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Core Games on Mobile: Has the Time Come?

The mobile games market may reach $35 billion -- more than one-third of the entire global gaming industry -- by 2017.

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When Apple wanted to show off the impressive capabilities of the iPhone 6, it highlighted a new video game called Vainglory, a state-of-the-art multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game created specifically for touchscreen devices. MOBA is the most popular core gaming genre, and boasts the world’s biggest title, League of Legends by Riot Games.

Core titles have long been limited to PCs and consoles. But with one simple demonstration of Vainglory, Apple declared that it was time for hardcore games to make the leap to mobile.

Video games have ballooned into an $80 billion industry on the back of two key drivers over the past decade. The most important has been the shift to mobile gaming, which accounted for about 27 percent of global video game revenue in 2014, according to market research group Newzoo. Putting games on touchscreen smartphones and tablets opened up a whole new way for consumers to fit gaming into their busy schedules, whether they were on the bus, at lunch, or taking a few moments at night.

The second driver was the advent of the free-to-play model, in which games are free, and revenue is generated by in-game purchases. Free-to-play games, which account for about 80 percent of all mobile game revenue, have attracted new players, and encouraged them to sample more titles than ever before.

The first wave of mobile titles included casual games like Rovio’s Angry Birds and Storm8’s Restaurant Story, which catered to an entirely new segment of players who wanted to snack on light entertainment for short periods of time.

Meanwhile, the so-called “hardcore” gamers remained tethered to their PCs and consoles, where they enjoyed immersive massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing games like Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft and CCP’s Eve Online. Core games have much more depth, are more challenging, and typically pull players in for hours at a time.

The line between the two markets started to blur a few years ago as technology improved and gamers began asking for more options on mobile. The result was the emergence of a new class of so-called mid-core games such as Supercell’s Clash of Clans and Machine Zone’s Game of War. These titles are more immersive and engaging than casual games and have increasing appeal to harder-core gamers, while becoming some of the most successful games of all time.

Missing from this equation has been the holy grail of gaming: Core games on mobile. This was hardly a surprise, given that smartphones and tablets lacked the hardware and software to handle the tremendous requirements for rendering such games. Until recently, the experience would have been small, slow and unsatisfying.

But, as Apple has shown, we are now at the cusp of a third wave, one that will span the gap between core games and mobile. Bigger and better touchscreens, greater processing power, improvements in graphics rendering, the powerful Metal game engine in iOS 8, and vastly more reliable Wi-Fi and 4G now make mobile devices as compelling as consoles.

With all these improvements, there may be five times the number of core-gaming-capable devices in the next few years than there are today, and most people (especially in emerging markets) will experience their first core game on a touchscreen. Let’s not forget that many core games are multiplayer role-playing games that require teamwork and social interaction, and few devices are as social as smartphones and tablets.

Growth in core games on mobile will come from both types of players. Casual gamers are engaging for longer periods of time, particularly since the arrival of mid-core games. And now mobile is giving them their first exposure to even more immersive games, such as Vainglory, Activision’s Hearthstone, Wargaming.net’s World of Tanks Blitz and Industrial Toys’ Midnight Star.

Conversely, serious gamers have shown themselves to be platform agnostic, and we’ve already seen them engaging with mobile games. They are clamoring for great mobile content, and game publishers are scrambling to meet their demands. It’s only a matter of time until core gamers gravitate to the convenience and accessibility that mobile games offer.

There are plenty of naysayers. Skeptics say casual gamers will shy away from the intensity of MMO and MOBA games on mobile, as well as the time required to play them. Some critics contend that mobile platforms are simply not good enough yet to provide the rich and immersive experience necessary for hardcore games.

Still others say the next frontier is game-playing on virtual-reality headsets. Anyone who has tried CCP’s Eve Valkyrie or Sega’s Alien: Isolation on Oculus Rift knows that the experience is overwhelmingly powerful. VR will likely become an important driver of growth in the gaming industry when the technology becomes a market reality in 2016.

Mobile, on the other hand, is here and now, with unprecedented platform scale, and it’s already driving the entire market. Newzoo predicts that the mobile games market will reach $35 billion — more than one-third of the entire global gaming industry — by 2017.

New MOBA titles built specifically for mobile will be a major driver. Within the next couple of years, the gaming community will no longer see mobile games as fundamentally different from the titles played on PCs and console. Video games will be more connected, more social and played across a variety of platforms — and core games on mobile devices will be all the rage.


Adam Valkin is a managing director at General Catalyst, an early-stage venture capital firm and investor in SuperEvil Megacorp, CCP Games and Big Fish Games. Valkin has been active as an investor and operator in the U.S., Europe and Israel for almost two decades. At General Catalyst, he focuses on gaming, next-generation marketplaces and SMB-oriented businesses with an emphasis on mobile-first applications. Reach him at av@gcvp.com and @adamvalkin.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.