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The triumph of mobile core games heralds a demographic shift | Opinion

With teens and young adults increasingly choosing mobile for its gaming, PCs and consoles must grow their appeal with older demographics

The start of a new year often brings with it a number of interesting info-dumps, as various companies and organisations that track the industry's vital statistics show us how their corner of the world measured up in the previous year. This year is no exception, and January has already bestowed upon us a host of stats that give us a sense of how 2020 measured up for the industry -- and especially for the industry's sales and revenues.

Perhaps the most striking nugget of data from what's been released thus far is a stat from mobile app tracking service App Annie, which reported that around two-thirds of the revenues from mobile games last year were from what it classified as "core games" -- titles like PUBG Mobile and Honour of Kings, which are competitively oriented, and focused largely on the teen and young adult male demographic that was the industry's traditional bread and butter, and which generally wouldn't look out of place on a PC or console. Combine that statistic with another, which pegged the percentage of overall mobile revenues coming from game software at around 72%, and you've got roughly half of the money pouring through Apple's App Store and Google's Play Store being spent on these core games.

It's still pretty common to come across attitudes to mobile that are stuck in the era of Angry Birds and Candy Crush

In total, that suggests around $70 billion being spent on mobile by core gamers in 2020 -- which, depending on whose statistics you prefer, puts mobile core games roughly on parity with, or a little ahead of, the overall market size for PC and console game software.

The distinction that we're talking about core games -- which App Annie defines relatively conservatively, relegating titles like Among Us, which was certainly pretty popular among core gaming audiences, to the "casual" category -- is an important one, even if the definitions of "core" and "casual" have always been a bit nebulous. We've known for a long time just how enormous the mobile gaming market is, but it's still pretty common to come across attitudes to this sector that are stuck in the era of Angry Birds and Candy Crush -- the kinds of broad-appeal casual games which attract a wide swathe of consumers from well outside the traditional gaming market.

This kind of game still does great business on mobile, but focusing on them can leave people blind to the massive change that's occurred on mobile in the past few years. It is a change underscored by the tens of billions of revenue pouring into games that are pretty firmly in the middle of the core gaming spectrum.

A competent mobile version is bordering on being make-or-break for any game hoping to be the next big cultural phenomenon

That change can, to some extent, be thought of as the Sinification of the global mobile games market; core games have been the backbone of China's mobile gaming market right from the outset, with the kinds of game that were popular in the country's online PC gaming market making a -- sometimes quite inelegant -- transition to smartphones pretty early on.

The contrast with the casual titles that dominated the western mobile market were stark for some time, and there was often something of an assumption that China's enthusiasm for complex, core-style games on mobile was a function of necessity in a market largely lacking consoles, and not something that would catch on elsewhere. After all, who really wants to play a fast-paced online shooter on a smartphone screen with touch controls, given the option of a high-spec PC or a next-gen console?

It turns out that the answer to that question is "literally millions of people," and quite possibly an entire generation of gamers. Indeed, some of the biggest mobile titles -- PUBG, Fortnite, and more recently Genshin Impact -- are actually cross-platform titles. Mobile versions of these game would have been hard to take seriously in the western market only a few years ago, but there are now a great many players who actively choose to play on those platforms out of preference. The availability of a competent mobile version is bordering on being make-or-break for any game hoping to be the next big cultural phenomenon.

Genshin Impact illustrates the growing importance of availability on mobile to becoming a market-leading video game

I imagine that if you're someone with a child or teenager in their life, this won't come as any kind of surprise for you. The reality of smartphones and tablets being used as a primary gaming device, not just for casual titles but for some seriously involved core games, has been clear within this demographic for some time. It's actually pretty remarkable to watch an intense online shooter being played on a phone or an iPad, realising that the transition to playing these games on touchscreens has ended up being just as hassle-free for these players as the move to playing FPS titles on a joypad -- also initially derided -- was for players a couple of decades ago. There's a whole generation for whom playing complex, competitive 3D games on touchscreen devices feels as natural as a joypad or a keyboard-and-mouse combo did to their forebears.

There's an assumption you run into quite often that smartphones are an entry point for gaming

It's something I can't quite wrap my head around, I confess. I know that a great many other people of my generation find the notion of touchscreen controls for these types of core game fairly clunky and ridiculous, which perhaps has given us a bit of a blind spot in terms of understanding how central to the gaming experiences of a generation smartphones have become. There's an assumption you run into quite often that smartphones are an entry point for gaming, but that players who come in through that route will eventually graduate to a dedicated gaming platform, whether that's a console or a gaming PC.

Yet that's not a hypothesis that's backed up by a lot of evidence right now. In fact, initiatives like Microsoft's xCloud and Google's Stadia, for all that they've had a bit of a stumbling start, represent a clear push in the opposite direction, putting PC and console games onto the devices players actually use rather than hoping they'll move across to new devices.

None of this is to say that we should reconsider the failed prophecies of mobile heralding the downfall of PC or console. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the growth of these core gaming titles on mobile devices is that they've come in parallel with the most commercially successful years for PC and console gaming in history. Perhaps they're eating into some of the potential growth of those platforms, but there's clearly still plenty of growth to go around; this is anything but a zero-sum game.

What it does mean, however, is that PC and console platforms will increasingly find themselves in the interesting position of appealing increasingly to an older (and perhaps more affluent) set of consumers, while their old stomping ground among teens and young adults is more and more the realm of mobile devices. The impact of that reality can already be seen to some extent -- it's hardly a coincidence that parenthood has become a major narrative theme of AAA console releases in recent years -- and it will no doubt be felt even more strongly in future.

One of the biggest demographic shifts in game consumption isn't just happening right now. Looking at these numbers, it appears that it's already a fait accompli.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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