Comment & Opinion

What were the biggest mobile games industry trends in 2016?

We ask a slew of industry experts

What were the biggest mobile games industry trends in 2016?

2016 is coming to a close, and it's been another huge year for the mobile games industry.

Many of the top grossers may still be the same as in 2015, but there have been some huge breakthrough hits, not least including Clash Royale, Pokemon GO and Super Mario Run, to name a but a few.

Mobile eSports is steadily becoming bigger, big brands are making even bigger waves on mobile, subscription-based gaming is set to grow on the App Store and Google Play, and many more trends have emerged in the industry.

To get the thoughts of those on the ground, we asked a slew of mobile games industry experts:

What were the biggest mobile games industry trends in 2016?

Saara Bergstrom Chief Marketing Officer Next Games

It’s refreshing to see players get excited about new genres in mobile games.

Pokemon GO is a great example of bringing yet another burst of new audiences to the mobile platforms as well as real time PvP going mainstream with Clash Royale.

The role of IP-based games as brand extensions to big IP also got more prominent as multiple great executions broke into the top 100 grossing.

Andrew Stalbow CEO Seriously

On the game side, moving to short-term goals with more special events.

On the acquisition side, a realisation that performance marketing doesn’t scale for 99% of companies and a move to more creative strategies.

Seth Coster Programmer/Designer Butterscotch Shenanigans

The biggest thing on my mind (and many others' minds) is the issue of market saturation. Here are the rough numbers for how many games have been submitted to the App Store each year:

  • 2013: 78,000 (213/day, 1,491/week)
  • 2014: 140,000 (383/day, 2,681/week)
  • 2015: 165,000 (452/day, 3,164/week)
  • 2016: 270,000 (740/day, 5,180/week) -- Note: Data is incomplete here; we haven't hit the end of 2016 yet.

Every passing year makes it just a little bit easier to build a game and bring it to market. And because mobile games are notoriously small in scope, it's a popular platform for first-time game developers.

When you pair that with the gold-rush mentality that comes when people hear about solo developers making hit games and retiring at age 19 (which is incredibly rare, but reported extensively when it happens), you get this insane growth.

As that continues, mobile game stores are going to be faced more and more with the question of discoverability: how do you help players find games they will love? How high will these numbers go? Can the stores continue to operate effectively when there are over 1,000 games submitted each day? How about 2,000?

We aren't there yet, but that day is coming. It may even be the case that the stores will need to add some new barriers to entry just so they can figure out how best to handle this overwhelming number of games, or to slow the oncoming tide.

We are also seeing premium games get featured more on the mobile storefronts these days, which is encouraging to developers like us who don't want to jam our games full of ads and in-game stores, and instead want to focus entirely on creating immersive game experiences.

Hopefully that push toward premium continues into 2017!

Veli-Pekka Piirainen Founder / Chairman of the board Critical Force Entertainment

Veli-Pekka is CEO and founder of Critical Force Entertainment Ltd, a Finnish startup game studio established in 2012. He is a former studio manager of Supercell North, as well as a lecturer and head of Kajak Game Development Lab.

Veli-Pekka is also co-founder of NMP Games Ltd.

Definitely Pokemon GO was the biggest hit in 2016 and it gave mobile AR gaming a really good boost. It was also interesting to see, that Nintendo finally arrived to the mobile gaming market.

Otherwise the year 2016 was pretty stable year, mostly same games were dominating top grossing charts and there were actually no big trends or changes.

For example Apple Watch games have not been successful so far.

Ben Murch Co-Founder Perchang

Biggest trends from 2016? Ok, let's get the obvious of the way. In terms of companies, Supercell still reigns supreme. They are still the ones to beat. In terms of game type, traditional freemium is easy to understand, easy to replicate, and still the main "type" of game on the app store.

Oh, and Candy Crush is still going crazy. So, this neatly leads us into the first trend I've noticed this year...

Pokemon GO was a genuinely enjoyable game that you could play whilst running, or going to the pub, or shopping, or whatever.
Ben Murch

There are waaaay more companies whose sole aim is to push you up the charts / monetise your game. I get approached multiple times a day by a variety of pushers, promising the world. A treasure trove of riches and fame are a mere soul-signing contract away. These are the mad men of our time.

This, unfortunately, is a bad trend.

And I hate to continue the mired start (although let's face it, 2016 has been overall less than stellar), but this brings us to our next trend. Many developers have stopped talking about gameplay. I'm not sure when the scales tipped, as it's been a long and slippery slope.

However, the point was pressed home at a conference I went to this year. Not one person wanted to talk about how their game was interesting and different. They spoke of IAPs, optimal advertising, clones upon clones squeezing the whales for the last drops of their precious oils.

I want to have conversations about new touch controls. Gameplay mechanics that overpower "standard, rare and epic" loot systems. Something different. Something new. Something passionate.

The whole year wasn't just a spiral of doom and gloom though. Pokemon GO sprung out of nowhere, catching us all with our creative pants down and blasting the Summer charts into chaos. There have been geo-location games in the past. Nothing like this though.

It was the refreshing shot in the arm that 2016 needed. Forget the slightly iffy mechanics and tech issues. This was a genuinely enjoyable game that you could play whilst running, or going to the pub, or shopping, or whatever. Bra-fricking-vo Niantic!

Sebastian Lindén CEO & Creative Director Qaos Games

Definitely the hype of VR and AR. However, many investors who jumped too quickly into VR and AR will realise that they cannot afford to keep their studios alive for another three years.

Small VR-studios will die (or go back to mobile games), and studios with $100M+ investment will show us interesting stuff in 2019.

Gabi Shalel Chief Marketing Officer Plarium

The biggest trends I saw this year were the increasing importance of IPs, branding, and evolving technology.

Like many mobile companies, we’ve gotten a lot of value out of partnering with world-class IPs and franchises in 2016, and have seen the same with other players in the industry.

This year saw the industry come to a point of market saturation and rising marketing costs where having a great game just isn’t enough to cut through the competitive noise on most platforms.

The biggest trends I saw this year were the increasing importance of IPs, branding, and evolving technology.
Gabi Shalel

2016 saw brand recognition move from being “nice” to vital. To get a game in front of an audience, studios increasingly harnessed influencers, celebrity brand advocates and household name IP properties as part of their strategy.

Established console and PC players also leveraged their brands in the mobile space – Super Mario Run, Rome: Total War, Madden, Pokemon GO. The list goes on.

Whether we’re talking about showing players a game they’ll recognize or establishing your brand as best-in-genre at what you do - we’re only going to see more of this in 2017.

Pokemon GO is a great example of how improving tech is also changing the landscape. Pokemon combined a novel new technology and a solid IP to showcase how there’s still space in the market for innovation.

Johan Persson VP of Product MAG Interactive

One of the biggest trends this year, I think, has been synchronous multiplayer. Clash Royale started this trend and many developers have hopped on the bandwagon, which will likely continue into the next year.

Matthew Wiggins CEO MojiWorks Limited

The year was sandwiched with two massive releases - Clash Royale and Super Mario Run - with a delicious Pokemon GO filling. I don’t think AR games are a trend for now though (that’s in the future), whereas the other two are more significant.

They showed the power of IPs based on great gameplay, and got the (rather revolutionary) store support to back that up.

The focus from Supercell and Nintendo on making great mobile experiences was perfect and showed how easy-to-play/hard-to-master gameplay, with a delicious level of polish, is the way to go.

Klaas Kersting CEO Flaregames

Nerd, Gaming Enthusiast, Game Entrepreneur, Angel Investor

It’s the year where the difficulties of self-publishing have become increasingly more evident. As such, it’s vital to have specialised teams who think “portfolio”, and who have the wider awareness to foresee - and react to - market shifts.

Without a clear synergy between multiple titles and IPs, you’re in the dangerous territory of banking on a big hit, a mindset which thankfully more teams are moving away from.

Matt Roberts Head of Studio Wooga GmbH

It’s no surprise, but one important trend in 2016 is the significant increase in sophistication and quality of casual games. For example, Playrix’s hit Gardenscapes offers rich iso-building and story in addition to core match-3 levels.

Overall, the trend toward higher quality, higher LTV, combined with the expansion of experienced audiences looking for new and novel challenges, raised the level of competition in casual to new heights in 2016.

Oscar Clark Chief Strategy Officer Fundamentally Games

Oscar Clark has been a pioneer in online, mobile, and console social games services since 1998. He is also author of the book, Games As A Service – How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games.

At first glace you might be fooled into thinking that it was just business as usual; we have largely the same games in the top grossing chart as we have ever had. And the foretold Indie Apocalypse didn't seem to happen.

I love the freedom offered by Mobile VR, even with its challenges, but in particular the experience of using Daydream has been pretty amazing.
Oscar Clark

However boiling under the bonnet has seen some pivotal new games. This started with Clash Royale which introduced a mobile-friendly MOBA concept. This was not only a huge success in itself, but also introduced new twists on how Freemium can work and still make games better/more fun.

There is no doubt that the mobile space is maturing, although the number of games launched per month doesn't show any signs of slowing down. But Clash Royale shows that there is scope for innovation in the market yet.

As if on queue came along the phenomenon which is Pokemon GO - a gateway game which introduced location gaming to the mass-market and which (in a limited way) hinted at the potential for AR gaming. That may have slowed somewhat, for now, but I don't think thats done yet.

Add to that the proper arrival of this generation of VR, which despite still being in a very nascent state has demonstrated to all that tries it the astounding feeling of emergence that this platform promises.

And for me I love the freedom offered by Mobile VR, even with its challenges, but in particular the experience of using Daydream has been pretty amazing for me.

Ezequiel Mottillo Creative Director Etermax

2016 paved the way to continue bringing innovative games to mobile users. This year, new technologies emerged that were incorporated into mobile games. For example, the implementation of AR in Pokemon GO brought players their first exposure to augmented reality, making it relevant and fun for the first time to an entire generation of gamers around the world.

Virtual reality continued to be one of the most talked about trends in 2016. We saw new talent emerging this year, and some companies were also keenly aware of the challenges facing the VR market, like showing people who aren’t in VR what it’s like to experience a VR game.

In addition, in terms of tech trends and improvements, several dev companies have been working on bot-related activities and creating a better mobile user experience.

In addition, another tech trend has been the incorporation of AI (artificial intelligence) processes, not only in development processes, but also in the prediction of audience behaviors.

Mehmet Ecevit CEO Gram Games

I think 2016 saw the rise of of IP, and the return of old console games.

It was a really fascinating time to be in the mobile games industry - interesting new trends, and a ton of new opportunities to flex our creative muscle.

Plus, it’s great to see how the tried and true games from the past were reintroduced and revamped in 2016.

Simon Hade COO Space Ape Games

We saw greater adoption of game mechanics and monetisation tactics that have their origin in the East.
Simon Hade

Chinese gaming came to the West in a big way this year. South Korea also. We saw this in acquisitions big and small, as well as greater adoption of game mechanics and monetisation tactics that have their origin in the East.

We also saw signs that the charts are not as locked up as people thought in 2015. We saw Supercell disrupt themselves with Clash Royale, Nintendo IP break out, and King’s dominance of its genre get seriously challenged for the first time by a handful of companies.

It’s not a tremendous amount of volatility compared to a few years ago but it’s a good sign that there is a strong appetite from gamers for things that are new and interesting.

Taija Kanerva Chief Game Analyst, Japan GameRefinery, a Liftoff company

As the Chief Game Analyst - Japan at GameRefinery Taija Kanerva is living her dream. Her interest and enthusiasm for digital games and Japanese culture started early in her childhood and later became the focus of her formal education.

Her Master’s thesis (2015) for University of Helsinki compares Japanese and Western games and gaming cultures. She has held positions at Rovio and Ubisoft before joining GameRefinery in 2016.

At GameRefinery we have observed a steady growth pattern with the top 100 games featuring an increasing amount of both recurring events (events that loop, for example, on a weekly or monthly basis) and non-recurring events.

In June 2016 41% of the top 100 grossing iOS games in the US featured both types of live-events, but now the amount has already increased to 59%. For instance, Marvel Contest of Champions features both types of events, keeping the players interested and coming back for more.

Gachas have been sweeping Western mobile games. Over half of the games in the top 100 grossing list in the US use one or more gachas.
Taija Kanerva

In addition, gachas have been sweeping Western mobile games, and per our data over half of the games in the top 100 grossing list in the US use one or more gachas one way or another - proving that gachas can be a perfect fit for non-Japanese games too.

Focus on social features has been visible in 2016, and multiple different PvP modes have strongly distinguished top 100 grossing games from the rest in the U.S.

In fact, now in December 2016, 42% of the top 100 grossing games implement them. In contrast, only 21% of the games outside this list contain multiple PvP modes.

As most of you agree, eSports and streaming are already huge. They will also likely gain lots of traction on mobile platforms as well, which will further increase the importance of innovative PvP formats in F2P games during 2017.

Torulf Jernström CEO Tribeflame

Clash Royale brought synch PvP into the mainstream, and it has stayed there. Now I hear lots of companies working on those.

Nintendo managed to break in with their huge brands Pokemon (partly theirs) and Mario. They have enough brand equity to brute force their way to the top based on consumer pull for the franchises.

Big brands dominated the top grossing positions in the west. MZ stayed top with two very similar games (Mobile Strike and Game of War), King likewise (Candy Crush Saga and Candy Crush Soda Saga).

Then, of course, there's Supercell with the Clash branded games Clash of Clans and Clash Royale. And Nintendo with their two titles currently round out the top four companies with two games each.

Gavin Moffat Digital Marketing Executive Tag Games

For me this was the year I really began to see F2P mobile as a new form of triple-A gaming, with the likes of Supercell and MZ strengthening their positions at the top by spending phenomenal amounts on marketing and building their brands.

Pokemon GO came from a different place but became a cultural phenomenon due to the Pokemon brand: I've never seen a game cross generations and demographics like that since Wii Sports.

Antti Kananen CEO Koukoi Games

  • Licensed IP mobile games were trending in 2016 and we believe this was just the beginning. We’ve seen games like Pokemon GO, Super Mario Run, The Walking Dead – No Man’s Land and many other trending and getting lots of traction in the market. And, actually, some of these licensed IP mobile games were actually good. This shows how much studios are investing and valuing the top IPs and how much fans like to play those when the design meets their requirements.
Licensed IP mobile games were trending in 2016 and we believe this was just the beginning.
Antti Kananen
  • Influencer marketing became very popular within mobile game developers and publisher during 2016. We’ve seen companies like Seriously conducting most of its marketing activities with influencers, and it actually seems to work when the execution happens same time with many other carefully planned marketing activities.
  • Mega hits with short life span. While the licensed IP mobile games were successful in 2016, we also saw some of these games being mega hits with short life-span. I don’t mean the games are dead yet but everyone knows that some of these games were games, which could not avoid the Shark Fin phenomenon.

Gabriel Stürmer CMO Cupcake Entertainment


There are two things that shook mobile scenario this year:

  • Real time PVP done well with Clash Royale. It went great for Supercell and it is by far my favorite game of 2016 in all platforms.
  • Pokemon GO and Super Mario Run showing that traditional game brands have room in mobile, but also that they have a lot to learn how to maintain the success.

Wilhelm Taht Executive Vice President, Games Rovio

The more you think you know, the more you realise you don’t know.

Who would have thought that the biggest mobile game in 2016 would be a location-based game?

And who would have thought the most anticipated launch of the year would end up with an average rating of 2.5?