The Rise of Mobile Games: Factors Contributing to Their Success

Today we have a post from our guest author, Amanda Cote. Since we recently added mobile gaming to our collections, it has been a topic of much discussion among us.

The past few years have seen the video game industry facing some major changes in terms of products, prices and income. Specifically, the late 2000s and early 2010s have been characterized by the rise of the mobile game. While early mobile games were simplistic and difficult to access, modern games take full advantage of portable technologies like smart phones and tablets. They have improved dramatically in terms of graphics and mechanics, span many genres, and target very broad audiences. As Polygon’s video game staff reported in their State of the Industry series, “Just about anyone with a phone, be it Android, iOS or BlackBerry, has played a game at one time or another. Mobile gaming is undoubtedly on an upswing with every year bringing new trends and changes to the marketplace”.

Mobile gaming has gone from a practically non-existent market to a $17.5 billion dollar industry as of 2013, and revenue is expected to double again by 2017. So what factors have contributed to this dramatic rise?  Although changes in technology have partially motivated mobile’s growth, these games have also been affected by a variety of factors within the broader video game industry, including redefined markets, changing costs and funding sources, and stagnation among large developers.

Early Mobility

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the video game industry’s governing body, cites the popular calculator game Snakeas the first mobile game. Introduced in the early 1990s, Snake only existed on Texas Instruments graphing calculators.  Players used the arrow keys to steer a small snake around the screen and had to avoid obstacles, walls, and running back into the snake itself. The goal was to eat numbers that appeared randomly across the screen. As they ate more, however, the snake grew longer, making it harder for the player to avoid their own tail. Although simplistic, Snake was very popular.  However, portable games were held back by technology; graphing calculators were very expensive. And while technology steadily improved, games mostly stayed limited to specific portable systems like the Nintendo Gameboy or the PlayStation Portable. It wasn’t until the 2000s that both technology and its entertainment potential could be leveraged for game development purposes.

Changing Technology

The 1990s saw massive improvements in cell phone technology, developing mobile devices that were actually capable of handling games.  However, the earliest models, such as Blackberries and PDAs, were originally marketed as business tools rather than toys, limiting their potential for game developers.  Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007, however, changed that perception.  Appleadvertised its phone as an easy-to-use tool for everyone, highlighting its entertainment systems as well as its capability as a phone. This redefined the technology in broader terms, and the iPhone took off. Within a year, it sold over 6 million units despite being exclusive to the AT&T network.

With the changing perception of phones as a technology for everyone, the rapid spread of the iPhone, and of course the development of its competitors, a new possibility for game development emerged.  First, a whole new range of potential players were made available through smart phones, and they quickly outnumbered traditional gamers. US market statistics in 2013 showed over 200 million active iOS and Android devices, but only 70 million PS3s. Through this dispersion, mobile games have dramatically increased market size.  Rather than tying small groups of interested parties into a living room TV set, mobile games travel along on road trips or commutes, and fit into waiting rooms or the space between meetings. This high level of accessibility and portability has helped attract people who would not traditionally consider themselves to be gamers, broadening potential audiences.

Second, smart phones offered new distribution mechanisms that saved producers significant amounts of money.  Rather than packaging games on CDs for physical distribution, they could be downloaded easily via cellular or Wi-Fi networks. When the Apple App Store opened in 2008, developers quickly realized its potential. The ease of distribution led to an impressive surge in inexpensive, simple to play games.  Furthermore, mobile games are easier toself-publish, while physically distributed games cost money to copy and transport, and digitally-distributed console or PC games often face tough restrictions from established publishers. Therefore, distribution potential was a large draw for game developers; they could obtain wider audiences than ever before, and they did so at lower costs.

Costs and Funding

Production costs were also another reason for mobile game’s rapid success. Not only are mobile games easier to distribute than more traditional games, but they are also less expensive to develop overall. This is another reason for their rapid success. Because mobile games do not have the capacity for detailed cinematic graphics, they rely on other characteristics to draw in audiences. Innovative mechanics or fun backstories are, for instance, commonly appealing traits. However, these traits are easier to code than detailed graphics are, and therefore can be developed by small teams. This means fewer people needed to run a company and lower overhead.  Mobile games also require less code overall, speeding up their production times.  They therefore represent an investment of only a few hundred thousand dollars, while traditional console games can top fifty million. This made entry into the mobile sphere far more attainable for small developers, allowing the market to grow rapidly.

Over the past few years, changing funding patterns have also contributed to the continued growth of the mobile industry. Crowdfunding sources like Kickstarter, where interested parties can donate small amounts of money to projects they would like to support, have helped ensure that innovative ideas continue to develop in mobile gaming.  People who have a creative suggestion but little funding can turn to crowdsourcing for help.  Because mobile games are not extraordinarily expensive to produce, potential developers need obtain a relatively low level of excitement about their product in order to bring it to market. Therefore, although the market is flooded with titles, there are many opportunities through which parties can still enter into it and potentially obtain success.

Stagnation in Traditional Games

Low development costs and available funding have helped ensure that the mobile industry remains fluid, changing in line with the expectations of the audience. This has also proved to be an advantage as more traditional games display difficulty in adapting. The spread of the smartphone has coincided with the longest video game console lifecycle in the history of gaming; the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, launched around the same time as the App Store, are only starting to be replaced now. Therefore, mobile technology has been able to make competitive strides in terms of its offerings. Evaluating the state of the video game industry, TechCrunch writer Natasha Lomas stated, “Another problem console makers are facing is rival devices’ faster refresh cycles. Mobile devices typically get upgraded with shiny new hardware every year.” This means that their capabilities are constantly improving, leading to innovation and truly new products, while console designers face the challenge of making decades-old graphics and mechanics look cutting-edge.

Furthermore, the high cost of traditional games has resulted in an industry that limits risk-taking. Many large studios rely on a few popular blockbuster titles as their primary source of income. Of these, almost all are sequels or established franchises.  The Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed series, for instance, are consistent best-sellers.  And while this approach keeps their parent companies in business, it does mean that players looking for new experiences may have to turn their attention elsewhere, to independent or mobile games, where new innovations are still common.

Here to Stay

It is possible to argue mobile games’ artistic and entertainment merit, it seems safe to say that this form of gaming is here to stay. It is accessible, low cost, and innovative, making it appealing to many potential gamers.  Furthermore, it is an impressive source of revenue for developers, who will continue to create mobile games as long as consumers demand them.  However, the rapid spread of the mobile game cannot be attributed to only one factor; rather, it was a combination of a variety of forces, occurring in a fortunate coincidence, that allows for such fast growth and which bodes well for future success.


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on July 7, 3:39am

This is indeed true. Times have changed and more people are being engaged with mobile gaming.

on Jan. 9, 1:31am

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on April 24, 2:12am

Also there is a difference between the type of the games that boy and girls play as per this article : Sports: 2% female, 98% male Tactical shooters: 4% female, 96% male Racing: 6% female, 94% male

on Sept. 18, 8:22am

Thank you for sharing such useful information.