to maxing out this progress bar!” piece of the puzzle is gone, there isn’t a whole lot left.

There are better examples, though, such as Hearthstone/Magic the Gathering, Pokemon Go and Genshin Impact. The gameplay of the Pokemon leaves something to be desired, but its core monetization is one of the least obnoxious among the heavy-hitting apps. Genshin is powered by gacha, which is never great, but underneath the ten types of currency and character rarities is a Breath of the Wild clone that’s actually fairly fun! That might be damning with faint praise, though — I promise you’ll have more fun spending $60 on Breath of the Wild than you will spending $60 on Genshin Impact.

Unfortunately, while I’ve been waiting and hoping for ‘real’ games to influence the mobile space, the trend seems to be going in the other direction too often. Genshin Impact was a mobile-designed game ported to consoles and PC, lootboxes and all, and no one seems to have raised a stink about it. Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes made nearly one and a half billion dollars in revenue for EA — far more than any of their AAA tentpole Star Wars games. Phone games have been the butt of jokes from the toxic subset of self-described “hardcore gamers” for a while now, but as more big companies start to realize how much money they can make with a skeleton crew of developers and a gachapon, they’re only going to proliferate.

The holy grail for publishers and many consumers has been a subscription service for games: pay $12 a month, play anything you want. The Xbox Game Pass offers great value in this vein for console and PC owners, but for mobile players, the Apple Arcade is the closest we get. The pitch is a win-win for players and developers. Devs get a big chunk of up-front money, players get access to a trough of new titles without ever having to worry about vile microtransactions.

Of course, the reality has been depressingly less rosy. While several of their games, such as the fantastic Grindstone, received rave reviews, subscriber growth has stagnated, and Apple has already said they’re retooling the service to focus on games with more ‘engagement’ — i.e., the very toxic, addicting experiences a subscription service was meant to prevent.

Android offers a similar service with some gems included, but most of the entries are ports, and all indicators suggest this product is even less successful than Apple’s. My prediction: these subscriptions will continue to limp along, but they won’t fundamentally shift the market, and it’s extremely unlikely they’ll ever offer an exclusive ‘killer app’ which couldn’t have been made otherwise.

While the third mobile game model is the most obvious, it’s also the least successful: making a game, selling it for a set price, and … that’s it. I’m also including “free-to-play, pay for more story/characters” games in this. As long as you’re explicitly paying for defined content with no randomness, this is the category we’re talking about.

Lots of these games are well-received, and some are financially successful — Reigns, Threes and Plague Inc. come to mind, among others — but it clearly isn’t enough to convince others to adopt the model. Standalone games are nearly nonexistent among the top revenue-generating mobile games, and there’s not much more representation among top downloads.

There’s other evidence, too, that this is a nonstarter. One of the memories etched into my mind is this truly horrendous Kotaku article in which Jason Schreier (who I’m generally a massive fan of!) takes Square-Enix to task for having the absolute gall to … charge a set price for a video game, Final Fantasy Dimensions. Was the game worth $30? Maybe, maybe not — it’s not great. But that’s a personal value proposition; I don’t think Assassin’s Creed is worth $1, but I don’t think Ubisoft is evil for charging $60 (now, the employee abuse…)

There are examples of successful games selling for $1–2, but that price point is barely sustainable for a trio of developers, let alone a large indie studio. The attitude that mobile games should be as close to free as possible, as Schreier espouses in the article above, is atrocious, and is a massive reason why the mobile market has been, and will continue to be, dominated by addiction rather than art.

There is perhaps an out for independent developers in the “expansion” model mentioned above, given that there are no articles bemoaning games that cost $30 in three-easy-payments instead of up-front. This method has little representation among top-sellers, meaning we’re unlikely to see it in any EA Mobile titles, but there’s potential for this to be a good way to get paid for your games without sinking to the lootbox lows.

Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?

Funny enough, there is one sector of mobile gaming I haven’t mentioned, which is largely free of random gacha microtransactions: kids’ games. While the worst of these are strange, illegal garbage (Brush Pregnant Elsa’s Teeth!), the best, like Toca Boca’s work, offer engaging gameplay to their target audience and sustain themselves solely on content packs. They’ll gladly charge for new levels and minigames, and you might get annoyed at your kids’ begging, but you’ll never be asked to hand over your credit card so that Little Suzie might get a new character from that lootbox. This model seems far more sustainable to me, and it’s also something that parents seem willing to pay for. As mentioned above, these “content pack” models are seen from time-to-time in games for adults, and while they’re far from the norm, there’s at least some cause for hope here.

What’s Next, Then?

I started this article with a non-rhetorical question: is there a case for optimism in the mobile space? And my conclusion is … no. Not really. While there will always be interesting mobile-native games, it’s clear the trend of plunderous unboxing simulators isn’t going away, while the rest of the market will be dominated by ports. Mobile won’t provide a respite from the greedy AAA console developers; if anything, it’s going to be a sanctuary for them.

Of course, the growth of cloud gaming may ultimately make this analysis pointless. There’s a good chance that in 20 years, your mobile device will be a thin client that streams the newest Madden from the superpowered box in your living room (or more likely, in William J. Microsoft’s server farm).

In any case, if you’re an aspiring developer looking to create something both lucrative and groundbreaking, or a player looking for something more cutting-edge than the PC/console scene provides, you’re likely to be disappointed. “Free-to-play, pay-for-more” games, as outlined above, do find success but the trendline there is flat at best — for major releases, we’re not going to stop seeing “Spend 100 Crystals to Instantly Refresh Your Energy!” anytime soon.

That or the continued exponential growth of mobile->Switch ports. Get money and attention from an exclusive Apple or Google deal, then bump it over to a console, double-dipping sales in the process. My fingers are crossed, since that’s likely to be the least worst option.

-Matthew Borgard
Saturday: Nic begins our #GameEveryYear series with … Rogue (1980)!

Playback aims to deliver thoughtful discussion about the past and present of video games.

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