Market Research

Best mobile game genres of 2018 – Top Free Games Charts

2018 has been a year of change in mobile. There’s been an entirely new genre emerge in the form of Battle Royale, Hypercasual continued to dominate the free charts, and a large number of prominent publishers had titles slip out of the top 50 grossing (Supercell, King, Playrix). Every year there’s always a lot of talk about the top apps – best in class or award winning designs from Apple and Google. What’s often overlooked are high growth titles that settle into the top 500 but in new or historically weak genres. This often leads to tunnel vision in development with more and more people copying the very best, or jumping on the top genre bandwagon. So this year Mobile Free To Play partnered with GameRefinery to dissect the landscape as it changes across the four quarters of 2018.

Editor’s note: This was originally published by Tom Kinniburgh at Mobile Free To Play. With a long history working with mobile game studios and writing about mobile game trends, Tom has true insight into to the industry.

Genres and taxonomies are important distinctions for game designers. What works in one genre may not work in another. The audience – their tastes, expectations and desires vary dramatically. Within the app landscape, developers and analysts generally confine themselves to the genres defined by the stores themselves. Most of the time these are too generic or broad to capture how a free to play mobile game is designed. GameRefinery have recategorised and evaluated the top 500 mobile games around the world into 40 more relevant sub-genres. We dug into the data to see if there were any genres that receive less coverage but have clear potential for new hits in 2019.

This is a 2 part piece. You can read the second part on the top grossing game genres of 2018 as well.

Top Free Charts in 2018

The top download charts represents games on the app store with either the widest appeal, most virality and/or highest marketing spends. The Download ranks have much greater fluidity than the grossing ranks because games tend to jump in and out based on marketing spend and the charts fluctuate much more across each region. For this data set we took US data only.

Driving downloads is as much about being on trend and having effective cheap marketing as is its game mechanics. However, just as we will see in the grossing charts, there are some game mechanics that dominate the download chart. The rise of Ad Revenue becoming a sustainable business model without IAP has allowed games to simplify and reduce development time to jump into the chart for brief periods of time. This has made it harder for most other genres to maintain chart positions, but there are some that can still keep top positions regularly.

The data we used was GameRefinery data set of the top 500 Downloaded apps from the US app store in each quarter of 2018. The games were manually categorised into a fixed set of 40 sub-genres according to their game mechanics. For each sub-genre, we determined:

  1. The number of games in each sub-genre
  2. The rank of each game
  3. The Min rank, Max (Mode) rank, Average rank, Median rank, Standard Deviation for each sub-genre.

Genres which have a high number of titles in the the chart, could be considered as widely appealing genres. Their mechanics and positioning encourage more downloads. Genres with the highest max rank, i.e Position 1-5, have the most downloads which leads to the best opportunities for  advertising revenue. High, Min and average ranks signify that many apps within the sub-genre lie within the top 250 apps in the chart meaning they perform better as a whole. Using calculated metrics we assess each of the sub-genre ability at driving high revenues on the app store.

We then found some clusters of sub-genres that have more effective game mechanics at making money on the app store.

  • Rising Stars – Genres which have the highest chart rankings, but not necessarily a large number of games.
  • Reliable Giants – Genres that have a large number of titles that span the full chart rankings, top to bottom
  • Smash Hits – 1 or 2 titles that hit the top 20 but the average game performs poorly.
  • Fun but Free – Genres that support a small number of low performing titles, they don’t climb high in the top grossing.

The Top Downloaded Game Genres

Simply observing the number of games in the charts over each of the quarters shows that there are some clear sub-genres that consistently perform well.  2018 was dominated by HyperCasual with there regularly being 120+ games in the top downloaded charts in every quarter making it the only reliable giant for the download charts. Hyper Casual is confusing as a genre as it’s really a collection of a large number of  hypercasual game mechanics, bunched together by a business model (Rewarded Video Ad Views). However you define it, it’s clearly been the overall winner of 2018 in the download charts.

Moving from Q1 to Q4 Hypercasual slowly dropped the overall amount of titles, yet it is still 3x larger than the next most competitive genre, Other Puzzle. There are also a large number of genres that perform exceptionally badly in downloads, such as MOBA, Music and Card Battlers. This could be in part due to the inability for the developers to market them to a broad enough audience. Reducing your audience by creating games targeting older or younger, male or female or niche/specialist fan bases greatly reduces your ability to achieve and maintain high ranks in the download charts.

The large dark green circle represents Q4 and the smallest pale green represents Q1. A consistent rise through 2018 would have the largest green circle at the top and the small green circle at the bottom. Customization, Word, Arcade are the most secure genres for broad appeal and grew steadily through 2018. Puzzle, Sport and hypercasual all trended down across the year, but the effect was quite marginal.  The fact that the charts we’re so dominated by a single defined category shows a clear consumer trend, but who knows how long that will last in 2019?

The Spread of games in each genre

Wicks

The chart above shows the spread of the download rank data. We took the average data across the 4 quarters to represent all of 2018. All the games have been ranked according to their highest average position throughout the year, the bottom left quadrant are the top performing genres. A wick (the thin blue line) is the average  min and max position for titles throughout 2018. A Candle (the short, fat rectangle) is the median and mean chart positions within 2018. The shorter the wicks the tighter the range for the whole subgenre, meaning more concentrate chart positions. Concentrated high chart positions are favoured because the higher the rank the greater the ability for a genre to get downloads. However, the number of games per category vary wildly and a larger number of games naturally increases the length of the wicks.

AR, Battle Royale and Synchronous battles games all have a small number of titles that sit very high in the charts with a tight overall range. These sub-genres represent the Rising Stars of the download charts as they have a small number of top performing titles. The genres are less cluttered but also are clear trendsetters in their game mechanics. Titles like Fortnite, Pokemon and Clash Royale maintain a constant presence in the DL charts.

These genres have more fickle gamers. They tend to favour 1 or 2 top titles with unique mechanics rather than playing a large range of titles that each feature similar mechanics, like Hypercasual gamers.  A lot of these sub genres also represent new and emerging niches in 2018 and when you observe the data across the 4Q you can often see more game entering and climbing the charts quickly. Depending on the background of your studio and the size of your budgets, attacking the rising star category requires more innovation and development investment but the competition is less and your game will stand out more. Larger studios tend to opt for safer bets so Puzzle, Word and Interactive Story have all maintained clear download chart positions.

Candles

If a genre has a dark blue central candle, the genre skewed positively, it’s mean was higher than its median. A positive skew means that of the games in the sub-genre more of them were of a higher than the average rank.  If the candle is white then the genre skewed negatively meaning more of the titles lay towards the lower end of the charts. The wider the bar the bigger the skew.

Games with long blue candles and very low wicks tend to show genres which have a low number of top ranking games pulling up some low rank games. Battle Royale, Synchronous Battler and Shoot em’ Up. The highest average rank is a good indication of trends, because more games can sit and stay high in the charts.  As Hypercasual is the category to beat in Downloads any genre that lies to the left of it I would consider it as trending as it’s beating Hypercasual over the year in terms of position.

Sandbox is one genre that’s got a large negative skew. There is really only one top performing game in this category (ROBLOX) and the rest is having a hard time maintaining rank.

Games with long with candles and short overall wicks represent genres that sit in the middle of the ranks, with a larger number of mid ground titles. Card Battler, Bingo and Breeding all feature stable but not stellar performances throughout 2018.

Bubble Chart to show number of games within a genre

The Bubble Chart representation doesn’t clearly show the size of the Hypercasual bubble, it should be around twice the size (I blame Google Sheets). The size of bubble represents the number of titles in the genre and the distribution of the mean vs median gives you a sense of what a good average game might perform. AR and Battle Royale highest average Mean and Median throughout 2018 but have a small number of titles, you would expect as the number of clones increases that these genres would move closer to the 200 rank. Sniper, Other Arcade and Word/Trivia games manage to outpace the hypercasual genre, but still the download charts are swamped with many more hypercasual successes that hit the top 10. Taking the ideas from hypercasual but applying it to some of the more obscure genres on the store is another way a studio could hit big in the download charts. The pace of development and release rate will only increase in 2019, so make sure you don’t put all your hope into a single title for the studio to see success.

Competition on the App Store

Competitiveness is a huge factor in deciding which genre to attack when building your next game. The more games in a sub-genre, the harder it is to differentiate yourself and stand out from the crowd. A small number of titles with a low average rank however, means that the mechanics of the sub-genre itself might not support good monetization and is also a risky undertaking. It is therefore prudent to try to create a game in a genre with a low number of titles and a high average rank, these games allow you to differentiate yourself and the mechanics support good monetization. Rank position is disproportionately important to revenue, so we heavily weight the top 10 ranks.  To represent this we created a Genre Score, where we weighted sub-genres for being competition free and still highly downloaded.  As we know Hypercasual is a highly competitive space and as we’re not measuring exactly which apps make up genre, then take these results with a pinch of salt. Compared with the Grossing Ranks, I have factored the max download as less important than the sheer quantity of entries in Downloads.

Even with the huge amounts of competition on the store, Hyper Casual truly dominated the charts and if you were in a position to build and promote these titles then there was a lot of downloads available to you. It’s hard to see hyper casual loose it’s crown but there may be a shift back towards deeper game mechanics in simple style formats as players demand more from their experiences but want the look and feel of hyper casual.  Battle Royale, Other Arcade and Word/Trivia games have all show that there are still a lot fewer competitors at the moment and that the genres are very desirable by the sheer number of downloads they drive. Combing that desire with new or interesting monetization is the way to make huge revenues on the store itself.

RPG, Card Battler and MOBA games rank poorly for different reasons. In some cases there are so few titles that there isn’t the demand for the titles and in others they have a large number of competitors but can’t achieve the top download ranks.  Interestingly as we will see next week, these genres can still make a lot of money and this is down to the game mechanics themselves, but from a popularity point of view they are poor and tough to rank in.

Conclusion

Download charts have been dominated by the hypercasual sub-genre in 2018. The genre has consistently maintained high chart positions while supporting a large number of titles every quarter. It prompts discussion that hypercasual as a sub-genre might need to be further split to understand which mechanics are performing best to aid further development.  For more niche genres, Battle Royale and AR have both had a small number of very high performing titles in 2018, these games are on trend and people want to play them. Although we’re not looking at actual download numbers for this analysis, Fortnite has been a consistent force in both ranking tables all year.

At the lower end of the download charts, Shooting, RPG and MOBA (all male targeted genres) have shown consistent low performance. It stands to reason that to really get top performing titles you need to clearly appeal to men and women to broaden the overall download rates and so no matter which genre you’re working within, keep that in mind.

The various Puzzle categories, of Match3, Action and Other have also all maintained large portfolios of games in the top 500 and can maintain consistent chart positions, making them safer bets than other genres.

Stay tuned for next week where we look at the Top Grossing charts.