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Mobile Mavens: Are today's everlasting, live ops games holding back new innovation?

Our industry experts weigh in on the power of long, and enduring games. Do endless liveops keep the market ticking? Or stop new devs from breaking through?
Mobile Mavens: Are today's everlasting, live ops games holding back new innovation?
  • “For better or worse repeatable commercial success in mobile gaming will come mainly from evolving existing franchises”
  • “Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga are still top-grossing titles even after more than ten years in the market”

In the current climate of live ops and games with a loyal player base that endure for many years, what does this mean for new games trying to break into the market?

Do these existing and established hits cause a rising tide that raises all ships? Or does such a competitive market make it difficult for new games and new developers to ever reach an audience?

We spoke with our Mobile Mavens - our regular group of expert contributors - to get their opinions and offer advice on attracting players to your game. Here’s what they had to say.

Simon Hade

Simon Hade

Co-founder at Space Ape Games

For better or worse, repeatable commercial success in mobile gaming will come mainly from evolving existing franchises. Mobile is not exactly a zero-sum game, but big new hits will mostly come at some cost to another game - either an incumbent or within the developer's own portfolio.

This calls for a different approach to game making than in the past when the platform was in hypergrowth.  

“Since the dawn of the iPhone there have been people bemoaning the lack of originality in mobile games.”
Simon Hade

That said, I am optimistic there will always be unexpected breakout games, just like there are breakout songs and artists despite the music industry being mature and dominated by a small number of “forever” artists who command the majority of streams, revenue, touring etc.  

Since the dawn of the iPhone there have been people bemoaning the lack of originality in mobile games, including times when there were no incumbents.  So if these big games were to somehow go away I’m sure we’d hear similar complaints about their replacements.

The reality is that those games/formats dominate because lots of people want to play them, and the innovation or originality is often not obvious if it's not your type of game.  

The fact that you now need to not only make a great game but also offer something magical to get people to switch from their “older favourites” means that new games that break out will have more innovation, not less.

This, of course, makes the job of launching new games harder and more expensive than ever before. 

Every long-running franchise has an underserved segment.  No shade on the people making those games, but it’s just a question of priorities - whether you have 300 people or 3,000 working on a game, you can’t please everyone.  

When we started out in 2013, the niche we targeted was the hyper-competitive (and most valuable) segment of Clash of Clans players. At the time, Supercell was not catering to those players (this was pre-clan wars), so we met their demand for deeper community events, VIP support, more frequent updates, and a depth of things to do with your clan.

“Starting with a well-defined niche audience also helps the game development process.”
Simon Hade

We made a nice business out of it until Supercell caught up, so our offering was no longer unique, and we joined them four years later.  

More recently, in 2023, we went after the under-served male match3 player, i.e., those who are playing Candy Crush, Royal Match, xScapes, etc., despite the fantasy, art style, and narratives not catering to them. We identified this segment and did a ton of research to figure out what fantasies and art styles would get them to at least give our game a chance long enough for the game to pry them away. 

Starting with a well-defined niche audience also helps the game development process, as you have a razor for deciding whether a feature is important.  

Once you have identified that niche, go very broad and test lots of different ways of presenting the game to them. For example, before committing a line of code in our most recent dev game, we tested over 1k concepts (with the help of an AI-assisted art pipeline and a lot of data crunching) to build confidence that the direction we’re taking resonates with the underserved niche we’d identified. 

In doing so, you run the risk of that audience not being large enough to make a commercially viable game or your use case being eventually met by the developers of the game you're targeting. But that's an easier problem to navigate than trying to design a completely new play pattern or tackle an incumbent head-on.

Brett Nowak

Brett Nowak

CEO at Liquid and Grit

LTVs of successful games: The LTVs (Lifetime Values) of successful games are much bigger and longer than originally expected. For instance, Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga are still top-grossing titles even after more than ten years in the market. This longevity means that a larger initial investment can be justified.

“Despite the dominance of long-lasting hits, the market is always open to great new games.”
Brett Nowak

Challenges in mobile gaming: Mobile gaming has always been a very challenging business and continues to be so. Winners really win, capturing significant market share and revenue, while losers struggle to make an impact. I do not feel that this has changed much, even though we all think it has. 

Market adoption: Despite the dominance of long-lasting hits, the market is always open to great new games. Each year, we see new titles breaking through and capturing the attention of players, proving that there’s always room for innovation and fresh experiences in the gaming landscape.

Finding an Audience: For smaller companies looking for an audience, consider starting on platforms like TikTok or Discord or even leveraging less-known areas and/or celebrities and personalities. These platforms can offer more targeted and cost-effective ways to reach and engage with potential players, helping to build a dedicated community around your game.

Peter  Fodor

Peter Fodor

Founder at AppAgent

Dominant titles create both challenges and opportunities for new games. These high-profile titles expand the overall audience, potentially creating a larger pool of players interested in trying new games. Retention numbers show players generally have low loyalty and seek new experiences in the dopamine hunt.

Smaller studios should target more niche and underserved market segments, and when developing a new game, everyone should focus on a CPI advantage.

You can’t compete with LTV in ad auctions against super-optimised mature titles. The only leverage is finding a game concept that naturally drives interest and, therefore, lowers your acquisition cost.

First and foremost, the market is crippled by IDFA deprecation. That has resulted in problematic targeting and subsequently influenced which games make the most sense to develop from the business perspective. 

“If “older favourites” move aside, it will bring only slightly different games to the spotlight.”
Peter Fodor

Also, let’s not forget that every successful game is a combination of classic elements and little innovation. At AppAgent, we’ve seen many novel games that struggled to get attention because they were hard to “pitch” them to players in four seconds or less.

If “older favourites” move aside, it will bring only slightly different games to the spotlight. As an industry, we can’t expect a revolution anymore; we only need slow evolution.

I highly recommend beginning by identifying the gaps in the market that more established titles haven’t filled.

Developers should then focus on unique value propositions and emotional engagement, which are surprisingly often missing, even at later game development stages. 

Once you have the core USP, craft a compelling narrative and innovate within familiar mechanics to offer something both novel and comfortable. 

Everything above can be effectively tested, from the player segments to positioning to creative strategy. It’s great to see that we have more and more projects in this area at AppAgent, as developers realise that having a cool prototype is not enough in 2024.

I recently discussed the right approach in my article on developing a successful strategy for a brand game.