Mobile games industry trends 2023: publishing predictions part 1

Big game companies are now paying attention to the mobile market like never before. With lower development costs than console and PC, plus strong potential return on investment, it’s become so top-of-mind that traditional publishers now consider mobile the primary platform.

As Mighty Bear Games CEO Simon Davis told The Washington Post, “The future is actually to develop mobile-first, and then do slightly modified or upscale versions on desktop platforms… Because if you can really nail the mobile experience, it will play beautifully on everything else. You design with the greatest number of limitations, that always gives you the most innovative solutions… and over time, you’ll probably see more and more developers taking that same approach.”

Signs of a seismic shift towards mobile are everywhere. Long-term games juggernaut franchise Call of Duty may have dominated software sales on PC and console with its latest instalment (Modern Warfare 2) towards the end of last year, but the mobile version saw a staggering 88 million downloads worldwide in the first month after release, according to data from Statista. They also report that the mobile version generated $30.91 million revenue in December 2022 alone, estimating that CoD Mobile has grossed more than $1.1 billion overall.

That’s just a fraction of the combined $126 billion games revenue for 2021 for the 10 largest game companies in the world (excluding hardware), but the latest Sooperjoost data shows this is mostly from mobile games.

The Washington Post reports that mobile gaming generated nearly $80 billion in 2020, compared with PC making almost $37 billion, and consoles totalling $45 billion.” Let’s take one of the largest games companies in the world as an example. Tencent generated $33 billion revenue in 2021; more than three quarters of which (in the region of $24.75bn) came from mobile.

So we can see why the big brands are now paying attention to mobile games. As a result, established games companies such as Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts are growing the mobile share of their portfolios to capitalise on this trend. Ubisoft in particular has been vocal about its ambitions to grow its biggest IPs via free-to-play mobile releases.

That explains why Audience Network’s Antonio Ribeiro told Pocket Gamer that, “A big trend I’m really excited about is the rise in AAA mobile gaming experiences. The advance in mobile technology and cloud gaming, coupled with the success of games like Genshin Impact and Call of Duty Mobile, means we are seeing more publishers realising the potential of bringing this type of gaming experience to a mobile audience.”

This makes sense, as Newzoo tells us that nearly three billion players will power a global growth market worth roughly $2 billion this year. Mobile will account for 50% of revenues – and shows no signs of stopping.

With mobile penetration outstripping console and PC in emerging markets – more on this in a future instalment – we can expect to see more big brand publishers releasing AAA games to mobile in the next 12 months.

Multiplatform releases

Hand-in-hand with the growth of AAA titles comes an increase in games being released across multiple formats, from console and PC to mobile. Of course, the biggest publishers are the first to realise an economy of scale by developing once and releasing everywhere, but indie devs can also appreciate the benefits.

Unity’s 2021 gaming report showed that 87% of multiplayer gamers have played cross-platform games in the past year – and they’re looking for more cross-platform games, with 43% of those gamers saying that they want more options in this area.

As for the big console platform holders, even the mighty Nintendo – which has long carved its own path versus the norm – has made almost $1.8bn in total global mobile game revenue since it entered the market in September 2017, according to MobileGamer.Biz. And Xbox’s Phil Spencer has publicly lamented the brand’s lack of presence in the mobile sector saying, “I don’t think anybody needs… to understand how irrelevant we are at mobile. Right? Anybody who picks up their phone and decides to play a game would see that on their own.”

By way of comparison, Niko Partners highlighted Genshin Impact by MiHoYo as a multiplatform stand-out, with the game having been released on PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, iOS and Android. By May of last year, it had generated $3 billion revenue on mobile alone.

Genshin remains a high tide, but it’s still one by which other multiplatform titles may be judged.

With rising development costs and in times of recession for the average consumer, it only makes sense for developers to recoup their initial investment by releasing across multiple platforms. As mobile hardware processing power continues to improve – and especially with the advent of cloud computing – game studios should be increasingly looking to target multiple platforms with each release.

Shift from hypercasual

At the same time as we’re seeing AAA titles grow, it also seems like hypercasual may have had its day. Pocket Gamer wrote in September about, “The hypercasual market losing 8.3% in the first quarter of 2022… according to AppMagic research,” and if we go back to July, we’d already seen the rise of midcore games as recorded by GameRefinery.

At last month’s Pocket Gamer Connects London, Voodoo’s Alex Shea went so far as to tell attendees that, “Hypercasual is dead!” As a result, the French company is already trying to diversify their publishing lineup in anticipation of an impending hypercasual ‘bust’.

As for the future, ironSource predicts the rise of hybrid-casual games with user acquisition fed by hypercasual titles. This new genre would retain the hallmarks of quick prototyping with simple gameplay and short sessions, but with added depth and opportunities for In-App Purchases and higher Lifetime Value.

Hypercasual games are still hugely popular, but forward-thinking developers should look to the emerging ‘hybrid-casual’ or ‘midcore’ sector for additional monetisation options.

Next time

We recently looked at the 10 biggest mobile game industry trends in 2023 and beyond. We previously looked at revenue trends and in the next part of this series, we’ll look at more publishing predictions for brands and IP, social media, streaming video and esports.

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