In this episode of the Mobile GameDev Playbook, we look at what 2022 might have in store for the mobile game industry across the US, China and Japan.
Host Jon Jordan is joined by GameRefinery by Vungle’s Senior Game Analyst, Kalle Heikkinen, to discuss upcoming trends and changes in mobile games in 2022, as well as anticipated releases throughout the forthcoming year.
You can also watch the episode on YouTube:
Topics we will cover in this episode:
- Renovation in-game events
- Minigames and UA
- Gacha Mechanics
- Social elements in gacha mechanics
- Triple A’s
- Nostalgia in games
- Battle passes – keep ‘em coming!
[00:00:00] Jon Jordan: Hello, and welcome to the Mobile Game Dev Playbook. Thanks for tuning in for another episode. This is the podcast that provides insights into what makes a great mobile game, what is and [what] isn’t working for mobile game designers at the moment, and all [of] the latest trends. I’m your host, Jon Jordan, and today we are going to be looking at potential trends for 2022, particularly looking at the Chinese market.
Our expert is Kalle Heikkinen, who is the senior analyst at Game Refinery in the Chinese market. So you’re the man for the job today?
[00:00:35] Kalle Heikkinen: Yes. Thanks for introducing me. Hopefully we’re going to discuss other markets as well, but yeah, the China market is definitely my focus area at GameRefinery. Happy to be in the podcast.
Renovation in-game events
[00:00:51] Jon Jordan: And I guess it’s interesting, as we all know, the Chinese mobile market is the biggest in the world as a national market by quite a long way. And I guess it probably has the most influence as well, not just in Southeast Asia, but a lot of the trends we see in China end up flowing around the world.
So, hopefully we’ll pick up some stuff that will be useful to people next year and in future years as well. So what we’re going to kick off with: I think events have been a popular subject on the podcast haven’t they? We’ve covered events recently and it seems to be you can’t have too many events! You can’t think too much about in-game events.
[00:01:23] Kalle Heikkinen: Exactly, exactly. So, that’s a very good topic to start with. There’s actually two sort of subtopics under events that I would like to point out here, the first one being the different types of meta elements making appearances in event design, and then the other one is that we are seeing more and more special playing modes or minigames being added to events. And events, obviously, it’s not a new thing to say that events are important. We’re seeing different types of events like seasonal events, collaboration, events, anniversary events, new server events, you name it you have it: there’s lots of different types of events.
And they’re obviously all important, but what I wanted to really highlight is, for example, these renovation events that we are seeing more and more [of] in mobile games. That’s a trend that has been already going on in 2021, but we strongly believe that the trend will continue next year as well. So just a brief intro if there’s someone who’s now thinking, ‘okay, what renovation events, what do you mean?’ What we’re basically talking about is like, if you’ve played Gardenscapes or home scapes, you probably know that the meta side of things is all about, you know, you know, renovating and decorating your house.
Right. So put that in an event format and put that into basically any cash game that you can find nowadays. And that’s what we are basically talking about. So, you have this limited-time event, and then during that event, you are sort of like doing these different types of renovations and there are lots of different kinds of monetization opportunities.
There’s as well as usually, you play the game to get the materials to renovate the room that you’re renovating, or then you have to pay up to do that. And then another sort of meta element that we’re seeing in events that we also think that 2022 is going to be big, is to have these special playing modes or mini-games.
So casual games are doing this, but also mid-core games. So for [the] mid-core side of things, one example is AFK arena. They have these match3 events, which have nothing to do with, you know–AKF Arena is an idle RPG, we all know it’s nothing to do with that–but they have these very interesting events that loop from time to time [and] are Match3. And then from the casual side of things, the obvious example is Playrix’s portfolio. So [games] like Fishdom, for example, utilizing heavily these minigames that have nothing to do with the basic Match3 gameplay, but they’re just very interesting and fun and surprising events for the players to basically experience. So yeah, that’s a couple of things that we are also expecting to be big in 2022, when it comes to events.
[00:05:06] Jon Jordan: I guess it’s sort of interesting. The renovation stuff is interesting, cause when they start off, you’re starting at the beginning of a process where everything’s sort of messed up and you’re clearing it up.
It’s a very strong psychological imperative, I think for the player just to do.
[00:05:24] Kalle Heikkinen: Exactly. Yeah. And if we think about the motivations for casual players, we look at GameRefinery data for motivations and one of the top motivational drivers for them is actually completing milestones and decorating and customizing stuff. So they are directly tapping into these motivations, those renovation events.
Minigames and UA
[00:05:48] Jon Jordan: I guess another interesting one. I’m interested to get your opinion on this. So having these minigames, how much of that do you think plays into sort of UA? Cause I guess throughout the last couple of years, really, we’ve had these UA Apple games that haven’t necessarily been part of the core gameplay and some people, some companies got fined around that. But if you have a minigame, that has nothing to do with the main game. You can do an advert based on the minigame, which then allows you to honestly say, ‘Well, I’m doing an advert for this. There’s a minigame in our main game, which may be related to the main gameplay but is that something? Or is that just…
[00:06:28] Kalle Heikkinen: I’m 100% percent positive that it’s not a coincidence. It’s definitely something that you can have in your playbook when you think about your UA strategy and combine that with this minigame. So if we think about the AFK arena example or, the other example might be Top War, which is a 4x Strategy game. It has these merge elements in it. And it’s pretty clear that they use those merge elements in their UA activities to attract a certain player base that normally might not be interested in 4X strategy gameplay, but they stay [for the] merge mechanics. That might be something of a different type of value proposition for them: to come play the game. I’m not actually 100% sure if AFK arena is using those Match3 modes in their UA. But if they are, it would totally make total sense.
[00:07:44] Jon Jordan: Yeah. Yeah. Just to me, I’m always sort of fascinated when we do these podcasts, how sophisticated mobile game design is. It used to be that you had to basically choose a basic genre available and as a developer, you’d really try and focus on being the best, whatever you were in that genre or maybe sub-genre.
But now the whole thing is about these events. And then on top of that, you have these sort of minigame purchases between events and other larger buildings or games within minigames within games. But it’s all sort of holding together, hopefully, like core retention. Monetization loops are becoming incredibly sophisticated.
[00:08:17] Kalle Heikkinen: Yeah. And it’s interesting when, like in Playrix’s case, they have multiple different games where they can use this same sort of events; or at least it is the frameworks for these events and you have this one minigame that’s 4X in Fishdom. And then, the next week, you might have the same event, the mini-game event, in another Playrix game. So it’s interesting how they can also recycle the content across their portfolio, which is obviously clever.
[00:08:49] Jon Jordan: Very good point. Good. Okay. Well, what have we got next?. What’s another big trend we’re going to consider?
[00:09:00] Kalle Heikkinen: I was thinking we could discuss Gacha? How about that? Gacha has never been… The gacha, or the gacha design, it’s never been stagnant, especially if you have been familiar with [the] Japanese landscape and the mobile games there, there’s actually been a lot of different kinds of innovations around the gacha mechanics. So it’s not just the regular gacha where you pay up, or you get a daily ticket or something, and then you pull a gacha and then you get a randomized reward. Just to give a couple of examples: in Japan, we have these box gacha. We’ve had them for a long time where you have a specific pool of items. And then when you pull a gacha you one by one pull the items out of the box, and then if you pull all those items, one by one, in the end, you will get all the items from the box. So that’s one implementation.
Then another example could be these specific gachas where, if you just keep on pulling the gacha, at some point you are guaranteed to get an item of a specific rarity. And obviously, these are mechanics that we are now seeing in Western games; games that are maybe not developed by Western developers, but nevertheless, they are from games that are popular in the West. But they might be from Asia, like Genshin Impact, for example.
So, I’m not saying that we are not seeing these special mechanics, but they have been prevalent and much used in Asia, for example, and in Japan for a long time. But what we are pretty excited about, or at least interested to see how it’s going to be in 2022, is a couple of gacha-related mechanics.
So, the first one is preview gacha. There are not that many real-life examples from [the] mobile scene just yet, but the latest FIFA games actually have these preview gacha. So, what they basically are is –compared to the regular gacha where you pay something and then you pull the gacha and then you get a randomized reward–in preview gachas, how it goes [with preview gachas is,] first: you actually roll the gacha. And after that, you get to take a look at the possible rewards. And then, after that, you make a decision. That’s either, ‘Okay, I will take these rewards, and then I have to pay up.’
[But] if I look at the rewards and I think, ‘Well, actually these [rewards] are not that attractive to me,’ then I just don’t take them, but at least in FIFA’s case, then you have to wait for 24 hours or something like that [until you can roll again]. So, at least from the mechanics’ point of view, I see no reason why we wouldn’t see some sort of iterations or implementations of this mechanic, and I’m really, really looking forward to seeing some applications of that in the West. Well, no matter the geographical area, but in the mobile scene in general.
[00:12:51] Jon Jordan: That’s sort of counter-intuitive, isn’t it? You think, ‘well, the whole point of gachas is the randomness and you get what you get. So it’s interesting to dig into how game developers are doing that because they think it works better for them and their business model. I guess, in some degrees, it’s helpful in terms of people that complain about gachas because they go with this [idea of] gambling. But, if you can see what you’ve got, then people can go ‘I don’t want it,’ and then they’re locked out.
So, I guess the clever thing is the time lockout because that’s what you’re sort of losing. So you’re kind of thinking: is the reason to not take this one worth not doing anything for 24 hours. And, I guess, some players are just like, ‘Nope, don’t want it. That’s fine. I wasn’t going to buy it. I was only going to buy one.’ But for people who are more interested in buying something it’s like, ‘Well, I’ll take that one because I want to have another go.’ So it’s quite an interesting and sophisticated mechanic. So yeah, that will be interesting to see how that plays out.
Social elements in gacha mechanics
[00:13:47] Kalle Heikkinen: Yes. Totally agree. And then the other one, the sort of gacha-related mechanic, is to add social elements to a gacha. We’ve seen some examples of this in Japan where there’s this game called Kotodaman and there’s basically a co-op gacha.
So, how it works is you can do it in solo–and if you do it in solo it’s pretty much a regular gacha– but if you do it in co-op, then you press the button to do the co-op gacha, and then the system will find you a team of players. I believe it was six players in total, random players.
And then you have this team and then each one of these six players selects a character from a preselected pool of characters, so all the participants do this. After that, all of the participants will get each others’ characters. That is a very interesting way to add a social twist to gacha.
So you make a decision on what kind of character you will get, but the other players also have an effect on what you are getting, which is quite interesting.
Yeah. So that’s it on the gacha-side of things. The social gacha is also something that we could definitely see picking up in 2022.
[00:15:39] Jon Jordan: Shall we move on to something on a bigger scale? So we can talk about AAA. As an industry chosen, it gets stronger: the value and the cost of triple As is always increasing. That premium feel is always something that draws in the crowd. I’ve said it many times in 2021 and in 2020: Genshin Impact is a defining product.
[00:16:10] Kalle Heikkinen: Exactly. Exactly. So, as you mentioned, we’ve recently seen some really high-quality mobile games in terms of graphical fidelity and game-world scope, and so on.
Like you mentioned, Genshin Impact, for example, and then Marvel Future Revolution also falls under this umbrella as well. And I strongly believe that these types of experiences are something that we will see more in the future in 2022 as well. So [I’m] not saying that all [of] the mobile game landscape or the market, in general, would be heavily shifting to this direction, but let’s just say, maybe, that a couple of years ago we had none of these types of AAA games on mobile. And now we have some, and I just believe that the trend is going to accelerate into the future. And related to this is also the increase in cross-play games. So we’ve had examples, like Genshin Impact and Fortnite obviously, and Minecraft and Roblox.
And there are also games like Star Wars Hunters coming up, and Farlight 84, Honkai: Star Rail, which are all taking advantage of the crossplay possibilities. So I’m definitely going to predict that 2022 will see more examples of crossplay games. And then, maybe the last related point is if I would have to pick up one specific genre where it’s going to get very, very interesting in 2022, it would definitely be the shooter space. It’s going to really heat up. So already this fall, we had Pub G: New State and some other interesting titles, but Valorant Mobile is coming. Apex legends is going to be globally launched and we just had Final Fantasy: First Soldier. And then there’s The Division Mobile coming up and so on. So that is going to be one specific genre that is going to be very interesting to follow, and how these new entrants will find their audiences or who is going to end up finding top-grossing success and who will not. That’s going to be interesting to see.
Nostalgia in games
[00:19:00] Jon Jordan: Yeah, that’s a good point. The cross-platform is probably more expensive to build from an engineering point of view, but it ensures that your game is really good for the console and PC crowd who really liked that, whatever the experience is, but also if you can get the mobile stuff in, that gives you the monetization, and then it gives you the reach. So you’re addressing billions, potentially, of people instead of tens of millions. It’s also interesting, though, that not all games are like that, are they? I guess the big one coming out of China in 2022 is Diablo Immortal, which is mobile-only. So there’s still scope for mobile-only AAA games and slightly different takes on what AAA is.
[00:19:48] Kalle Heikkinen: That’s actually tapping into…if we had had one more like trend added to today’s list, it probably would have been the big IPs coming to mobile and stuff like that. And some of the IPs really like tapping into the nostalgia factors as well, or, let’s say older gaming franchises like Diablo. That’s a perfect example. So [it will be really interesting to see how that game is going to perform.
[00:20:17] Jon Jordan: Just to ask you also, on that point, it reminds me that one of the big games in China in 2021 has been the Harry Potter game, which is coming to the west in 2022.
But it’s interesting that there seems to be some discussion about how monetization and how retention works for the Chinese market, and [what] the reactions are going to be in Northern America and Western European markets.
I guess it’s a similar thing for Diablo Immortal, which has been developed in China. Not necessarily for the Chinese market first, but there’s some interesting sort of tension there, I guess, in terms of how different audiences want to interact with that with their experiences. And it becomes harder, I guess, for IP when people go, ‘Well, I remember when I was playing Diablo 2 and all the time that was spent there.’ Or people going, ‘I loved Harry Potter when I was little.’
And that’s very hard to do from a game design and deployment point of view. You can’t really please everyone. So it will be interesting to see when those games come out in the West, how they are and what the reaction is to them.
[00:21:24] Kalle Heikkinen: Yeah, I definitely agree with you. Players can have certain types of attitudes towards players or their favorite franchises that are now being developed by developers that just have some certain kind of associations with them.
But yeah, let’s hope that the game is as good as it can be.
Battle passes – keep ‘em coming!
[00:21:51] Jon Jordan: And what’s the final trend to dig into?
[00:21:57] Kalle Heikkinen: Yeah. So let’s just ask, finally, I know [on this podcast] we have been discussing the topic of battle passes getting more popular and social elements in casuals getting more popular. It’s just a fact that it’s still a trend, you know, more and more games are adopting, for example, a battle pass.
Just last year, the top-grossing utilization rose from 46% to 61%. And in 2022, we’re probably going to see even more games in top-grossing adopt battle passes and as we have said before, they’re not tied to any specific genre. We see them everywhere practically. It’s really hard to find a genre nowadays where there wouldn’t be an example of a game title having a battle pass.
So, say that in 2022, we will probably see even higher usage of battle pass. And then it’s the same thing with the social elements in casual games, it might be a broken record, but for example, guilds in the top-100 titles last year: the utilization rose from 60% to 70%.
We see no reason why it wouldn’t [and] couldn’t go even higher from there. So 2022, more utilization of different types of social mechanics and features and systems for sure. And then deeper social systems as well. So one example [of this] is a time-management game called Cooking Diary, which just recently added this social hanging out system where you can, outside the normal gameplay, go hang out with your friends and engage in some casual activities. So that’s very interesting. We haven’t seen these hangout areas in time management games before.
[00:24:12] Jon Jordan: It’s always interesting that, for some of these features, as you say, you can talk about Battle Pass for months, if not, years now. But there’s always more that can be done with those and as more developers and designers sort get to grips with this, they realize that you can put these in the right context and you can mold them into any game genre; it doesn’t have to be for the Battle Royale shooters that first adopted them. These techniques can be, in the right context, used everywhere.
So great! Excellent. in-game events, renovation events, gachas, more AAA and more battle passes and socials: that’s where mobile games are going.
Thank you very much for your time, Kalle.
[00:24:59] Kalle Heikkinen: Thank you.
[00:25:00] Jon Jordan: And thank you for listening. So that’s it for today. Every month or so we are publishing new podcasts covering what’s going on in mobile games, looking at what’s been happening, and looking towards the future. There’s always so much going on as the mobile games industry gets bigger and bigger and it goes from three billion, and I guess it probably won’t be too long before we’re up to four billion. So please subscribe to the mobile game dev playbook via your podcast or video platform of choice and give us some reviews, it’s always helpful to get some reviews it helps other people find us – so thanks for listening. See you next time.