The mobile games industry is nothing if not resilient.
In spite of COVID-19, we’ve enjoyed working from home and attending remote conferences such as Hamburg Mobile Summit Live. It was here that I recently moderated a virtual panel on the major industry trends of 2020 — from coronavirus to just announced iOS14 update and its impact on privacy practices. I had the privilege of sitting down to discuss the state of mobile gaming and what the way forward looks like, along with leaders from three top game development and publishing houses:
- Erik Pöntiskoski, CEO of Dodreams
- Fraser Macinnes, Director of Business Development of Scopely
- Albert Custodio Martinez, Director of Product & LiveOps of Square Enix
If you missed the panel, titled Mobile Gaming Today, it can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. Or, if you prefer a fast read here are a few of the highlights:
Though for the moment these trends have buoyed developers, uncertainty lingers. As a global recession looms, developers question where they should commit resources. Is it best to invest in new games, or double-down on existing titles? While it’s always best to hedge your bets by maintaining a pipeline, it’s an ideal moment to prioritize loyalty. By giving users reasons to play longer, return more often, and remain loyal, developers can increase long-term engagement and drive more revenue now and long after COVID-19 is over.
Let’s look at some of the ways that mobile developers can increase engagement, retention, and revenue during these unprecedented times.
COVID-19 is driving both opportunity and uncertainty
The coronavirus pandemic is driving widespread uncertainty across the global economy, and mobile gaming is no exception. On the one hand, game developers are experiencing rapid growth — largely thanks to housebound players spending more time and money on entertainment than ever before. But these gains are not consistent across the industry, and might not be sustainable. This reality left each of our panelists optimistic for the immediate future but cautious for the long-term.
“Of course we don’t want to benefit from peoples’ unfortunate circumstances,” Erik explained. “But still, as CEO of a studio, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we come out of this pandemic stronger than before. And we all know there is increased engagement in mobile gaming during COVID-19 … So you have to really think well on how you’re going to organize your live ops and your content, and what kind of features you have in the game.”
Erik noted that mobile growth isn’t occurring evenly — social and multiplayer games are faring far better than other genres. Developers must be able to carefully observe market trends and be confident they are acting on informed strategies.
“There’s not a crystal ball,” Albert added. “I think it’s very difficult to know what’s going to happen in the next six months. At the beginning of the year, more people spent time at home and shifted their leisure budgets from activities like cinema, restaurants, etc. to entertainment at home. As a result, there was a spike in revenue in mobile gaming. But this shift is not sustainable in the long term — if there are more quarantines and people need to go back to lockdown again, if people continue to lose jobs, the mobile gaming industry will feel that economic impact.
Mobile game development is adapting to remote work
The good news is most developers are transitioning smoothly to remote working environments. Each of our panelists typically works from home, coordinating efforts using video calls. They’ve also observed clearer benefits that range from time saved not commuting to increased focus. Yet despite these perks, Erik does worry about the impact on work culture.
“I did believe that game development was better when you’re all in the same place, and I was proven wrong,” he admitted. “But I’m really concerned that, in the long term, we’re going to lose this shared vision of the big picture, where we’re going. And that will start having a negative impact on our alignment.”
Fraser adds that for all the benefits of remote work, the bigger question is what developers will take away from it. “What do we learn from this imposed working setup?” he wondered. “In the future, absolutely all of the benefits of working face-to-face will remain as true as they were … At the same time, I think there are a number of benefits we’ve realized as a result of coronavirus that can be carried forward… I think there’s going to be certain aspects of what we’ve learned over these past few months that will become more permanent.”
Investing in existing games is safer than launching new ones
While mobile gaming at large has seen growth, launching a new game during a recession is as risky as ever. Albert noted that while Square Enix has several new projects in development, the publisher is carefully watching market trends for an idea of what to expect. Indie studios like Dodreams, however, are taking the opposite route by updating its core game for new and existing audiences and introducing new features.
“I am a very strong proponent of resisting the risk of making new games,” he explained. “I would argue that with the rising cost of paid user acquisition … most game studios cannot afford to make new games. So either you don’t have the money to invest in the marketing or even if you do have the money, you can’t live through the payback period.
“We’re doing lots of new stuff, but we’re testing them inside the original game, and then we’ll see if it should be a standalone game or [added to] the existing game.”
iOS 14 will transform mobile gaming (again)
Privacy has remained a hot-button issue in 2020, prompting Apple to introduce new customer protections for its upcoming iOS 14 operating system. Some developers fear this update represents a seismic shift in the mobile ad ecosystem, but Fraser suspects these features will ultimately be beneficial.
“I remember there was a similar furore when Apple made it impossible for developers to track the UDID about ten years ago,” Fraser noted. “Honestly, I tend to err on the side of trusting Apple when it comes to these kinds of decisions, although it does create a lot of difficulties for a lot of our trusted partners.”
He elaborated that Apple is prioritizing consumer-first strategies such as privacy and individual security, prompting the industry to fall in line behind it. While this creates short-term problems for advertisers, other ways of providing value will emerge.
Erik adds that iOS 14 will make significant changes to your home screen. As Apple introduces new options to organize installed apps into galleries dynamically, developers may need to consider new discoverability factors. “How do we optimize the game so that Siri can give suggestions, like ‘Hey you’re having lunch now! Maybe you’d like to play a match of Drive Ahead!’”
How do developers stand out in crowded app stores?
If one challenge unites every mobile game developer, it’s discoverability. With hundreds of new apps arriving every single day, acquiring and maintaining an audience becomes an overwhelming obstacle. Each of our panelists agreed on one fact: standing out takes focus.
“I think one of the things a lot of developers chase, quite understandably, is the hot new thing,” Fraser said. “It’s always ‘where’s the next frontier of innovation?’ But if you look at where the most successful games are coming from … focus is the differentiator. I’ve always been a big proponent personally of craft over innovation. When we look at the market, we don’t think ‘what’s the hot new innovative thing?’ and try to jump on that bandwagon. We look at the market and say, ‘Maybe it makes sense to build a solitaire game.’ Or ‘maybe it makes sense to make a Match-3 RPG’ … But let’s make sure when we do it, it’s the absolute best product that we can possibly make, and that it has top-grossing potential.”
For Dodreams, focus takes the form of focusing on a specific, niche experience and making it as robust as possible. Today, the studio attracts hundreds of thousands of daily downloads, all of which are organic.
“The biggest problem I see game developers have is everyone wants to talk about the next game they’re developing,” Erik said. “I don’t develop games; I develop a studio that makes the games. So what is the strategy? What is your business model, and how does that business model allow you to grow your game, to scale it?” For Dodreams, the answer was focusing on a local multiplayer experience that was engaging to spectators. By developing this niche, Dodreams now drives thousands of downloads and enhances the LTV of users playing existing titles.
The complete webinar explores even more topics, from creating personalized experiences to scaling international growth. Watch the full event at Mobile Gaming Today — Dodreams, Scopely, Square Enix, Wappier.