5 key mobile game trends from GDC 2016

Key trends from San Francisco

5 key mobile game trends from GDC 2016

Consisting of a temporary community of around 30,000 attendees (and hangers-on), San Francisco's annual Game Developers' Conference is spread across five days.

But it's so jam-packed with interesting talks, games, and meeting opportunities that it seems to be over in an instant.


GDC 2016 was no different, but don't worry if you missed some of the conference's key trends amidst the noise.

PocketGamer.biz was in attendance eagerly picking the world's best mobile gaming brains, and here are those insights condensed into the 5 most significant emerging trends.

Oh, and we had our 10th Birthday Party too -  with cake and everything...

Click here to view the list »
  • 1 VR is coming... in October

    VR is coming... in October logo

    Is 2016 the year of virtual reality? For every VR convert ready to strap in and embrace it, there's another doubting its mass-market potential.

    And those doubts remain, of course, but only the most stubborn of naysayers could attend GDC 2016 and maintain that we're not witnessing the start of something big.

    On the hardware side, PlayStation made a statement by pricing PSVR at $399 - undercutting Oculus and HTC - which will not only increase adoption of the hardware, but also move VR experiences further into the mainstream, thus opening the door to other market entrants.

    There are plenty of experiments going on, too, including an all-in-one VR unit - boasting the best of mobile hardware within the headset - due imminently from Gameface Labs.

    Friends in high places

    But the tech will live or die on the willingness of developers to get on board, and it seems they are.

    Jikhan Jung, CEO of COLOPL NI, explained that both the North American and Japanese sides of the company are investing an awful lot of money and attention in virtual reality - a significant vote of confidence from a firm that's been so prolific in mobile.

    And while others may be loath to make their intentions so public, there's certainly a lot going on behind the scenes as well.

    As for console/PC-based VR versus mobile? Most developers are hedging their bets and keeping an eye on both right now.

    But John Carmack, of Doom fame and now CTO of Oculus, reckons mobile VR is where the future lies...

  • 2 Midcore gets harder

    Midcore gets harder logo

    The notion of core gaming on mobile seems to come and go in waves.

    For a while, 'midcore' - the idea being to take the accessibility of casual and (some of) the complexity of hardcore - was seen as the best approach.

    But then things toughened up a bit.

    Games like Vainglory, Dawn of Steel, and The Incorruptibles - all made by developers with hardcore PC/console background - aimed to bring mobile experiences closer to those on other systems.

    Toning down core, toughening up casual

    What links all these examples is that none of them have set the world alight, despite being excellent games in their own right.

    So what are developers to do now?

    The desire to create deeper experiences continues - probably due to the massive spoils for anyone who gets it right - but studios are becoming less bullish in their approach.

    An example is Warlords from Wooga subsidiary Black Anvil. It takes heavy influence from PC strategy - specifically Heroes of Might and Magic - but equally from the mobile space to aid accessibility.

    And while Warlords definitely has hardcore sensibilities - there is no auto-play, for example, as a pure design preference - Black Anvil self-identifies as midcore.

    The game has also enjoyed the best start to a soft launch Wooga has ever seen - so something's going right at the newly spun off studio.

  • 3 East still going west

    East still going west logo

    Asian companies seeking success in the west, and vice versa, is by no means a new phenomenon.

    However, it did seem to be a particularly prominent trend at GDC 2016.

    One example was Locojoy, the 700-strong Chinese developer whose partnership with US publisher Narvalous - and consequently-established Palo Alto office - will allow it to publish US-made games in China and Chinese-made games in the west.

    Another is COLOPL NI, the US arm of Japanese giant COLOPL, who has just appointed a new CEO in Jikhan Jung and is committed to pushing both its mobile games and VR projects in western markets.

    And, to prove that this is not just going on at the very top tier of development, Chinese studio Mechanist Games - less well known in the mobile space than the aforementioned pair, but still employing more than 200 people - is building its upcoming action RPG Heroes of Skyrealm with plans to launch first in the west.

  • 4 Understanding of ads needs to improve

    After meeting with Tapjoy SVP, Business Development Paul Longhenry and Vungle VP of Product Michal Pilawski, one point became clear: ads, while accounting for a large proportion of game revenues, are not examined with the same scrutiny as IAPs.

    Both are interested in the ways in which players are engaging with ads, but believe that many developers give too little consideration to things like placement and in-game situations that can affect a player's interaction with them.

    But with platforms like Tapjoy giving developers an increasing level of control over this, it's an area in which understanding is improving all the time.

    As well as this, Longhenry and Pilawski both independently suggested that brands are poised to become a greater presence among in-game advertisements, not least because they're less concerned with click-through rates.

  • 5 Trump UA with brands

    Trump UA with brands logo

    Admittedly this could be a trend in almost any year, but at GDC 2016 it did seem particularly stark.

    Disney's Chris Heatherly explained that its mobile division would be focusing entirely on existing properties - as evidenced by the announcement of Disney Crossy Road - as a way to get around the issue.

    And it's been working so far. “Last year, between Marvel [Contest of Champions] and Star Wars [Galaxy of Heroes], we launched two new mega-hits,” said Heatherly.

    “We've got ten top-grossing titles across our portfolio in 2015, which is more than anyone else in the industry.”

    More to come

    The list goes on. Jimmy Gendron of Behaviour - the Montreal studio behind Fallout Shelter, and now working with Disney on an unannounced project - also pledged to continue working with brands.

    Elsewhere, COLOPL NI CEO Jikhan Jung admitted that “it's hard to gain new players in a very competitive market with very expensive marketing costs.”

    “We're not sure we can scale up [our US operations] right now,” he added.

    With parent company COLOPL having found massive success in its native Japan, boasting huge hits such as White Cat Project (aka Rune Story in the west), the fact that even a company of such stature can face difficulties speaks volumes.

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.