As we wrap up the end of the year, this episode of The Mobile Gamedev Playbook looks back at what 2021 brought to the mobile gaming industry in the US, China and Japan. We delve into the key trends to come out of this year, including the rise of renovation mechanics, collaboration events and popular IPs.
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Host Jon Jordan is joined by GameRefinery by Vungle’s analysts, Teemu Palomäki and Wilhelm Voutilainen, who together take us through this year’s most successful games and even a few unfortunate failures.
You can also watch the episode on YouTube:
Topics we will cover in this episode:
- Renovation and special game modes are leading hybrid gameplay elements
- Last year’s most interesting top performers in the US market
- 2021 saw the release of several major IP-based games, but some of them are still seeking their audience
- Mobile games are adopting even deeper social elements
- How Japanese IP-based games differ from Western ones
- Ads are rare in top Japanese games, but now they are starting to show more and more
- China’s top-grossing list’s biggest surprises in 2021
- Will the Chinese gaming regulations impact what kind of games will succeed in the market?
Do you prefer reading instead of listening? Click here to read the transcription of the episode!
Jon: Hello and welcome to the Mobile GameDev Playbook. Thanks for tuning in for another episode. This is a podcast all about what makes a great mobile game, what is and isn’t working for mobile game designers and all the latest trends. I’m your host John Jordan, and in today’s episode, we will be looking back at 2021, so I hope it was a good year for you; it’s been a great year for mobile games. We’re going to delve into some of the big trends, some of the big games with our two experts today. Welcome the experts. How is it going, Teemu? This is your first time on the podcast. Is that right?
Teemu: I think I’ve been once.
Jon: Have you? Okay.
Teemu: It’s been a long time. I’m really excited.
Jon: Good to have you back. You are a games analyst at GameRefinery, and we have Wilhelm Voutilainen, who’s been on the show lots of times. No surprises there. Senior Games analyst at GameRefinery. How is it going, Wilhelm?
Wilhelm: Going really fine as always. Thanks for asking me.
Jon: Good. It’s been a good year. We’re going to kick off by going around the world. I think we’re going to start with the US and look at some of the trends there. What have you been seeing in the North American market?
Renovation and special game modes are leading hybrid gameplay elements
Wilhelm: Of course, it’s been an interesting year, often years before we usually had just one huge trend, for example, battle passes before, but I think this year, well, there has not been as big of a trend as battle passes in the last year but lots of smaller trends. The first really interesting one is what we have been seeing this year, especially in the Casual Games, is these new kinds of events with renovation game modes. Of course, in the past years, we have had games like Homescapes and Gardenscapes, really innovating with the renovation meta gameplay. That’s, of course, been a huge thing, a huge success for them, but now actually, these other casual games, this kind of renovation style meta has actually been started to utilize these elements in their events. Some good examples are, Phase 10, I think, a top-grossing 100 game, a card game. Last Halloween, it actually had this Halloween theme park where players would play the core gameplay, collect these material items and then renovate their Halloween-themed park. Very similar to the renovating you do in Homescapes, for example. We have actually had a lot of these kinds of similar events over the past year. For example, Clockmaker has had these best friends, the Solitaire crew with three pigs card game, and actually this has been used in many casino games as well. For example, casino slots nowadays run these kinds of renovation events a lot in their re-recurring events. Of course, this has never been seen before in casino games, especially.
Jon: That’s really interesting, isn’t it? You’re taking that hybridization thing that’s been going on in-game design and just packaging apps as though, not even mini-games like a mini-event, isn’t it? You really, really start building, events become more than just– Here’s a funny hat you can buy this week.
Wilhelm: Yes. Of course, talking about those mini-games, those have actually been trending as well, so first, talking about casual games, this hybridisation has been a big thing before as well. Of course, we have seen Playrix utilizing these different mechanics before others. Playrix, for example, in Fishdom, Township and Gardenscapes, utilizes these special game modes as the core game. The core gameplay has been totally different from the Match 3 Core gameplay. For example, in Township, there are constantly running mini-games using these hyper-casual styled core gameplay. For example, if you are aware of the hyper-casual game Helix Jump. The Township had an event where the Core gameplay was super similar to that, which is really interesting.
Also, of course, this trend has been appearing in mid-core. For example, these top casual shooter games like Garena Free Fire are also utilizing these different kinds of core gameplay in their events. They’ve had event game modes that use similar core gameplay, such as Among Us and Fall Guys. In the Garena Free Fire, you have this meta where you collect shards and also pets, but in those special modes, you’re actually playing with your pet. It’s incentivising collecting these pets as well. I think doing this through those events is really a good way to hop on to trends like, of course, Among Us and Fall Guys and other hyper-casual games, they have been super successful trends. You can basically bring this really trendy gameplay to your game which is totally different, but just doing this through an event. I think those are cool and interesting trends of this year.
“Top casual shooter games like Garena Free Fire are also utilising these different kinds of core gameplay in their events.”
Wilhelm on mid-core games utilizing different types of core gameplay in their events
Jon: To layer upon layer, isn’t it? Interesting. I guess it is interesting that you said Playrix, which is with those pioneers, is doing that on a core level in terms of the basic gameplay. Are now proving they didn’t just invent a genre; they are very adept at leveraging that. Because really, it’s just an extra retention, engagement and monetisation sort of layer on top of the main game.
I say it’s one of these in that these games are almost platforms now, maybe metaverse- but maybe you mentioned that. You can see when you get to a certain scale, can’t you? That you just have 70 people in your game every day, and it’s just a question of, what do they want to do? It doesn’t need to be just what was their core game experience. Maybe these things have lots of games within them.
Wilhelm: Exactly. I also think, of course, one other trend or actually, maybe not the trend, but more interesting games have been released this year as well, and there have been quite interesting different kinds of trends. One really cool successful story of this year has been this Cookie Run: Kingdom. I think Teemu is a super expert on that game, so maybe you can explain it a bit better.
Last year’s most interesting top performers in the US market
Teemu: I’ve been really enjoying that game. Cookie Run: Kingdom launched somewhere in January, and I personally really loved their art style and hopped in at that point. For a long time, it was in the top-grossing 200 or so, suddenly, in September, everyone started to talk about it because it rose to the top 10 and managed to stay there. They established a new baseline there and have been in about the top 10 since then. What made it rise there was- well, they started doing a marketing campaign, they added these English voice actors, and then they made a lot of content with those. There were many different types of giveaways, the voice actors were good and the recording sessions were shown as a video. They were interviewed and reviewed fan art, so they really involved the actors with their marketing. They also had the miraculous X Factor, and the game went viral on TikTok. Especially younger users started talking about the game because of that. It’s just a wonderful game; it’s approachable to so many kinds of players. Me being more of a mid-core player, I really like the mechanics there and the character collecting and stuff like that. Whereas my wife, who also plays the game, was more into the visual appeal and the storyline. It really works for all kinds of players.
“Being more of a mid-core player, I really like the mechanics there and the character of collecting and stuff like that. Whereas my wife, who also plays the game, was more into the visual appeal and the storyline. It really works for all kinds of players.”
Teemu on how Cookie Run: Kingdom appeals to different types of players
Jon: I guess it’s interesting because Devsisters is a South Korean developer. They have been around a long time. I remember when the original Cookie Run came out, it was a massive hit viral in South Korea; probably because it was on the Kakao platform in 2013 or something, I can’t remember. It was a massive hit game, then they did sequels and stuff, and it certainly went away a little bit in the west. It’s interesting that they’ve had that big IP, and that’s a great art style, and they came back to what you were saying Wilhelm. They’re building like a platform. It’s a Kingdom thing, so there are lots of different things in there. As you were saying so, Teemu is that people can approach these things in different ways; maybe if you don’t like the PvP, you don’t play the PvP bit so much, maybe play a trading one. It’s quite interesting how all games are becoming much more– Not just individual games but [they] are becoming much more diverse in how they can be played; it’s not, “This is how you must play this game.”
“People can approach these things in different ways; maybe if you don’t like the PvP, you don’t play the PvP bit so much, maybe play a trading one. It’s quite interesting how…individual games are becoming much more diverse in how they can be played; it’s not, “This is how you must play this game.””
Jon on the different ways to play one mobile game
Wilhelm: Yes, absolutely. Of course, a couple of more interesting new games. I think one super cool success story has been Zen Match, actually, which is, again, a casual game, but it has been able to bring this new mix, again, talking about this hybridization. Basically, the core gameplay of the game is this match-three/slash mahjong style gameplay. I have personally never seen that kind of gameplay in other games. There are also meta elements, basically, similar to the renovation game Redecor. You have these construction renovation elements, but they are really different from what you have, for example, in Gardenscapes. In Zen Match, you’re decorating these rooms and so on. The whole game has this really chill and relaxing vibe, let’s say. It’s really interesting to look at the charts because it has been climbing steadily in the grossing charts, and now it’s already in the 100 grossing. The whole game plan, everything, it’s super simple. I guess there’s still space to innovate even in the puzzle genre out there, and of course, talking–
Jon: You need a game that either could have a lot of monetization in there or would attract an audience that would spend a lot. Did you say? It just looks very simple tile-based, nicely put together, but it just doesn’t strike you as, “Yes, we’re going to make a lot of money from this.”
Wilhelm: Yes, absolutely. I think the monetization is mostly centered around the Core Gameplay, boosters, and so on. Apparently, it’s just something that really works. Of course, talking about match3, we have Royal Match, which is right now in the top-grossing 10. Of course, that game comes from the ex Peak Games’ people. It’s a really interesting game that is also utilizing this super simple renovation meta. It seems to be the trend still.
Jon: I think it’s always interesting when you see teams repeating their success. Obviously, the Peak people have sold out now potentially, those games they would have made at the Peak if they stayed there. They take those learnings, and they take them on to the next stage. I guess what was interesting for me, of course, I don’t follow [the market] as closely as you guys, but at some stage you think “There could be no more innovation in match3. Everyone must have done everything.” Then something like Royal Match comes along, and clearly, if you are really into match-three games, it really stands out. It’s always good to have your cynicism about how no one can improve on this game mechanics proven wrong by clever game designers who clearly know what they’re doing.
“It’s always good to have your cynicism about how no one can improve on this game mechanics proven wrong by clever game designers who clearly know what they’re doing.”
Jon on innovation in Match3
2021 saw the release of several major IP-based games, but some of them are still seeking their audience
Wilhelm: Talking more about other trends, I think we have been talking about IPs for a long time now. I think, especially this year, we have started seeing more and more new games, appearing there in top-grossing lists, which have huge IPs. These are some examples, actually two MOBAs, League of Legends: Wild Rift and Pokémon Unite, both releasing this year. They’re both in the top 200-grossing, of course, the MOBA genre is probably one of the hardest genres to monetize when you have to play around not being pay-to-win but still being able to monetize somehow. Those are really interesting.
Of course, Wild Rift is an interesting case, especially now that Riot has been bringing more of these mobile-only features to the game, such as friends systems and guilds actually. I think the guild update where they added a new battle pass season and different kinds of bundles. I believe that actually skyrocketed the game, again in top-grossing lists at least in the revenue perspective. Of course, Wild Rift had this huge explosion at the release, but after that, it struggled a bit to keep the top 200-grossing position. It seems that Riot is developing the game further, so that’s nice. I think, of course, Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier just got released. Teemu analyzed it, do you have any thoughts on that game?
“We have started seeing more and more new games, up there in top-grossing lists, which have huge IPs. These are some examples, actually two Mobas, League of Legends: Wild Rift and Pokémon Unite, both releasing this year.”
Wilhelm on popularity IPs
Teemu: Personally, I really have loved the game, many things, it does so well. It innovates on the battle royale genre by bringing the PvE elements; you’re not just hunting players, you’re also hunting monsters. It really gives purpose to the whole experience, not just the couple of bursts when you happen to see someone and manage to take them down. The graphics are good because, for the most part, they are borrowed from the console game Final Fantasy VII Remake, so it gives the game really a good triple-A look. The gameplay is really solid, just like any other battle royale game, but it works.
What it’s been struggling with is the gamble it had with the mismatch of what the brand is known for and what the genre is known for. So far, it hasn’t been doing that well. In Japan, it has at best been at 110s, whereas in the US, it never even reached 200 so far. The game has had a bit of a hard time, but it’s not because the game isn’t good; it doesn’t find its audience. Battle Royale fans are probably very invested in the Battle Royales games that they have played before, both time and money-wise. Then Final Fantasy fans would prefer some more PvE-focused games, or don’t want to play on mobile and wait for the console, PC board that has been teased by the developers to be a possibility at some point. Even though you can play with a controller, it’s not like a console experience, but the skeptics, at least in my bubble, that have tried it have really liked it. It just goes to show that when you have a huge IP to use, you really need to think about what it’s known for and what the genre you’re going for is known for, and if they match.
“It just goes to show that when you have a huge IP to use, you really need to think about what it’s known for and what the genre you’re going for is known for, and if they match.”
Teemu on choosing the right IP
Jon: That’s a good point. It’s interesting because it has been, I guess this successful Final Fantasy 4X game a few years ago now. It’s one of those that you wouldn’t necessarily expect Final Fantasy fans to– There’s nothing in the lore of Final Fantasy where you’re doing 4X type strategy gaming, but that seems to have been a fairly decent success I guess.
Just in general, the amount of Battle Royale games out there, it’s just hard, I think to find an audience. Particularly when stuff like PUBG is still being – there are so many big successful ones out there. If you’re into Battle Royale on mobile, you’ve got a whole bunch of games to play, and probably you’re playing one of them already. It becomes that sort of, “Can you stop someone playing one game to play your game?”
I guess it’s interesting as well because obviously, there are Japanese RPGs. As you pointed out, there is that very strong local audience who want a very specific thing. Obviously, there are not that many people in Japan; there are billions more outside Japan. Imagine being a designer; it’s quite a hard thing to work out to have a good game; you got this IP; it doesn’t quite fit into what you’re doing. I haven’t played it yet, so I can’t say. It looks fantastic. I enjoy the Final Fantasy VII world, so I need to try it out.
In general, what do you think about IP’s? IPs are around all the time; do we think they’re as important as they used to be? I wonder now whether they may be becoming slightly less ominous. I guess there was this failure of the Harry Potter game from Niantic this year, not the failure; they’re shutting it down now. I suppose we have to call it a failure.
Wilhelm: We’re discussing Harry Potter actually when we talk later about China. I think we have a super success story of Harry Potter, but of course, it really depends. In my personal opinion, I think finding the right IP for your game, especially nowadays, I think can be super. Of course, it’s a miss-match. I think Final Fantasy goes to the same category as Pokémon Unite. Pokémon Unite has extremely good core gameplay and so on, but maybe the Pokemon audience is not a mobile audience, similar to the Final Fantasy audience is not your average battle royale audience. Of course, compared to 4X games, the 4X games, don’t rely that heavily on having a huge player base in terms of monetization, but like these cosmetic monetised PvP games, you have to have a massive player base to be able to hit the top-grossing ranks pretty much. I think it really depends on the game.
Jon: It’s a good point; it’s not so much IPs, as you say, looking at the business built behind it, business model, and the type of KPIs you need to run those sorts of games successfully. I guess anyone can make a game, but for these things to work, the UA component is clearly the big thing about growing the audience because you spend marketing money to grow the audience, to monetise it to feedback in. Good points there. We’ve got anything else from the US or are we moving on around the world? I think it’s a bit more, is there?
“I guess anyone can make a game, but for these things to work, the UA component is clearly the big thing about growing the audience because you spend marketing money to grow the audience, to monetise it to feedback in”
Jon on User Acquisition
Wilhelm: Yes, I think I can go quite quickly about the other things. Of course, we just had the launch of PUBG: New State. KRAFTON, I think the original publisher of the PUBG PC game. They launched their own mobile version of the PUBG. I have not personally played it, but I’ve seen it. Pretty much the same, almost the same game as PUBG Mobile. I think LiveOps is probably different, but the game could really peak in the top 100-grossing, but it’s at least not yet as successful as PUBG Mobile. Really interesting to compare, especially the LiveOps of those two games, and see if the KRAFTON can find as big success as PUBG Mobile.
Jon: Also, the Indian version has just been released, not that there is a section for India, but it’s quite interesting. Even talking about the number of mobile battle royale games, there’s three from the same company, depending on where you are in the world.
Wilhelm: Yes. Of course, this year we had the launch of MARVEL Future Revolution, which is like, you have this huge, massive production value. There are cutscenes and voice acting and so on, and it really looks really promising. But it’s still, compared to, for example, Genshin Impact, talking about action RPGs, the action RPG in China is still dominated by Genshin. MARVEL Future Revolution was unable to make a big splash or sustain after the huge initial spike in grossing. That genre, though, it’s still dominated by Genshin, so we’re going to see if other IPs or other companies can–
Jon: I guess the advantage of having the MARVEL one is there’s always stuff going on in that universe. There’s always new films or something like a crossover event, but you have your big launch, then you have lots of time to not quite relaunch; if you’ve launched and you didn’t get a big enough audience, and that means your fanbase didn’t know about it, so when the next film comes out, you can re-promote it or try and get back. You get, I guess, a bit more latitude to try and build up a bit over time rather than being a big launch.
Wilhelm: Yes, I will not be surprised if we see MARVEL Future Revolution appearing higher in the grossing charts when we get a new MARVEL movie. As an IP, MARVEL is probably one of the best mobile IPs there is.
Mobile games are adopting even deeper social elements
Wilhelm: Some other small findings of 2021. Casino games, it’s been a huge year for them in the collection systems.
Of course, the collection systems had been trending in other areas, but now, especially in casino games, just in the top 100-grossing casino games, the collection system utilization rose from 47% to 80%. Almost every casino game in the top 100-grossing nowadays utilizes the collection album systems.
“The collection systems had been trending in other areas, but now, especially in casino games, just in the top 100-grossing casino games, the collection system utilization rose from 47% to 80%.”
Wilhelm on collection systems in casino games
Some other trends, of course, battle pass; you always have to talk about battle pass, it’s actually still trending this year. Their overall utilization in the US actually in the top 100-grossing rose from 46% to 61%, so it just keeps rising. Lastly, of course, social mechanics like guilds. They are still trending higher, so the utilization of guilds in all of the genres in the top 100-grossing rose from 60% to 70%, and when talking about casual titles, that’s where the utilization of guilds also rose by 20%. They are becoming more and more popular. I think players are starting to more and more expect to have those social features.
Of course, those are not the only social features you can add. This year, we have seen these deeper social mechanics starting to trend. Of course, we have been talking about this metaverse and so on, but I think it is a really interesting case. Finally, in casino games, we have started using these as well. This game, Cooking Diary, which is basically a casual time management cooking game, where you have your own avatar character that you can customize. Of course, the game is already fully-fledged, and you have guild mechanics and sending/asking help. I think last week, they introduced a new social hanging area to the game. You have three different areas where you can enter with your avatar, and I personally find that it just fits super well to the game because it’s basically– I’m thinking, in casual games, it’s quite hard actually to find friends in the game. They usually have to go to the game’s Facebook page and try to seek friends there. This is not the most intuitive thing because you have to go outside of the game. Now in Cooking Diary, you can go to these areas and meet other people and make friends. Also, this fits super well with the cosmetic monetization in Cooking Diary. Players can now show off even better the cool cosmetics they have collected and bought.
“This year, we have seen these deeper social mechanics starting to trend”
Wilhelm on social mechanics
Jon: Good, good. Now it’s interesting obviously with the guild stuff; it’s got quite a long way to go. If you’re saying 20% of the top 100 casual titles have that in–
Wilhelm: Oh, it rose by 20%.
Jon: Oh, okay.
Wilhelm: Most of them. Most of those games have guild mechanics.
How Japanese IP-based games differ from Western ones
Jon: Cool, good. That’s a good wrap-up of what we’ve been having in North America. I think we should go to Japan now. Teemu, do you want to take us through what’s been happening? Some big new games launched?
Teemu: Yes, overall, in Japan, it feels like the market stays the same. You have the old masters sticking there, you have the Fate/Grand Order, you have Monster Strike. Fate/Grand Order was released in 2015, Monster Strike 2013, Puzzle and Dragons 2012. These are older titles, but they’re still sustained, grossing within five or top 10. You have the top spots really reserved, but then there was a big new name, Umamusume Pretty Derby, that launched in February, and it rose to top-grossing one and stayed there for a long time and sustained grossing rank like three. It’s been really keeping up the top spots. From a Western perspective, it’s a really weird kind of game because girls are racing horses, and they are also pop idols, so they have these concerts, but they run around the racing horse track to compete with each other. I think it appeals; it has high production values. It has anime series and a spinoff manga. It’s a big thing.
“You have the old masters sticking there, you have the Fate/Grand Order, you have Monster Strike. Fate/Grand Order was released in 2015, Monster Strike 2013, Puzzle and Dragons 2012. These are older titles, but they’re still sustained, grossing within five or top 10. “
Teemu on how Japan’s top games are all older titles
Jon: It was part of an existing IP, wasn’t it? I think there were a few games in the past that – some console games. People have been waiting for this game for quite a long time. I think it was in development for quite a number of years.
Teemu: Yes. It was delayed for some time, and when it launched, people were really excited to hop in, and they’ve been staying there.
Jon: I don’t know if these are Japanese games, but I know there are a whole series of games where you have this similar thing where these anime female characters are representing other things. There’s a whole thing about one with tanks and one with battleships. The first time you hear about it, you just think, “Well, that’s rather odd.” but there is a whole genre of some RPG-type games that sort of play. Often play into that, and often they are all based around existing anime IP and stuff like that. It does make some sort of sense.
Teemu: Yes. It does. Huge IP games, in general, are, I think, doing well in Japan. You have a new Dragon Quest game popping up every now and then. One bigger one with high production values that came out was the- in the West known as SLIME-ISEKAI Memories. It’s based on the anime ‘That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime’ which, as a concept, sounds weird again to us, but it’s doing really well staying in the top 10s. In the USA it was something like the top 80s or so. These games keep popping up. There’s Ni no Kuni: Cross Worlds, an animal RPG launched in June. It’s doing great, in the top 50s or so. I think anime IP-based or game IP based games are quite common in top-grossing Japan when it comes to new games.
Jon: It is interesting, actually, the comparison when Wilhelm’s is talking about western IP, that those tend to be quite- there is this big thing coming, big new Marvel Games coming. Whereas, in Japan, they have a lot more IP anyway because it’s just anime, and manga is just part of the culture in a way. It certainly isn’t in the UK, and I think, in the US, as well. They always have these mash-ups as well. You have lots of games around. You get multiple games on the same IP. Then, you have games with a different IP, and they have a mash-up of bits, don’t they?
I imagine for you that it is tough to keep track of all these different IP characters, all these RPGs, manga things are all going into each other’s games and having various events. Everyone loves it because everyone has their favorite characters, and I think it works really well, but it’s very different because we just don’t have it here. I can’t imagine; I’m trying to think of a good example. Harry Potter crossover in a Marvel game. Obviously, you could do that, but in Japan, it just seems like, with these IPs, they’re much happier to share more around. They don’t close it off and go, “This is very special.” It’s a very different approach to IP.
“In Japan, it just seems like, with these IPs, they’re much happier to share more around. They don’t close it off and go, “This is very special.” It’s a very different approach to IP.”
Jon on collaboration IPs in Japan
Teemu: Definitely. Promotional collaboration events are a huge thing in Japan. We see them all the time. The Seven Deadly Sins anime have been in at least eight different games. It just works in any kind of genre. They seem to be popping up here and there. Then, one other interesting game that was struggling in Japan, actually, was State of Survival. It was having a tough time with its regular version that it has on other markets as well. It wasn’t doing that great. They shut down that version in June and released a new localized version of it. It’s been in the top-grossing 60 since then. I think it almost made 10 times more revenue per day compared to the old one. The version had slightly improved graphics and new main characters that worked better for the Japanese audience. They localized that. They had these front characters being shrine maiden and school girl that Japanese people are more used to seeing in their culture than, say, some muscular man fighting zombies or something like that. It was really well localized. My co-worker, actually, wrote a good blog post about it. If anyone wants to see about that in more detail, that’s also a possibility.
“Promotional collaboration events are a huge thing in Japan. We see them all the time. The Seven Deadly Sins anime have been in at least eight different games.”
Teemu on collaboration events in Japan
Wilhelm: Yes, they’re definitely a super good example of how to monetize the western-style game for the Japanese market.
Ads are rare in top Japanese games, but now they are starting to show more and more
Teemu: Yes, other trends that have been showing in Japan. Ads have been really rare in Japan so far. Recently, those have been showing up in Monster Strike who added those in late 2020. Puzzle and Dragons added those in early 2021 this year, and LINE has also been adding those too. They are games like LINE PokoPoko and LINE Disney Tsum Tsum. With big names, big older titles like these adding ad monetization, I wonder if smaller players will also be adding ad monetization to their top-grossing games. Outside top-grossing, of course, you have ad monetization, but the top games have avoided those so far.
Jon: Is there any fan pushback yet? That’s often the thing. If it’s a rewarded video, you can do it by giving them more of the stuff that they would otherwise buy. That probably works better.
Teemu: Yes, it hasn’t shown, really. Those games still keep their high spots and rankings. It’s interesting to see how that develops in Japan.
Jon: Do you think they’re doing that because they’re starting to decline. As you say, these games have been out for getting on for a decade now. Is it just about money, or is it more than that?
Teemu: Well, I think they may see it as, well, we’re making good money anyway, so if ads can make us even more money, why not? Because they’re not taking away from the main monetization like gachas or character collecting, it’s just like improving your inventory size or giving you more stamina or something small.
Wilhelm: I guess it’s not those forced ads for the players, but more of those incentivized optional ads?
Teemu: Yes. Then, just to throw in a couple of small things that we’ve seen. We’ve seen these more erotic types of games pop up in higher ranks. Some are even in the top 10 or so. Well, really kind of explicit without showing everything, but really, really hinting with all the cream and aprons and revealing clothing. It’s quite explicit. Those have been popping up in higher ranks than before this year, especially with more and more daring collaboration.
“We’ve seen these more erotic types of games pop up in higher ranks. Some are even in the top 10 or so.”
Teemu on erotic games trending in Japan
Jon: Would they be seen as proper games, as in, that they’ve got proper gameplay behind them? Or are they basically just, like you say, they are just there to titillate people?
Teemu: They are really, really, proper examples of action RPGs or idle games, I think, and turn-based RPGs. They are really well-made games, but they appeal to a certain audience that is clearly willing to pay.
Let’s see, what else? They really put the effort in Japan on anniversaries and even half-anniversaries. Those are a thing. Well, maybe as the last point from Japan, location-based games like Pokémon Go, Dragon Quest Walk and Pikmin Bloom are performing better in Japan than in the west. They are performing better, and they have more variety there. They don’t need to shut them down so much as Niantic does in the west. I don’t know, maybe it’s because Japanese people might use more public transportation and have more walking time. Whereas in the US, you have to take the time out to play the game instead of it happening naturally. Maybe that affects it. They have more variety, and those games are doing well in Japan.
Jon: Dragon Quest Walk is an interesting one, isn’t it? Dragon Quest is a massive IP in Japan, but from what I saw, there’s no chance that that game will be released globally. It’s just going to be very Japanese, a deep cultural resonance, for Japanese gamers to play that sort of game. I guess, if you take it globally, people don’t know Dragon Quest so much. It’s not like a Pokémon thing, and then you just have all the server costs for running it around the world. It’s interesting. The whole thing with many location-based games is that everyone would be playing the same game, whereas, actually, what you find is, if you get the right IP, you just want it in the country. The countries get the IP; you don’t want to send it around the world.
China’s top-grossing list’s biggest surprises in 2021
Jon: That’s Japan done. Shall we head into China? You mentioned Harry Potter. Harry Potter games are doing well. It’s not just here, they’re doing well in the east as well.
Wilhelm: Yes, I think we have some really interesting releases this year in the China market; of course, the China market is crowded by MMORPGs and turn-based RPGs. I think new kinds of games are appearing in China. Of course, they have had huge big IPs behind them. For example, Harry Potter: Magic Awakened, which is apparently going to be released in other markets as well, which is going to be really interesting, but it’s been a mega success in China. It is actually in the top-grossing 10 in China, it’s basically this tactical bell game where you’re collecting different characters and utilizing this card mechanism and so on. Of course, it has a huge amount of other features as well, but basically, there are these social hanging rooms where you can meet other players. The story is super heavy in the game, and so on.
Actually, if you’re interested in going deeper, we have a Chinese market analyst, Inka, who has written a really good deconstruction of that game. I definitely recommend checking that out.
Of course, some other interesting games, Wild Rift, that we talked about earlier in the US section, it was released in China as well . It’s basically the same game in China, but it has had a lot more success in China. It’s currently in the top-grossing three actually, which it’s quite interesting. Apparently, the League of Legends IP is massive in the west, but it seems to be even bigger in China. It’s really interesting that it has been that successful. Of course, Battle of the Golden Spatulas as well, which is a funny name but–
Jon: Can you repeat? For the people who didn’t catch it. That was?
Wilhelm: Battle of the Golden Spatula, which is basically a Teamfight Tactic from the Riot Games. It’s been released with the Teamfight Tactics name in the West, but it’s basically the Chinese version of that game. In the West, it has struggled a lot. I think the whole Auto Chess genre has been super hard for the publishers and game developers to monetize in the West. In China, again, it’s actually in the top 10. This game, compared to the Western version, it’s actually totally different. Basically the features are much more robust and the monetization, there are more different kinds of monetization mechanics, live ops, and everything. I think that game is, if you’re a new developer in the Auto Chess space, I definitely recommend checking out the Battle of the Golden Spatula because it’s crazy with the amount of success that it has.
Jon: It’s quite interesting what you’re saying. From the same company, from Riot Games, Wild Rift has been released in China, the same version. I’m sure of some changes, but nothing is incredible. Then Teamfight Tactics becomes Battle of the Golden Spatula, which just makes absolutely no sense. It’s just like a totally different game, probably from a totally different team. It’s quite interesting.
Wilhelm: Of course, the core gameplay is the same, but I think the art style might be slightly different, but it is more about the difference in features and the monetization that makes the difference there.
Jon: China is such a big market that if you were going to do heavy-duty localization, that would be the first one you would choose, wouldn’t it. Just if you get it right there, and it pays everything back. It’s interesting. You mentioned Harry Potter: Magic Awakened. Even in China, I was reading some reports that some people felt the monetization was a bit heavy on it, which will obviously be interesting when that IP comes to the west whenever that happens in 2022; what do people think about that. Maybe the Western version gets a different monetization strategy. I’m not quite sure. It does look amazing, doesn’t it? The art style of that Harry Potter game, it seems incredible. Interesting to see how that goes.
Will the Chinese gaming regulations impact what kind of games will succeed in the market?
Cool. The only other thing we have to talk about is, in China, depending on how old you are, you’re having restrictions put around how long you can play in and what sort of stuff. Are we seeing any impact there in terms of what games are released or anything, or is it a bit too soon, I suppose?
Teemu: Well, I can’t say I haven’t been monitoring the Chinese market that well. We don’t have Chinese analysts here to talk about that. It definitely affects what kind of games can be successful. Minors can’t play during weekdays, and even at weekends, it can only be a couple of hours per day. I think IAP purchases also have a limit of some kind, and you need to register with an ID, so it’s actually monitored pretty well. It’s tough to be successful with a game that appeals mostly to minors or late teens, 16 to 19 because they just can’t play the game and ask for their parents to pay for their battle passes or other cosmetic purchases. Those kinds of games, I’d imagine in China in the long-term, it’s going to be targeted at an older audience. Harry Potter, I would imagine that would be appealing to younger audiences as well.
Wilhelm: I think actually one interesting game or case actually, talking about Roblox. It’s one of the biggest games in the West, but it’s actually released with its own ID in China. In other words, it has its own Chinese version, but it has not been successful at all, pretty much, at least compared to the Western version. I think one of the big reasons for that is definitely the game time restrictions. Most of Roblox’s players are quite young.
Jon: That is interesting; you think if the restrictions stay in place, which we assume they will do over time, you have to think very carefully about that. If you were 16, in China, and you basically only got to play for three hours a week, you’d be very careful about what game you chose, wouldn’t you? If you only had an hour a day to play, you’d find the game you really wanted to. That is really precious time, isn’t it? It’ll be interesting to see how that social mechanic feeds into it. I’m sure game designers could come up with very interesting novel ways of doing things or making weird idle games where you have to play for a whole hour to try and lock them into your game, and then they may come back the next day, they get some extra rewards or something. Anyway, I’m not a game designer, so I’ll stop speculating on that sort of thing.
We’ve covered what’s been going on in the key markets, really fascinating. I think all these markets have some of the individual trends, individual games that have worked well, and then there were some of these broader trends, which is the same everywhere. Thank you very much for your expertise, Wilhelm and Teemu.
Wilhelm: Thank you.
Teemu: Thank you.
Jon: Thank you to our listeners via podcast or watching the video version. Every few weeks, we talk to the people in the mobile gaming space, which is the biggest space in gaming, and certainly the most dynamic and the most playable. Hope you find this stuff useful. Please give us some feedback via the usual methods. If you would like to do that, don’t forget to subscribe. Thanks for listening and watching, and come back next time. See you soon.