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Mobile gaming's journey to the mainstream

Kristan Rivers, co-founder and CEO of in-game advertising platform AdInMo, looks at the last decade of the industry and why brands are queueing up for its future
Mobile gaming's journey to the mainstream

Kristan Rivers is co-founder and CEO at AdInMo. This article coincides with our 10-year anniversary of Pocket Gamer Connects this year, and takes a look back at the last decade, as well as the future of the industry.

Although the Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously stated that the only constant in life is change.

One constant of the mobile games industry has been Pocket Gamer founder Chris James’ bright shirts throughout 10 years of PG Connects, personally experienced during my own annual pilgrimage to PG Connects London.

On the other hand, one change we have definitely experienced over the past decade as an industry has been the mainstreaming of mobile gaming. 

On a recent flight to the US, instead of doing my usual antisocial ‘headphones on for 10 hours’, I started chatting to the person in the seat next to me.

We talked about careers, and I asked if she played games. Her answer was “no, but my teenage children do”. And then another hour into the flight she pulled out her phone and started playing a match-3 game. 

While people may not always view themselves as gamers, it is a truism that (nearly) everyone plays games, and our craft has become part of the larger media landscape. 

Games for everyone

I’ve been around mobile games for more than 20 years (remember WAP, SMS, Java…) working for publishers and developers. Apple was a game-changer in 2007, but it’s in the last 10 years that I would say mobile games have become truly mainstream. 

“While people may not always view themselves as gamers, it is a truism that (nearly) everyone plays games.”
Kristan Rivers

For starters, look at some of the top games released the first year of PG Connects in 2014 that went on to have crossovers with other media: 

  • Monument Valley (played by Frank Underwood in House of Cards, and optioned by Paramount Pictures for a future film adaptation)
  • Family Guy: The Quest For Stuff (the game of the TV show)
  • Five Nights at Freddy's (made into a movie in 2023, grossed nearly $300 million in revenues on a $20m budget)

And is anything more mainstream than making a tonne of money? 

The games industry is often compared to Hollywood and according to data.ai, by the end of 2023, 19 mobile games had generated over $1 billion each in lifetime revenue that year, including Boom Beach (also released a decade ago) and relative newcomer Royal Match (2021).

These titles, and many others, illustrate the massive potential of mobile games on a global scale, and the complete takeover of free-to-play as a business model.

Another clear indicator of mainstreaming that F2P has spearheaded is the growth of new monetisation opportunities in-game.

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Intrinsic in-game advertising enhances the player experience and so is appealing to brand advertisers. Instead of game developers advertising competitors’ games, and endlessly balancing monetisation and retention, brand advertisers are a new income stream for most developers. 

Booming industry

The ‘games boom’ during the pandemic was when mainstream advertisers started to take notice of the potential of mobile games as a media channel.

The sheer size of the games market speaks for itself, and mobile talks the language of advertisers with 69% of Gen Z and 73% Gen Alpha preferring to engage with games on their phone versus other platforms (Deloitte, 2023). 

The brand world is still learning about gaming, but advertisers are bullish about its potential.

In the ad industry’s trade body IAB’s 2024 annual study of US advertisers, 87% said ‘gaming is of growing importance to their company’.

Crucially for developers, gaming is no longer limited to one-off activations, with 78% of advertisers seamlessly incorporating gaming into their year-round marketing strategies.

“The brand world is still learning about gaming, but advertisers are bullish about its potential.”
Kristan Rivers

This is very encouraging and shows brand dollars are accessible for all developers, not just the big publishers who are building out direct-brand sales teams.

Google’s entry into the in-game space this year, also demonstrates the potential of immersive formats and scale the ecosystem requires.

Experimentation is key - trialling new formats and models, and looking at how this fits with your evolving hybrid monetisation strategies.

Stepping stones

It’s of course challenging times for the games industry right now and mainstreaming could result in over-reliance on sequels and the same big-budget titles dominating the rankings.

However, new monetisation methods and the accessibility of mobile as a development environment will always ensure diversity of genres and titles, from mainstream to niche to downright obscure, and the indie community continues to thrive, with Pocket Gamer and PG Connects as its champions. 

The insights, challenges and successes of the past decade are stepping stones to an even more exciting future in mobile gaming.

The industry continues to evolve at a breakneck pace, and I for one am thrilled to be part of this journey, driving innovation and redefining what's possible in mobile gaming.