Stateside: Violent change is coming. Only the innovative will survive

F2P consensus is fragmenting

Stateside: Violent change is coming. Only the innovative will survive

There are signs that things could get ugly in the next few months for the free-to-play mobile gaming market.

According to Superdata, while mobile gaming is still growing in terms of revenue, it's being outpaced by user acquisition costs.

Cost per install rates used to match average revenue per user numbers, but now they're starting to be more expensive than ARPU to the point it could get so expensive to acquire a new user that they would have to be engaged in the game for months at a time in order to make back the acquisition cost.

And in a world where game supply is plentiful, and even the massive hit that is Candy Crush Saga is perhaps seeing a downturn in interest, it's hard to say that there's going to be a lot of companies who will have a holly jolly Christmas this year, even with large numbers of new mobile users.

Times are changing

A violent shift in the market is coming. Companies will fail.

But those who are smart, who can leverage their talents and products for longevity, discover what's next and survive the churn will be the ones who survive the bloodbath.

Rovio deserves a lot of notice for how it’s managed to wade through the waters of mobile gaming. It highlighted the $0.99 price point, with the original Angry Birds providing exorbitant value for its price point.

Angry Birds Go

Even as free-to-play has become the way to go, it’s still largely sold the Angry Birds games on mobile as paid, though it has introduced IAP elements as well.

Perhaps more importantly, Rovio has uncovered new revenue streams. It’s exploited the licensing and merchandising opportunities for the characters. It’s also springboarded from being a cheap product to something that can be sold for $49.99 on the PS4 and Xbox One.

It's might seem silly on paper, but in a world of $99.99 virtual cars (which Angry Birds Go will soon be contributing to), is it really all that ludicrous?

Spreading the risk

These gambits at making its popular license more lucrative over time are intelligent because Rovio is set up in a position whereby if one revenue stream falters, another can make up for it.

Indeed, Rovio can afford to jump into free-to-play significantly now with one game, because it’s diversified how it makes money. The market can change but Rovio's still there.

King didn't get on to mobile until the summer of 2012, but now it’s one of the top dogs. It struck when it was ready.

It’s adapted from web portals to Facebook to now mobile, and because it has been ready to adapt and diversify, even the eventual decline of Candy Crush Saga shouldn’t hurt it too badly. It's not King’s only game, and mobile isn't its only revenue stream (although it is its largest).

Growing pains

Thus for large players the question becomes can they successfully diversify?

Supercell’s latest game Boom Beach is awfully similar to Clash of Clans; can it reach the same heights of success that its predecessor, especially given the potential for rapid change upcoming?

Will Boom Beach find an audience in a saturated clash of the clones market?

The GungHo acquisition means many of the principles are set regardless of what happens with the market, but for the developer to be relevant long-term, it may need to find its strategy for weathering not just the next market shift, but for long-term survival and success.

Can the companies profiting from currently hot genres such as casino games and IAP-laden match-3 titles survive the changes? Can they iterate to where consumer interest will next lie?

EA Mobile might have struggled with free-to-play at times, but its ability to exploit well-known properties to create unique experience give it a leg up on fledgling competition exploiting the current market conditions.

Smaller developers have it rougher because they can't as easily create multiple products to keep thriving, but they can take the advice that flexibility is key for surviving in the market.

Going off the beaten path to see if new methods might succeed are necessary. Remember: King built an empire and created whales in a game with relatively cheap IAP. The sands will shift - don't shoot for where the market is now, but where it could be in the future.

Indies and the mid-size developers that want to be the next Rovio or Supercell need to have the gumption to take risks if they want to survive.

Embrace the uncertainty

But what everyone need to realize is that this is just a natural progression.

Mobile gaming will see change happen often because it's still such a growing market, and it requires more than just reacting to how consumers spend money - it's about creating those reactions, about being the change instead of just part of it.

It's why I applaud developers that aim for high-priced premium games instead of going free-to-play. It's a risk, but what if it pays off more than going free-to-play just because it's trendy and just because most of the money is there now? Don't be a slave to trends.

Free-to-play is part of the future of mobile gaming, not the only future.

It's not going away - it just wasn't feasible previously. And some of the current monetization tactics? They might just still work. There are still developers making their way on the App Store with low-priced 'premium' games, for sure. But with any monetization tactic, it won't last forever. It won't always be one platform. And it won't always be about free-to-play, either.

Developers need to be versatile, they need to look at as many ways that they could possibly succeed, not just what's popular now. Mobile has succeeded because of the visionaries and the risk-takers. The smart ones who take intelligent risks are the ones who succeed, and find ways to expand beyond just one way of doing things.

They are the ones who will survive the big impending changes.

Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at, which was acquired by publisher Steel Media in 2012.

Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!