Do Consumers Really Have Time For This Week's Hot New Mobile Games?
November 07, 2016

At some point and for some reason (I think there was the promise of free in-game loot), I gave Square Enix permission to email me about its upcoming free mobile game, Guardian Codex. Today, I received a note in my inbox letting me know that the game is "upcoming" no more; you can download it right now from the App Store.

This was good news, so I downloaded and installed the game on my iPhone. The email mentioned that I can sign in daily for Codex Credits, which presumably will last during an introductory period while the game sinks its claws into me. That's a nice reward for my early interest. And yet, even though I have installed the game and it is taking up space on my phone, I'm not sure I will ever actually play it.

Mobile games are unique, compared to the console games I used to play as often as I could afford them. For one thing, mobile games are often free. There are a few releases most weeks that want my money (usually, $2 to $5), but the bulk of new titles cost nothing and come with a "this game includes in-app purchases" warning. I have become fond of downloading those games and, in the rare cases when I play them, seeing how far I can get without spending a dime. It's the only way I can really enjoy them, since game design usually amounts to pushing you to drop money to speed things up, rather like arcade games once encouraged us to part with "just one more quarter" to survive long enough to pump a few more bullets into a tough boss.

The game design for these free-to-play beasts has to be creating an issue, though, and I think I found it today: fatigue. I only have so much free time, and I can only devote so much of it to games. Whether I buy them or download them for free, I probably won't play nearly as many of them as I used to. And this is a problem for all mobile game developers in particular, because the majority of those free-to-play games that I care about most are designed specifically to keep me playing for weeks or months on end.

I don't have time for Guardian Codex right now, despite my interest, because I am still busy playing Mobius Final Fantasy, which is in the middle of an event celebrating the fact that it now has more than 8,888,000 players worldwide. The event is fun. My wife and I are both enjoying it, and we check in daily, typically several times. Then when I go on walks, I often have Pokemon GO running, so that I can get candy for my favorite pal and maybe hatch a few eggs. There's not really room in the rotation for a third game, not when I also have adult responsibilities to tend to.

Square Enix is competing with itself, and it's competing with other top mobile games (I hear Clash of the Clans is really good) that other developers are trying to keep going. In the old days, a game would drop and it would be competition for a few weeks, after which point its impact on other releases for a platform was severely reduced. Now, though, a bunch of great games from the competition might only be just getting started.

If you track the top releases on mobile devices from week to week, you'll find that most of the big players remain fairly consistent. There are games that have been out for a year or two, still hogging space on the list. Most weeks see the brief appearance of some other free title, but then it drops out of sight. People play it briefly, then stop, probably before they are tempted to spend much money on those dreaded in-app purchases.

I can only imagine that this means most mobile games have a limited window in which they can earn their development costs back, even if they are "free-to-play." This situation doesn't seem like it can facilitate a sustainable model as more and more compelling games arrive on the scene and old games stick around to waste yet more of our time. It seems to me like the sort of model that is custom-tailored to implode, and especially as big players like Square Enix, 2K Games, Electronic Arts, and--most likely--Nintendo start gobbling up consumer attention.

Most of us have smartphones these days, and a lot of us have time to play only a game or two with any regularity. That abundance of time, spread out as it is among millions of potential consumers, has been enough to make a few indie developers rich. But the landscape grows more cluttered by the day, and my guess is that mobile gaming success is becoming a harder and harder nut to crack, day by day. For now, there's salvation in tapping into markets like China (though even those are busy, thanks to knockoff titles). Is there a next step that can keep things going after that, or are we about to witness--within that one sector--a "crash" of the sort that nearly destroyed console gaming in the early 80s?

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hastypixels hastypixels - November 08, 2016 (05:06 AM)
I picked up on it as well, the fatigue you mention. Not only are we pressed to decide how to spend our time, there are just too many good games out there to play. The difficulty of reviewing games is the ability to avoid the bad ones, because I have so many gems to get into.

We've reached a saturation point, and I firmly believe the bubble will pop, but I'm not sure how. The ecosystem of game development is a different beast. When the internet bubble burst the effect was obvious, but it won't be as apparent. Where will the displaced developers go?

Something I'm paying attention to.
jerec jerec - November 08, 2016 (07:13 PM)
I've got two games on my phone - Doctor Who Legacy and Final Fantasy Record Keeper. The former I've been slowly grinding away at for two years - it's a fairly addictive game, but unlocking characters and leveling them up is a slow process unless you want to pay in crystals (the game gives you a reasonable amount of these for free, sometimes when you finish a level, also if you log in 5 days in a row, you get two - but mostly it wants you to spend real money on them). So with hundreds of characters, mostly low leveled, I'll sit on a level which has a character to unlock and just grind away at that. I might get time during the day to play this level once or twice.

Record Keeper, I sort of play in fits and bursts.

I find that when I truly have time to play these mobile games - when I'm stuck somewhere away from home - these games drain the battery so quickly that I get nervous about spending too much time on them. I usually just go on the Internet.
overdrive overdrive - November 08, 2016 (08:46 PM)
I played Record Keeper for a while, but got bored. Those kinds of games can be fun diversions for a while, but lack the depth or overall experience to keep my interest. Usually it's the point where stamina costs get to the point where you essentially either have to pay to play or be satisfied with a very short session followed by a recharging hour, so you can play again. Personally, I'd rather just play a more robust game than deal with that.

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