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5 free-to-play mobile games that turned a corner in 2016

5 free-to-play mobile games that turned a corner in 2016

In this era of mobile games-as-a-service, the real work for a developer begins after a game has launched.

This is something our regular Live and Kicking feature has highlighted time and time again.

However, for the most part, a game will need to capture the public's imagination quickly in order to set itself up for a long and profitable life.

Any title that fails to do this is in danger of being left behind.

Living on

When a game manages to buck the trend and inspire a surge of post-launch interest, then, it's a feat worthy of comment.

As such, here are five live games that took a step forward in 2016 despite no longer being the new kids on the block.

Click through below to see them all.


Click here to view the list »
  • 1 Angry Birds 2

    Angry Birds 2 logo

    When reflecting on Angry Birds 2's initial launch, Lead Game Designer and Product Manager Måns Wide sees room for improvement.

    "After the global launch, late summer 2015, we realised almost immediately that the game needed more depth to attract the audience we wanted," he told PocketGamer.biz.

    Admitting that Rovio Stockholm "were very scared of fan reactions if we made big changes," Wide reflects upon the version of Angry Birds 2 that launched as "a bit too vanilla".

    Needs more flavour

    The solution for the team was to embrace that Angry Birds can never be a truly casual game a la Candy Crush, reliant as it is on skill.

    "Basically, trying to take the game from being a light and cheerful puzzle game and transform it into a light RPG game with less focus on saga map progression and a lot more focus on upgrading and optimising your birds," Wide explains.

    Rovio Stockholm has set about doing this with major additions such as the PvP arena, daily challenges and collectible hat sets.

    Add to this a renewed UA push, including TV advertising, and the result is that "the game performs even better now than it did right after the launch".


  • 2 Tetris Blitz: 2016 Edition

    Tetris Blitz: 2016 Edition logo

    Considering it originally launched in 2013, the fact that Tetris Blitz was beginning to slowly slip down the charts by 2016 is hardly surprising. 

    But EA Hyderabad, the team now handling live ops on Tetris Blitz and other legacy EA Mobile titles, was keen to make this a free-to-play puzzler fit for 2016 and beyond.

    “We've evolved the game from one that was just single player, adding multiplayer components like tournaments and battles,” Studio Director Amol Gurwara told PocketGamer.biz.

    “And last year we worked with boutique British UX firm to completely re-architect the game from a visual standpoint.”

    New look

    The result was Tetris Blitz: 2016 Edition, a fully-rebranded overhaul launched on June 28th 2016. 

    It didn't propel the game to top-grossing success again, but that would be an unrealistic aim for a three-year-old game.

    What it did is arrest the grossing decline, even prompting a modest boost, and ensure that the game ended 2016 in a higher grossing position (#206, December 31st 2016) than it did 2015 (#244, December 31st 2015).


  • 3 Rival Kingdoms

    Rival Kingdoms logo

    In December 2016, Space Ape COO Simon Hade revealed that its strategy title Rival Kingdoms had recorded six straight months of increasing revenue.

    As if that statistic isn't impressive enough, Rival Kingdoms is a game that was originally launched back in May 2015.

    "Rival Kingdoms has grown in revenue and maintained its DAU for six months now and we expect that to continue," Hade told PocketGamer.biz.

    Community first

    He went on to explain that investing in the community has been the driving force behind this, with all the studio's marketing spend now directed elsewhere.

    "For the past 12 months - the maturity phase - we’ve really focused on keeping the game interesting and evolving for our core fans," he explained.

    "This means we put out new content every week and really curate the events to keep the game interesting."

    Indeed, he has previously revealed that the studio makes 30 to 50% of its revenues directly through in-game events.

    This, and the case of Rival Kingdoms in general, should certainly provide food for thought when it comes to the debate between UA spend and investing in an established player base.


  • 4 Blackjack Free

    Blackjack Free logo

    Blackjack Free was launched way back in 2008.

    Having one of the first Blackjack titles on the App Store has served US developer MobilityWare well - as indeed it has with Solitaire, which hit 200 million downloads in 2016 - but by 2015 the game was beginning to show its age.

    Mainly ad-funded and boasting an ageing, unengaged player base, MobilityWare set about tweaking the game to improve retention.

    More sticky

    "As soon as we added achievements, we found people used up their credits and wanted more because every hand can be a sink," the MobilityWare's Head of Live Ops Alex Tarrand told PocketGamer.biz.

    And as a direct result of this and other changes, revenue from IAPs soon started to outpace that from ads.

    IAP spending shot up 400% and daily active users saw a 300% boost - proof positive that even the oldest and most casual free-to-play games can still improve with smart live ops.


  • 5 Toy Blast

    Toy Blast logo

    If you're not King, releasing a successful matching puzzler can be a tough task.

    Istanbul-based developer Peak Games learned this in January 2015, when its new release Toy Blast got off to a slow start.

    The game failed to reach the top 100 in the US iPhone top grossing charts until July 2015, and its peak position in 2015 was #58 on December 8th.

    Slow out the blocks

    But with an update schedule promising new content every two weeks, it came on leaps and bounds in 2016.

    Toy Blast stayed in the top 100 US iPhone grossing for the entire year, and spent much of it inside the top 50. 

    Its highest position was #10, breaking into the top 10 for the first time nearly two years after its initial launch, and it ended the year at #14. 

    Toy Blast's remarkable rise

Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for PocketGamer.biz, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.

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