Comment & Opinion

Why are mobile games invisible to the media?

Tribeflame's Torulf Jernström offers his reasons

Why are mobile games invisible to the media?

Torulf Jernström is CEO of Finnish developer Tribeflame.

His blog is Pocket Philosopher.

You can read all his columns here.

The largest market for games, as measured by both player numbers and revenue, is being completely ignored by the games media. Why?

Newzoo claims the mobile games market is worth $36.9 billion, while Superdata claims it’s $40.6 billion and App Annie says it’s $50.4 billion (as Jon Jordan commented this week).

One possibility for the difference in revenues is that Newzoo and Superdata are missing the ad-driven part of the market.

It’s a lot harder to estimate the ad revenues as they are are split up among a large number of ad networks that are often private companies that do not report numbers as transparently as Google and Apple do.

App Annie’s Monetisation report from 2016 claimed that in 2015 games made $24.8 billion from IAPs, and $21.1 billion from ads, for a total of $45.9 billion. Ad revenue is therefore a very significant part (46%) of mobile games revenues that might be missing from the other reports.

Regardless of what the exact numbers are, it is clear that mobile games are the largest part of the overall games business.

Newzoo claims that the whole market is worth $91 billion, while Superdata says it is $99.6 billion. They differ mostly in their estimates for the size of the console market, possibly by Superdata including hardware sales, while Newzoo only counts games.

That puts mobile games’ market share anywhere between 37% and 45%.

In terms of players, mobile games are even more dominant. The Superdata report estimates a total Monthly Active User (MAU) number of 2.6 billion players on mobile, with 755 million on PC free-to-play, 154 million on PC premium and 196 million on consoles.

Mobile, therefore, has way over twice the player numbers of all others combined.

Given this position at the top of the market for both revenue and players, it is striking how little mobile F2P games are talked about in the media.

Googling for the “Best games of 2016”, and going by the top hits I get, here’s GamesRadar (25 games), The Telegraph (35 games), The Guardian (10 games), and The Verge (11 games).

Their lists include 81 mentions of games, and contain a grand total of two mobile games: Pokemon GO (F2P) and Reigns (premium). It is slightly more common to find mention of premium mobile games. The Verge mentions two on their 10 game list for 2017.

Sadly, the premium mobile games market share fell to irrelevance back in 2012 and 2013. Currently you have to scroll down to position 232 on the US App Store Top Grossing charts to find the first game that does not use IAPs (it’s currently GTA: San Andreas).

And that's before taking into account the ad revenue that F2P games have access to and premium titles do not. Premium on mobile has for years been below 1% of the revenue generated.

The question is: why? With mobile F2P having both the players and the money, why are they ignored? Allow me to speculate a bit.

First off, premium console and PC games are very clearly skewed towards Western markets. Compare the shares of Asia versus the West for console and mobile games in SuperData’s report.

Also, I think it’s because the games journalists are not the players, and certainly not the payers, of mobile games. To simplify, the revenue generating players fall into three categories:

  • The ad watchers - Heavy players of the Top Downloaded games. Skews younger.
  • The casuals - Typically older female audience playing match-3 games, casino, etc. Loyal players giving out a steady revenue stream.
  • The killers. Rich, competitive men with limited time and a lot of money, beating each other with heavy spending on competitive strategy games.

My guess is that the journalists writing about games do not identify with these groups of people. Game journalists are seldom middle-aged women, and obviously they are also not high paid lawyers or investment bankers.

The simple time killers that are generating a lot of the ad revenue are usually (quite rightly) dismissed as lacking in depth.

Thus, we end up with the situation we have: the largest segment of the huge games business is almost completely invisible in games news. regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.


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Crystal Colwell
I can say that for some sites it depends on their readers. For instance the website I co-own and write for Operation Rainfall ( caters to the niche/indie crowd. Personally I do play mobile games but I don't write about them on my site because most of my readers don't care. They don't fit into that demographic of mobile player.

Most people who play mobile games (as your description above says - which is spot on!) don't spend a lot of time reading up on gaming news. They either play what they find on their own and like, or they don't have time for all of that.

We have been trying to dig into some mobile titles and find the things that our audience would be interested in and have found it to be quite difficult. With so many titles out there no one has time to go through them all and pick out the great ones. Esp. with a site like ours where we play more RPG type games.

I see that someone already brought up other points that I would have gotten into, so I won't reiterate those too much. Things like copycats of the same game always popping up and etc.

Anyhow, great article!
Torulf Jernstr
Thanks for the comments, guys!
I do still feel like you're missing a fundamental part of the mobile games experience by trying to make them fit the console/PC experience. The game does not have to be shallow just because the game sessions are short!

A typical Game of War early on did 10 sessions of 12 minutes each. That's 2 hours in total. Recurring every day. On average, the total time spent in a mobile game is far LONGER than that spent on PC/Console. It's just divided into lots more short sessions. And a lot of the planning and dreaming about the perfect play happens between the sessions.

I would argue that the players who have been playing Clash or Game of War for several years daily are actually feeling just as deeply about the games as a PC player feels about theirs.

To be a bit provocative: isn't this the same phenomenon that had classical music experts dismissing early rock music as unworthy of critique and comment due to it's shallow nature?
Barry Meade
I agree Torulf but I'd say session length is still somewhat of a factor. Even if multiple sessions add up to the same time as a single PC session, it's not the same thing in the way ten trips in a car isn't the same as a trip on an aeroplane.
But within that timeframe Mobile games *generally* offer a different kind of entertainment than typical console / PC games - often centred around organisation, efficiency & quick player feedback. They are more like board games - clever but less about drama or characters or worlds. Console & PC has similar games but they're only a small part of a much wider offering, and as such the content can be more similar to watching a movie or reading a book in a way mobile games are not. However there's no inherent reason mobile games can't do that too - the industry simply decides not to, because everyone wants to be Supercell.
Barry Meade
Ah well, you were asking why journalists & fans don't get excited by mobile games in the way console & PC inspires. It seems obvious that in general the type of stripped-down games we make for mobile simply aren't about the kind of worlds or themes that cause that kind of engagement, in the way a character driven RPG or detective thriller or horror adventure explicitly are. The streamlined, highly abstracted games we make about managing resources or solving puzzles just aren't made to push that kind of dramatic escapism. It's silly to even pretend that they are, so forcing the comparison as we're doing here seems a bit daft. Mobile games being too long to fill with content is factually correct but besides the point.

As to whether mobile or console is intrinsically 'better' (really? must we?), there's no such thing as it depends entirely on what players or developers see as important. If we're saying character-driven games with emotional & mechanical depth that inspire fans & press then console & PC is clearly superior to Mobile.
Whereas if number of players, reach and financial success is more important, the top mobile games are clearly 'better'. This is a blind alley.

The constant need to pretend all games are intrinsically the same is silly. I wouldn't even say mobile F2P games are very like paid games on the same platform, never mind PC & console. To me, to ask why all games aren't treated as the same requires a sort of wilful blindness in the face of the obvious.
Torulf Jernstr
If you're really into characters and stories, go to the movies or pick up a novel. ;)

Mobile F2P are likely to stay mechanics focused.
Torulf Jernstr
I definitely agree that the games are different. That does not mean that one is better than the other, they simply have different strengths.

Sadly, I think stories are fundamentally hard to do in (mobile) F2P. It's simply a numbers thing. I mentioned the 2 hours per day for Game of War. With players doing that every day for 2 years, the total game time will be around 1500 hours!

That would be similar for the other top performers. My in-laws are into the King games. I asked my mother-in-law how much time she had put into Candy Crush Saga. Her first guess was 500 hours. After thinking a bit, she said that's likely not enough.

The fundamental problem is that no one can write thousands of hours of story fast enough to feed several hours to the players each day. Which means that the Explorer Bartle type is essentially never satisfied by F2P games. That's very unfortunate, but I cannot see a way around it.
Markus Janssen PR + Business at TagWizz
As a Freelance Writer I can confirm that journalists are not really that into the mobile games - for myself I have the problem that every 2nd e-mail / press news whatever - is a release of a copycat. A game like the mentioned Reigns - only got the attention and success because of their publisher Devolver Digital. That is also why this game received coverage. I cover a lot of indie games - but I also stick to PC / consoles because there is an "endless amount" of innovative great games by a lot of talented people. It's hard to find in the mobile sector between all the flappy birds, tappy taps, match-3 stuff and on goes the list. Readers get bored by that - so do journalists. And ye besides that I agree with Stefan also, that the content creating with "deeper" games is more interesting.
Gaming Unicorn Marketing Director
Torulf, I typically really enjoy your articles, but this one is deeply misleading... and given your background, I think you know it. You perpetuate the dangerous myth that it's principally wealthy people who are high spenders. You surely must know that this is not true. Many - if not most - "whales" are middle-to-lower income people. To suggest otherwise is to downplay the role that gambling compulsion plays in the monetization of popular F2P titles. But don't take my word for it - here is what Mike Lu (formerly of GREE) had to say in a Gamasutra post:

"When we think of these “whales” we often imagine them as rich people with a ton of disposable income. Research has showed that “whales” are way more average than that. Basically - they can be anyone. There is not one defining characteristic or profile that allows us to specifically pre-determine who could be a whale or a specific demographic to target. We have had whales that are male, female, in the military, doctors, lawyers, mothers, students - basically all walks of life. What does that mean? Well it means we need to stay focused on building great games with great content for any and all players."

Having been a games journalist writing for magazines like EGM before spending many years working in mobile F2P, I can give you an alternate reason for why mobile F2P isn't covered by games press: it's a different medium than console/PC.The difference is as stark as the distinction between syndicated television shows and films. Mobile F2P is really a hybrid of video games and video slots, effectively becoming its own medium with its own rules. It's not reasonable to use the same criteria to judge the different mediums.

Please understand, this is not a qualitative/gatekeeping argument... any given episode of "Seinfeld" is better than "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo". But it makes sense that a film critic wouldn't cover an episode of Seinfeld. To that point, it would probably strike you as strange if somebody said that they saw a great film the night before, and started describing an episode of Seinfeld. I think that a part of interactive media maturing will include defining video games and F2P games as fundamentally different mediums.

Jonathan Blow gave a wonderful talk about exactly this topic:
Torulf Jernstr
Sorry to say , I do not have any good data on who the whales are. Thanks for the link. It's one more piece of the puzzle. The hits we have had so far, are of the super approachable, ad driven kind that make it impossible to be a whale. And others rarely if ever release good data on their paying customers.

The anecdotal evidence I do have indicates that the heavy spenders really are the wealthy. I know some: a VC, two successful Entrepreneurs. They are clearly choosing to spend huge sums in Clash Royale instead of buying yet another sports car.

So, until proven impossible, I will keep trying to build a "Robin Hood" game. One where a few rich guys finance a huge amount of free entertainment to millions of gamers who do not need to pay a cent for it.
Stefan Ruhle
Totally agree here with Hrishi's comment! It's not a money game - it's a game of emotions!

That is even displayed in the Influencer world. It's way easier to produce very joyful and interesting content as a YouTuber (for example) out of a console game or desktop game which gives you hours of entertainment and different story lines and so much more than doing the same based on a Match-3 game. Even games like coc will very quickly come to a point where a session is not longer than 5 minutes cause you don't want to spend 20$ to get that big crystal chest.

So me as a reader - I am rather interested in the newest E3 highlights than in the current Appstore top grossing charts. :)
Hrishi Oberoi Founder & CEO at Photon Tadpole Studios
Hi Torulf, a very insightful article and point of view, but I feel one major factor was missed in your assessment of the reasoning. It's something you briefly mentioned towards the end of your article, and that is the amount of depth the console games offer compared to mobile games. As a fellow mobile game developer for almost 15 years, I can testify that mobile games are inherently built for shorter engagement periods. This is the "quick 5 minutes, Starbucks line play session" vs the "sit back and play for an hour" play session. The difference between these is the amount of engagement a designer can create for their users in the longer play sessions vs the shorter ones. With these type of designs and available games, the experiences on the console games stay much longer after the game is over, especially with those who have been emotionally engaged with the game and it's story. This is the major difference why most games journalists would rather write about the console games that made them feel something rather than write about what is making the most money.
Crystal Colwell
I generally avoid writing about money (probably because the types of games I cover generally don't make millions haha) because it bores me. I don't really care who made how much on each game. I enjoy writing about things that interest me and money isn't one of them. Weird, I know! :p

I do think that there are some great mobile games out there though! I would love to be able to cover more of these but they have to offer something that draws my readers in, and makes it worth my time to write it up. It can't be another match 3 game or etc. Not to take anything away from those types of games... but there are 2 million of them out there and I don't do my readers a service by showing them another one.

I also love the fact that mobile games are built or a shorter play experience at one time. Sometimes I look at what I know is going to be a 40+ hour game and I feel overwhelmed. I know I only have 20 mins to sit down and play and I'm not sure I can get through the intro and to a point to save in that time. Instead i turn to a mobile game (fallout shelter anyone???) and play that. I probably have more hours in that than I do any one console game!

Anyhow, just wanted to give my take on a few points you brought up. Also, what types of games do you make?