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Analysing the major mobile game design and feature trends of 2020

GameRefinery's senior game analyst Wilhelm Voutilainen explores how the mobile industry adapted to the pandemic

At the end of every year, we always like to take a look at the past twelve months and see what's been happening in the world of mobile game features and design. There's always a fascinating mix of developments, some evolutionary and some revolutionary from game mechanics to graphics and monetisation.

Mobile gaming remains an incredibly dynamic sector in terms of game design, giving its creators the ability to test and iterate quickly and cost-effectively versus much bigger PC and console titles. The sheer size of the mobile games market also ensures that it remains an enormous design innovation ecosystem.

In terms of market value, Newzoo's 2020 Global Games Market Report stated that "Mobile gaming (including both smartphone and tablet) remains the largest gaming segment with revenues of $77.2 billion and growing +13.3% year on year."

Wilhelm Voutilainen, GameRefinery

With that in mind, let's take a look back at some of the key mobile game design trends in 2020 and more specifically, how the global pandemic has dictated the direction that many game creators have moved in.

1. The rise of social features

It will come as little surprise that a by-product of people not being able to meet in person is that they've been seeking new social experiences online. To replace the normality of going to concerts and other 'normal' events, we've seen the Fortnite Travis Scott Astronomical event and the Roblox x Lil Nas X concert experience.

Although these events have happened across multiple platforms, mobile has been no exception with an overall acceleration towards the gaming metaverse and increasing interaction with the game outside of the gameplay context. For example, we've seen a significant rise in the use of lobby areas, where gamers can hang out and show off their cosmetics or play mini-games and chat with each other.

This has been especially popular in China with games such as QQ Dancer, Audition Online, QQ Speed and Aotu World. We expect this to increase in the West in 2021 and have seen some examples in Call of Duty Mobile with its anniversary event and lobby area.

The Roblox x Lil Nas X concert experience reportedly gathered over 33 million attendees

This sharp increase in the popularity of social mechanics within games has been the primary trend for mobile gaming during COVID, contributing to the breakout success of one of the biggest games of the year: cross-platform title Among Us.

Most notable has been Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez playing the game for the first time on Twitch which was a massive hit, peaking at 435,000 viewers at one point. Although Ocasio-Cortez was playing on PC, there's little doubt that others were on mobile and the availability of mobile crossplay has contributed significantly to the game's success.

2. The incredible success of Genshin Impact

One game that has managed to traverse the divide between console and mobile successfully is Genshin Impact. With a strong focus on quality as well as giving a substantial nod to Breath of the Wild, Genshin Impact has enthralled gamers across multiple platforms. Perhaps the most significant reason for this has been the title's focus on core gameplay, feeling like a console game on mobile but coupled with free-to-play systems and gacha mechanics to monetise the game.

Of course, not all game developers have the resources and muscle to do the same thing that MiHoYo has done with Genshin Impact on mobile. But the title has proven that it's certainly possible to make a successful free-to-play game and still exceed player expectations to deliver a 'gamer's game', by which we mean an HD or AAA experience.

After just a few months, Genshim Impact became one of the highest-grossing mobile games of 2020

Genshin Impact's existence also shows that mobile gaming experiences need not be heavily compromised in terms of visual and core gameplay quality. It gives hope that other free-to-play games can go in the same direction.

A question mark still hangs over the game's long-term viability from a monetisation perspective with the need for more endgame content to retain players that have completed all the main quests. The good thing is that miHoYo has a solid foothold in all the major markets, including China, Japan, and the US. Genshin Impact's approach to quality on mobile and console plus its focus on core gameplay creates an exciting direction for other developers to move in.

You can watch at our in-depth analysis of Genshin Impact's features and design here.

3. How location-based AR games adapted to the times

A global pandemic lockdown and free-roaming augmented reality games are not good partners for obvious reasons. AR games have had to adapt to the changing situation in the face of severe restrictions upon people's movement.

Pokémon Go has achieved this by introducing Remote Raid Passes that allow you to play anywhere, so you don't necessarily have to move around. If you look at the numbers for Pokémon Go, you would logically think that location-based games would take the biggest hit from a lockdown, but contrary to what you may expect, Niantic's game has seen some record quarters.

Pokémon Go revenue growth in 2020

4. The newfound popularity of traditional 'old' games in China

Looking at China, where things were horrible in February and March, we noticed that some of the Mahjong games experienced significant revenue spikes. For example, QQ Mahjong had almost 700% increase in downloads and Sichuan Mahjong also experienced over 600% increase in downloads.

This was a signal that people were seeking virtual options to play Mahjong, which traditionally has been something that would be done in-person. We can't be entirely clear on the demographics of the people that caused this spike. Still, it's likely to be active older people who wouldn't necessarily define themselves as gamers suddenly finding that they were stuck indoors with a lot more time on their hands.

As you can see, 2020 has been a fascinating year for mobile games, and we expect 2021 to offer up some exciting developments. The rise of social features and events (we call it 'mobile social 2.0') will continue to manifest in new ways.

We're also fascinated to see how mobile versions of significant IP such as League of Legends: Wild Rift and The Witcher: Monster Slayer translate over to mobile. It's an embarrassment of riches as there are even more games based on Lord of the Rings, Marvel, Harry Potter, Avatar and Blade Runner sitting in soft launch. So, until then, Happy New Year.

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