What will be the hottest mobile games industry trends in 2019 that could shape its future for years to come? It's a bold question, but one that can be delved into with a well-rounded collection of industry opinions.
The hyper-casual genre was the standout trend of last year, but this year will no doubt see it consolidate thanks to an influx of interested developers.
Thanks in part to the success of Epic Games' Fortnite and Tencent's PUBG Mobile, battle royale success is unlikely to significantly wane either.
On top of that, how to best monetise your games will always be a key point of discussion. Free-to-play is unlikely to go anywhere, but various ad formats pose an interesting alternative to in-app purchases, monetising the majority of users who don't pay a cent.
To delve into these topics and more, PocketGamer.Biz led a roundtable hosted by Facebookduring Pocket Gamer Connects London 2019, featuring director of EMEA publisher solutions Steve Webb, head of EMEA publisher SMB Ben Atherton and publisher development manager Orly Schwartzman. The trio were able to offered their expertise on various areas, including monetisation, based on their experience with the Facebook Audience Network and games industry at large.
Also in attendance was Wooga senior ad monetisation manager Lisa Pak, Madbox co-founder Maxime Demeure, Supersolid head of user acquisition Elizaveta Kostyukhina, Firi Games co-founder Tijmen Roberti and Two Way Media director James Turner.
To start things off, the question was posed to the group of what the more prominent trends of the year would be.
Facebook featuring director of EMEA publisher solutions Steve Webb believes that, from the publishing perspective, the mobile games sector can expect to see hyper-casual increasingly adopting a hybrid model of ads and in-app purchases.
“We’re really starting to see the IAP model being introduced into hyper-casual, and interestingly, vice-versa," he said.
“I think there are also going to be new entrants coming in. Nintendo is now seriously starting to think about mobile gaming, we’ve seen Blizzard announce that it was going to launch Diablo on mobile first, and we’re starting to see Fortnite becoming multi-screen."
Webb also reckons we'll see more mergers and acquisitions in the industry as it continues to consolidate. There's also a push toward in-app bidding that Webb feels will continue in 2019.
“I think the mid-to-small-sized developers, and studios, which can move very quickly, will look attractive to some of large developers and studios who want to bring that expertise in," Webb explains.
He adds: “Finally, monetisation for us is about bidding. It’s about the efficiencies that can be brought into what can quite often be inefficient monetisation set-ups where a lot of ad-tech vendors taking a cut between the dollar invested and the ad unit that’s appearing in front of the user.
“Then it’s brand demand; we’re starting to see the signs that there will be a diversification of the advertising demand that is going to start to flow through the pipes.
“We feel like we’re in a great position to help publishers with that, but we feel like that’s going to kick off properly this year.”
Supersolid’s Elizaveta Kostyukhina found herself in agreement to both Webb's points about bigger titles coming to mobile and more avenues for monetisation that don't solely include in-app purchases.
“I agree, I think a lot of games that were initially only focused on in-app purchases are getting more and more focused,” said Kostyukhina.
“For example, I’m currently working on our titles Food Street and Home Street, which were initially only in-app purchase focused but now we’re analysing the data and are seeing where would be the best place to add ads to bring in extra revenue. So we think there’s going to be more of that.
"I also agree that there will be a lot of big titles coming out of mobile. Diablo Immortal is coming and Fortnite is already huge.
"So, a lot of games that are big on console are coming to mobile, which I’m personally looking forward to.”
Is there room for midcore in 2019?
With hardcore RPGs on the one side and hyper-casual games on the other, the thought was introduced to the group that midcore games may become lost in the shuffle in 2019.
For Madbox co-founder Maxime Demeure, midcore games won't be going anywhere anytime soon.
Using Madbox as an example, he explained that the genre's rapid style of development allowed the company to learn a lot, with those lessons applying to midcore.
“We decided to start with hyper-casual only for the learnings. Because that’s a market where we can develop a game in two weeks and understand all the user acquisition and the monetisation," he said.
“Today we have games in the top 10 everywhere in the world. So yeah, the main subject was the learning time, and today we have learned we have the data of the organics on the app store, how to create a good waterfall with the monetisation, and we can test so many features because we can level up and focus on the midcore games.
“Now we can move to more casual games and understand from our expertise how we can reduce the number of ads, as the user experience on hyper-casual games can be not that good.”
Supersolid head of user acquisition Elizaveta Kostyukhina said while its own midcore title Home Street was not designed with ads in mind initially, instead focusing on IAPs, it was something the team now had to consider due to the trend of hyper-casual.
“When the game was developed there was definitely no ads in mind, and we do have quite a few spenders, but then we realised that non-spenders want more a chance to progress in the game as well," she explains.
“We thought it was a shame not to monetise on the non-spending users, which is why we added ads. We feel like people just expect ads in games right now.”
Is the rise of ad monetisation an indictment on in-app purchases?
Following on the topic of monetisation was then brought up to the group. The swathe of industry folk was asked explicitly if the rise of ad monetisation was an indictment on the state of the in-app purchase business model, and if developers needed to monetise the entire user base to be profitable.
For its part, Facebook has the Facebook Audience Network, an in-app advertising network for mobile apps. It’s become a key part of the advertising ecosystem - recently winning Best Advertising & UA at the Pocket Gamer Mobile Games Awards in association with Game Insight.
The rise of ads in mobile, thanks in part to the hyper-casual games trend, has led to an increased use of these services for both user acquisition and effective monetisation.
Firi Games's Tijmen Roberti found himself in agreement on the profitable game front, citing the competitive nature of the industry.
“Well, I do think so, yeah, as you need huge acquisition right? To make your games thrive," explained Roberti.
"It’s a bidding process. So, if you’re bidding against other people who are making more revenue, then you’re in trouble.
“So you’re kind of, almost, forced to try and use ads to get your revenue-per-user up and stay relevant.”
For Two Way Media's James Turner, however, things are more flexible when the realm of hyper-casual is considered.
“I think starting a game project without saying,’ okay, what’s the economy going to be?’ before you get into the game's design can be quite liberating," said Turner.
“We’re one half of the hyper-casual thing on Facebook Instant Games; we’re the bit of hyper-casual that says you need to get the game within the first 10 seconds, it’s got to be very clear and straightforward, that’s what Instant Games are all about.
“The other side of having to explain your game in such a way that you can acquire your customers cheaply isn’t really on the table for Instant Games.
"It is about making a game that is retentive enough and interesting enough, according to Facebook’s internal KPIs, for your game to succeed.
“So, in fact, we can take away all monetisation and all ads from the game to start with. If you put a game on Instant Games and it doesn’t have good retention, no one is going to find it anyway, whatever you do.
“So you have to make a game with good retention first.”
Is there is a bigger opportunity for brands to work with games and advertise?
Could 2019 bring more of an opportunity for brands to work with games and advertise? It's perhaps not a new question from the past few years, but 2019 could see more headway made.
For James Turner, creating games with an IP attached does add a valuable recognition factor, but it is paramount that you partner with the right IP holder to do so.
“We work with a lot of television brands, like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Family Fortunes, Ben 10 and Shaun the Sheep, and to a certain extent it can work very well," he explained.
“We’ve found that you just need to pick your IP owner carefully; one that gives you enough flexibility to do what you need to do to make the game right, but also doesn’t allow you to damage their brand.
“That is in neither of your interests and you can take these things too far to try and reach an audience you shouldn’t be reaching for.”
Outside of working with IP, brands have also made headway in advertising. Gameloft, for example, has its Advertising Solutions business, which is starting to make traction in utilising big name brands.
Drawing upon personal experience, Wooga's Lisa Pak noted that her team would rather show branded ads over rival games. However, she also said that organisations might need to be more flexible on that front for the branded medium to grow.
“I think often our game team prefer to show brand ads than other games because of the fear of other players turning and moving to your competitor’s game," Pak explained.
“I think for brands that what Gameloft is doing is super cool and it’s a start.
"In my opinion, it’s more that we’re in an education phase where if we all want brands to have a bigger presence, then we need to educate these brands and have them understand that their audience is actually in games because everyone plays games.
“Plus, there are different formats that we work with. For example, rewarded video; it’s in the nature of that format that the player watches the ad until the end otherwise they don’t receive their reward.
“Whereas I feel like brands are hesitant about measurements and viewability and things like this.
"The nature of the video though is that it is automatically close to 100 per cent viewable. For us; AdColony, with their history with Opera Mediaworks, is showing a lot of brands in our games.”
Facebook’s Ben Atherton added: “Brand and mainstream advertisers are starting to look at what is happening in mobile gaming, and it’s starting to come out of the back room. It used to be seen as the gamer geek and they are starting to realise actually every audience is engaging with games, that it is interactive and it’s brand safe and there’s great targeting in there.”
Asked if she thought whether or not developers should advertise other studios' games within their own, Pak said that she felt so too. The question stemmed from Space's Ape's pivot to such a philosophy, a move that saw the company increase its revenues for Fastlane: Road to Revenge multiple times over.
“Yes, I think you definitely should. This is a topic that I feel like any games company deals with, and you can test this," Pak said.
“You can show competitive games and you will see. We’ve done a test on our side and we can see that players are not necessarily turning and leaving our game immediately to have the competing game as there new favourite game.”