The trends and traps of modern mobile games
The mobile game industry, for better and worse, has grown a lot over the last decade, establishing its own niche in terms of design. No longer just an outlet for Facebook styled games or lesser versions of console titles, the mobile industry has transformed both its design and monetization models. Big-name hits like Genshin Impact and Arknights have shown a focus on a different way of building games that I want to look at today.
Whenever I talk about the mobile market, I bring up this point — mobile games are not simple. There is a tendency from a lot of gamers to look down on mobile games and big-name mobile developers. Mobile games focus on a different kind of complexity and depth compared to other platforms that we’re going to talk about in the next section.
Just like the console and PC markets, the bar of quality has grown among mobile games. Match 3 games, Angry Birds clones, Clash-styled, and endless runners are no longer the big-ticket games. What we are seeing is developers trying to attract core and hardcore gamers to their titles much in the same way that Free-to-Play (F2P) or Live Service games hook people with Call of Duty, Fortnite, and so on. This requires a careful balance of short-term and long-term content. These games must be easy enough to get people in, while still providing that hook for hardcore play.
It’s easy to think of mobile games as titles that you just play in your spare time, as a lot of them are built that way, but the games that hook people today are about having an involving experience. Genshin Impact features a game space that is normally reserved for open-world titles on the console and pc. Even though there are still limits of play with energy systems, there is always content and challenges to do daily, which takes us to our next point.
There is one area where the best mobile developers outshine their peers on other platforms — progression. Mobile games typically go through three stages of progression for the player.
- Beginning: The game slowly introduces content while providing rapid rewards to get players situated and starting to make use of the systems. This part of the game is about introducing the player to the thrill of the game, IE: banner summons and leveling up. This is also where the game’s tutorial will guide the player through all the basic systems and daily content/play.
- Middle: The player has access to the full systems of the game but is still finding their way in terms of what to focus on and preparing for the end game. The excitement has slowed down, and the player is now paying attention to what it is like to play this game normally. Unless something new is introduced, there will not be any more tutorials or onboarding.
- End Game: The player can access everything in the game and it’s now about trying to get everything they need for completing the hardest missions or doing PVP. They are also on the lookout for any new content or additions to their strategies in future updates.
A good mobile game must be set up to keep the player invested in all three stages of progression; failing at any one stage will often lead to a ruined game. Player investment is hard no matter what platform we’re talking about, and if someone is not invested while playing a mobile game, most likely they’re not going to be spending money. That also means avoiding pain points and making your game as comfortable to play as possible.
When I’ve spoken with Game Economist Ramin Shokrizade on previous occasions, we’ve discussed that keeping the player engaged and invested through the two-week mark of play is the goal of mobile games. If someone is playing the same game after that period, most likely they are committed for the long haul and have a greater chance to spend money. The act of spending money has also changed with the growth of the mobile market.
I’m not going to spend as much time on this section, as I dedicated an entire post to it already. When we originally looked at mobile games in terms of monetization, many of them were set up for pay to win or pay to be less annoying. The use of “fun pain”, or intentionally designing problems in your design and selling the solution back, are not as popular these days. People don’t want to be annoyed into spending money — there are more than enough mobile games of any particular genre out there to switch over to.
Gacha/banners are limited-time opportunities to get a rare or powerful piece of content in a game. While this content has the capacity for power, there has been a fundamental shift in terms of what attracts people to spending money on these games and the overall design of mobile titles.
Mobile game design has come a long way in the past 20 years, and we could separate it into three distinct periods. The first period is the roughest — the pre-smartphone era. Mobile games here were simply watered-down ports of popular console games and were aimed to be a competitor to the handheld market dominated by Nintendo.
This period quickly went away with the arrival of smartphones and the rise of casual games. The second period which lasted from the end of the 2000s until around 2018/2019 is what most people consider mobile games to be. This is the era of “the casual market” — typified by games like Jetpack Joyride, Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga, puzzle games, the Clash games, and many more. The market was dominated by games designed around quick experiences and engagements. The goal wasn’t to hook someone for hours on end but get them to play a few minutes at a time daily. The target audience was primarily non-gamers, and for my audience and the people reading this, you probably looked down on these games.
These games earned a lot of money and were where a lot of the monetization and free to play practices could be seen at full.
The discussions around ethical monetization have been focused on these games and something we have covered in depth. While these games earned a lot of money, they created a market of peaks and valleys — with the big-name games doing incredibly well, while not leaving much for anyone else. The problem with going after the casual gamers was that they didn’t have the same loyalty to the market or long-term play ethic that core gamers had. Once someone got their fill (or ran out of money) they were done with these games and the market.
Over the last two or three years, however, we are seeing a new push by mobile developers (originating from Chinese developers) into the third period of mobile games. Technology has advanced to the point where smartphones are no longer limited to simple titles, and developers are capitalizing on that. The games released today — even ones still using older monetization elements — are being designed around unique gameplay loops and long-term play. These titles don’t want your parents or grandparents as a market, they want you. They’re looking for the people who play games like Fortnite, Fall Guys, Call of Duty, or any long-term live service game.
One of the biggest shifts is trying to get away from the “it’s like X, but with microtransactions” style that many mobile and free to play games have used. Yes, there are still monetization elements in third-generation mobile, but the idea is to use that to sell content, not avoid frustration. Likewise, filling your game up with ads or making people click on them for bonus rewards have lost their popularity with modern mobile games. The player should be 100% focused on playing the game, not on what their credit card statement is that month.
The reason is simple — developers want people who are going to become invested, not just in spending money but playing the games as well. They want someone who is going to be playing for months or years; the goal is to make it someone’s “go-to game,” or that game they are more than happy to play daily. Mobile games today still use the same monetization and progression practices seen throughout the decade but tie that into gameplay that is higher quality compared to the second and first generations. There is depth to figuring out these games and their systems, which is then further facilitated by the monetization and progression models. We can see this at length with a major shift in terms of how these monetize their gameplay.
This is the biggest point of the best and most popular mobile games today. While power is still an attractive feature for spending, it has its limitations. Once someone has the best weapon or character, they’re not going to need to spend money going forward. Likewise, if there is even one thing that everyone needs to buy to play a game, critics will call it “pay to win”, and not play.
What we’re seeing today is the idea of “pay for utility” or pay for customization. Personalization options like special skins, emotes, portraits, etc., are still popular, but they need to be tied to something else. Pay for utility is about introducing content that isn’t just about raw power, but about new choices.
Both Arknights and Genshin Impact, among other examples, have embraced this philosophy with their games and gachas. Both games feature a rarity system for their content — Arknights goes to six stars, Genshin Impact goes to five. While higher rarities do have boosted base stats, everything in the game regardless of rarity can be boosted in terms of raw power.
A five-star item or option at level one is going to be worthless no matter what compared to higher-level options. Instead, these games design their best and rarest content with unique abilities that you can’t find anywhere else. Arknights is a tower defense-styled game with each character part of a designated class. The five and six-star characters have unique abilities and options that no one else has access to — you could have a tank that can attack at range, a magic-user who can also strike in melee, and so on. Genshin’s higher rarity characters also have unique attacks and functionality. It’s no longer about just getting powerful characters but getting powerful characters that work for you. If I’m building a team around a specific strategy, and the latest banner has a character that fits it, most likely I’m going to spend a lot to get that character, and the developers know that.
Not only that, but limited-time banners, or gachas, means that if you don’t pull that character during the banner, most likely you’re not going to get that character again. Either that character will not get put into the normal rotation, or the pool is so high that the chance of you getting them is less than a percent. So, there is an all-around generated need and desire to make that pull. If I get that great character that works for me, then I can do better in all the various modes of the game.
This kind of approach has helped the issue of content losing viability over time. Many hero collectors and gacha-designed games will have older characters who are just useless despite their high rarity. But in a game where everyone is unique, you can have a character who is over a year old still be desirable if they have a power that no one else has access to.
This is a difference in design when we compare it to some of the Western mobile games I’ve played. Both Marvel Strike Force and Contest of Champions are focused on paying for power. New characters are explicitly designed to be better, and while older characters can be updated with patches, their meta becomes a chase for what’s new dominating the gameplay.
Interestingly, newer gacha games are fairer for free players than some of the older examples even with low drop rates. What they do is provide the premium currency for summoning (or gacha pulls) very readily to everyone. Because everyone has the same chance of getting the best characters, spending more money helps, but it does not guarantee anything. Further still, because these games rely on multiple characters and strategies, pulling one five-star or SSR (Super Super Rare) reward doesn’t automatically mean that the game is easy now. Make no mistake, these games still have pay to win elements in them. No matter what game we’re talking about, someone is going to spend a ton of cash and within a week or two of playing have access to the very best options in the game.
The progression goes from “I’m just trying to get really good characters for my team” to “I have my strategy, what do I need to capitalize on it?” This is a similar sense that we see from the best deck-building games, where developers have already learned the same lesson about power versus utility. You can’t just keep scaling new content up and expect people to chase it with their credit cards. Likewise, releasing a new challenge and telling the player base that all the grinding they did is now worthless will make sure that no one keeps playing. PVP works well for these games, as having customized teams going at it is far better than just “whoever spent the most wins.”
We have spoken before about how many PVP-focused titles do move away from monetization at a high level. Once someone has everything picked out, the gameplay shifts to focusing on optimization and long-term retention. What third-generation mobile games are doing is trying to get players into that state without pressuring them to spend money. Pay for utility requires a more measured approach to designing content, but when it works, that is where the money comes from.
There is a reason why games like Arknights, Azur Lane, Guardian Tales, Genshin Impact, and Seven Deadly Sins Grand Cross are being considered by mobile fans some of the top-tier examples on the market today. None of them share gameplay to older examples of mobile games, each one has viability for free players, and they all have content meant to scratch that itch for people who want to pay for it.
And “pay for it” they did, with Arknights and Genshin Impact reporting huge profits over the last few months due to new banners. Love it or hate it, Genshin Impact managed to earn back its development cost within two weeks of its global launch. The games that do manage to hook players and succeed are still going strong, with several of the games mentioned celebrating their one-year anniversary, and there are slightly older examples going even longer than that.
I have one final point for the developers reading this. As with the console and PC side, the bar of quality for mobile games has risen. For those of you still looking to compete with King or Rovio with similar games, that’s not going to work anymore. In an upcoming piece, we’re going to break down Genshin Impact’s out of the gate success, and discuss how succeeding in the mobile space today requires putting in just as much work as developing for other platforms.
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