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Forget next-gen consoles. The biggest gaming platform is already in your pocket.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

When the first smartphones debuted in the early 2000s, mobile gaming consisted of simplistic titles such as “Snake,” where the player leads a snakelike chain of pixels around the screen to eat other pixels and grow longer. Soon the market expanded into word games, like 2009′s “Words with Friends” and three-in-a-row matching games like “Candy Crush Saga” in 2012, both primarily played by people whittling away time on public transportation or in a doctor’s waiting room.

Today, over three billion people have smartphones and over two billion of them play games on those phones. Some of those mobile titles now even rival the quality of games traditionally enjoyed on consoles and expensive PCs.

A decade ago, mobile gaming was underestimated and considered “casual” by both gamers and developers, compared to its more sophisticated siblings, like PCs, PlayStations and Xboxes. But the mobile gaming sector is so big now, it can’t be ignored: In 2019, player spending in mobile gaming surpassed console and PC gaming combined, according to Matt Piscatella of The NPD Group, a market research company. And though the pandemic dented mobile game spending in 2020, in part due to higher unemployment, it was still significantly larger than consoles or PCs, according to a variety of market analysis firms.

Mobile gaming brought in an estimated nearly $80 billion in 2020 revenue, compared with PC making almost $37 billion, and consoles — such as the Nintendo Switch, Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox — totaling $45 billion, according to gaming analytics company Newzoo.

Massive game publishing companies like Activision Blizzard and tech giants like Apple have awaked to the opportunity of investing in mobile gaming. As new, lucrative business models have sprung up — such as free-to-play titles with in-game purchase options — companies have generated more revenue by building out elaborate and complex games on mobile.

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The growth has been rapid. In 2015, Apple and Google, who control the two primary mobile app download markets, saw almost $27 billion gross revenue from games globally. That figure jumped by almost 300% over the next five years, according to Craig Chapple, mobile insights strategist at Sensor Tower.

The mobile gaming boom has changed the way people play games, how games are built and our expectations for what’s available on mobile platforms. This month, two companies that have both grown rich from mobile gaming — Apple and Epic Games — fought in court over whether the Apple App Store has become a monopoly. It is a case that could change how the App Store operates and whether Epic’s game, “Fortnite,” a title that has generated over $1 billion through the App Store, will ever make a return on the iPhone.

A handheld evolution

The belief among mobile game developers over a decade ago was that people would open their phones for a few seconds to kills some idle time and then put them away.

“A few years ago, anybody would have laughed you out of the room if you’re a 17-minute … game on a phone,” said Michael Chow, who helped create “Words with Friends,” which launched in 2009. Chow worked on that game when he was at Newtoy, a company he founded with two cousins and later sold to social and mobile game company Zynga. Multiplayer games like “Words with Friends” were designed to open in less than three seconds and allow for a few minutes of gameplay (spelling a word to play on a board), as people took their turns asynchronously.

“That was our target and that was the right target actually, for that era of the industry and that era of our players,” Chow said. “Now, I mean, if you look at the top 10 global games, none of them meet either of those bars at all.”

Chow is now the executive producer of Riot Games’ new mobile title, “League of Legends: Wild Rift,” which can take roughly 15 to 30 minutes per round while players act in real-time.

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Advancements in smartphone technology have opened up more room for expansive mobile gaming experiences, but developing games for iPhones with basic hardware a decade ago was a different story.

“As beautiful as the original iPhone was, it’s a much smaller screen,” said Humam Sakhnini, president at King, which makes the “Candy Crush” franchise. Sakhnini took over as president after the company was purchased by Activision Blizzard in 2016. ″The touch [was] very different … the processing was different, the battery life was different.”

Back then, “games will come and go in a quarter,” Sakhnini, said. But titles like “Candy Crush” have thrived for nearly a decade. That endurance helped change expectations and attract more developers to mobile gaming.

Mobile gaming’s ability to find successful business models early on has also fostered that attraction. The free-to-play model has worked well for many games, encouraging downloads at no cost to users while driving revenue through in-app purchases or the inclusion of in-game advertisements. “Candy Crush,” for instance, sells players virtual gold bars in exchange for real money. The gold bars can be used to buy candy that helps with matching combos and solving levels, and they can also be used to buy extra lives and continue playing.

Mobile games have explored various ways to monetize, from gacha systems — where players can spend currency for a chance to win precious in-game loot — to battle passes in games like “Fortnite” and “Call of Duty: Mobile” — which, after an upfront payment, unlock more rewards for users as they spend more time playing. Brand sponsorships with retailers and licensing popular properties, like Marvel and Star Wars, for in-game characters and items is another way mobile developers have gotten fans to pay.

“Fortnite,” which has incorporated dozens of brand sponsorships, has generated almost $1.2 billion in player spending on Apple’s App Store, from its 2018 release to its 2020 removal. Apple made over $100 million from “Fortnite” revenue commissions during the last 11 months the game was in the App Store, Apple executive Michael Schmid estimated in court testimony during its trial with Epic last week.

The appeal of big audiences

Mobile gaming has traditionally pulled in a more diverse audience due to the relatively low barrier to entry, since so many people worldwide own a cellphone. According to Ted Krantz, CEO of App Annie, a company that measures apps, mobile is “democratizing gaming to the masses by putting a portable gaming experience in the pocket of every smartphone owner globally.”

In developing countries, people often game on their phone rather than any other device.

“I’ve been living in Southeast Asia now since 2012,” said Mighty Bear Games CEO Simon Davis. Mighty Bear developed the multiplayer battle royale game “Butter Royale” for Apple Arcade, Apple’s gaming subscription service that costs $5 a month after a free trial. “This part of the world is just mobile first, but there’s no snobbishness around mobile because mobile is just the default gaming platform for close to a billion people here.”

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Console and PC developers have taken notice of that broad user base and used mobile to tap into that wider audience, with titles like “Call of Duty: Mobile” and “Crash Bandicoot: On the Run!”

“Over the years, there have been a number of significant deals by Triple-A console companies to get a foot in the mobile market,” Sensor Tower’s Chapple said. “Far from just offering small, casual titles, the mobile games market now caters for all tastes with titles that are regularly updated to keep players engaged for years.”

One of the biggest moves into mobile by a major game publisher focused on consoles and PCs came in 2016 when Activision Blizzard acquired King for $18 in cash per share, or a total equity value of $5.9 billion. The deal drew attention in the gaming industry, as did the success of other mobile titles like “Angry Birds” (2009), “Clash of Clans” (2012) and “Pokémon Go” (2016).

King’s Sakhnini, who previously worked as Chief Strategy and Talent Officer at Activision Blizzard, described being part of the company’s decision to acquire King.

“I’m a lifetime gamer and I love games, and you could tell that there’s something there [in the mobile space],” Sakhnini said of his first time playing “Candy Crush” in 2012. “We saw the hallmarks of what we’re seeing in console and PC, which is that this could be a very long-lived franchise, which it turned out to be.”

Mobile-first for developers too?

It has also helped that technology has continued to advance so developers can build more complex games on phones.

“The chipset in a phone is better than the PlayStation 2,” said Michael Pachter, an analyst at private financial services firm Wedbush who covers gaming. “The screen size is obviously tiny, but you can really have stunning games on mobile now.”

Games developed for mobile today now have big ambitions. “Runescape Mobile,” a mobile version of the 2001 multiplayer title slated for a June release, will be a live service game — like many free titles on PC and console — and will be updated with more content over time.

“It just became an opportunity that we couldn’t possibly ignore,” said Dave Osbourne, lead game designer for “Runescape” at Jagex. “Our players are finding that they have less and less time for an MMO [Massively Multiplayer Online Game]. But yet they do have time for mobile.”

Ryan Ward, executive producer of “Runescape” at Jagex said that the plan is to launch “Runescape’s” mobile version to start, receive player feedback and continue to support and update the game.

“Our first job was getting it all kind of ported there,” Ward said. “And we’d see if having a large-scale MMO [on mobile] is actually doable.”

“Runescape” on mobile will have transparent walls so users can see their scenery at a glance and navigate the massive maps more easily, and it features other tweaks to make the game playable on a smaller screen.

Tech giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are also experimenting with different approaches to mobile gaming. Apple uses the subscription service strategy with Arcade, introduced in 2019, that offers access to a curated collection of over 180 games that don’t run ads or microtransactions.

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As more gaming studios invest in mobile, that could shift how games are designed, as they deal with the constraints of people’s free time, attention spans and the hardware limits of smaller screens, cellular data and more.

“The future is actually to develop mobile first, and then do slightly modified or upscale versions on desktop platforms,” said Davis, the Mighty Bear Games CEO. “Because if you can really nail the mobile experience, it will play beautifully on everything else. You design with the greatest number of limitations, that always gives you the most innovative solutions … and over time, you’ll probably see more and more developers taking that same approach.”

There’s another mobile-related possibility that could port popular PC and console games to mobile devices via streaming. Google and Amazon have both launched cloud gaming platforms that allow users to play complete versions of premium console and PC games on their mobile devices. Though cloud gaming has been slow to catch on, it could shake up mobile gaming as it currently stands.

Microsoft’s own cloud gaming service is currently available to Xbox Game Pass subscribers in a testing phase but hasn’t been allowed to run on the Apple App Store due to the platform’s strict guidelines. But if Apple loses its court case against Epic, it could be forced to open up its App Store and allow cloud gaming apps like Microsoft’s on the iPhone. It remains to be seen if the more experimental methods will take off.

“Ultimately, we’ll be able to receive the game on our phone and play it on our television,” said Wedbush analyst Pachter. “That’s where technology is today. And everybody now knows they need to be in this business.”

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