Cast your mind back to the early days of mobile gaming. To the buzz around touchscreen phones, the Apple App Store before its Epic fiasco, and an industry dominated by casual hits.
Indeed, casual gaming took centre stage in those early days, leading the charge in downloads and playing an integral role in directing the industry towards where it stands today. But times change, and genres with it; recent years saw the rise of hypercasual - an even faster style of play with snappier rounds that tapped into everyone's increasingly short attention span - hypercasual blew up in popularity, and suddenly every mobile developer was all-in on making their own hyper success.
Yet, this burst of popularity petered out rather quickly when compared to its predecessor - fitting of a genre defined by its fast pace. Where games used to have a steep install curve, peaking high on launch and dwindling fast, hypercasual games just aren't designed to reach those same highs.
Instead, new games launch with modest plateaus that trail on - providing some stability, at least, but rarely becoming 'the next big thing'. Overall downloads in the genre are down 12.5% this year, and only 8% of the top 300 downloaded titles were released in 2023; 2020 to 2022 occupy 73% of this list.
The steady decline in popularity has even led to one of hypercasual’s pioneers Voodoo speaking out, with head of publishing Alex Shea declaring "hypercasual is dead'' at Pocket Gamer Connects London 2023.
And so, once again, the winds are changing. A new genre has risen up, and more and more developers are looking its way for a taste of the treasure. That genre is hybridcasual.
The new favourite
The mobile market as it stands in 2023 can be broken down into five categories, according to GameAnalytics. Increasingly complex in mechanics and in demanding player commitment, those categories are hypercasual, hybridcasual, casual, mid-core and core. So, with hybridcasual’s new popularity among players, it appears that hypercasual is just a bit too casual now, but casual isn’t casual enough!
"Hypercasual is your pick up and throw away games. You enjoy them for a brief while and then move on to the next thing," GameAnalytics COO Allison Bilas has previously shared. "Hybridcasual, which sums up the current evolution of that model, keeps much of the simplistic gameplay but adds a deeper layer of progression and allows room for more in-app purchases."
As the next step in the casual genre’s evolution, naturally Voodoo is among the companies evolving with it; the studio set up a new form of publishing last December in anticipation of a changing tide. And many other developers are getting in on hybridcasual besides, from FunPlus to Mamboo Games; Homa has even further segmented the genre into Light Hybrid and Deep Hybrid.
New games from Lilith, NCSoft and Ubisoft fit this trend too, each with match3 titles either in testing or recently released.
Lilith’s Bora Island: Puzzles & Friends began testing two year ago and has been undergoing optimisation since, with new iterations preparing the game for the strongest launch possible. The game merges a cutesy cartoon artstyle with 3D materials, meanwhile its gameplay combines match3 with customisation and the designing of a whole island. Players will be able to interact with NPCs, decorate their houses and more.
NCSoft’s Puzzup Amitoi is very much on brand for the company given its Purple platform. The game released a few weeks ago with an aim to stand out from its match3 competition by including social aspects like a clan system and by implementing a language translation service available between players. The title also gives players the power to change the direction of incoming blocks.
Lastly is Ubisoft, known for its console games like Assassin’s Creed and Just Dance. The lure of hybridcasual has led its Helsinki-based subsidiary RedLynx to dive deeper into mobile with a new hybrid title of its own. The result? Following a closed beta, Ubisoft and Redlynx’s new game Gwen’s Holiday has already exceeded 17 million pre-installs on Android alone. Currently available in select regions, this is another match3 game with hybrid elements, combining puzzle gameplay with the renovation of cabins. There's a story to unfold, too.
Ubisoft's new mobile IP is just a microcosm of this movement, perfectly encapsulating the power of hybridcasual; that this hit genre is even tempting devoted console devs to make original mobile games speaks volumes to its potential, and we can only expect to see more game creators making the move to mobile soon.