Peak Mobile Gaming

It’s been a couple of eventful weeks for mobile gaming, with some notable releases and twists and turns. In order of completely subjective industry importance:

  • Threes! was released in the App Store. A well-polished, simple but addictive puzzler that everybody likes, which reminds me a bit of the fervor around Dots.
  • Square got around to finally releasing a Final Fantasy VI remake on phones and tablets.
  • Nintendo announced, in light of its recent poor performance, that it intends to experiment with smartphone games, though for now it sounds less Mario and more Luigi’s Companion App.
  • EA released an aggressive free-to-play update to the classic game Dungeon Keeper, and in doing so caused a huge stink in the media and gaming communities.
  • That Flappy Bird saga.

It’s made me think about where this industry has gone and where it may go in the future.

On one hand, a game like Threes! proves again that when done right, phone gaming can be awesome. Here’s something that takes full advantage of the limited control scheme, the pick-up-and-play aspect of phones, and the gentle simplicity of the gameplay and graphics. It’s a smashing success of what the app stores make possible for indie developers on small budgets, the latest in a handful of mobile originals.

Even Flappy Bird makes a similar point, though that story is a bit darker in its denouement: indie dev builds a simple app that captures the attention of a mass audience, but gets overwhelmed by its success and presumably the worst of humanity spewed his way, and eventually takes the drastic measure of removing his app to stop the abuse. Stupid clones and ridiculous auctions aside, its raise leaves a smoldering crater of mystery surrounding how the app got popular in the first place.

For the big publishers and developers, the message is that mobile phones and tablets are another platform for lead generation and monetization. It’s simple enough to port over old games with onscreen controls, and the best performing apps – from a return on investment perspective – may be the ones which are auxiliary to an established business and don’t rely on paying for the app itself or in-app purchases to thrive. EA mostly showed that it can take a reasonable thing 15 steps too far.

If it has not matured already, the mobile gaming scene is coalescing around these styles of games: the AAA blockbuster (which may be a port or a remake), the indie A-list, and the copy/crap (with rare breakouts). There are some questions asked about whether business models can be made to work in an ecosystem of free and 99-cent purchases, but I’d imagine most of that innovation – along with better gameplay – will come from the A-list camp.

The current situation reminds me a bit of Facebook games, circa 2009; the gold rush was settling down a bit after absorbing some players, the biggest ones were still making a splash by going public or being subsumed into traditional gaming companies, and the many warts of that industry were hidden or ignored due to the sheer growth of the market. If mobile games are treading down a similar path, a slowdown would force much of the crap and cash-in developers to look for the next growth platform.

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