What were the hottest mobile game design trends in 2022? In this episode, we look back at 2022 and reflect on the biggest trends that happened in mobile games. Joining us are our resident experts and Chief Game Analysts from GameRefinery, a Liftoff Company, Kalle Heikkinen and Erno Kiiski.
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We examine some standout releases, trends in gameplay events and features, as well as trends in monetization.
You can also watch the episode on YouTube:
Topics we will cover in this episode:
- 2022 mobile game trends
- Hit launches of 2022
- Are minigames the next big thing in mobile?
- In-game events are a good way for developers to try out new things
- Why are competitive gameplay elements gaining more popularity?
- Renovation trend in Casual games
- Out-of-app monetization
[00:00:03] Jon Jordan: 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 is not working for mobile game designers, and all of the latest trends. I’m your host, Jon Jordan, and we will discuss trends. This is a big trends episode. We’re looking back at 2022. We have our experts, Kalle Heikkinen and Erno Kiiski, both chief game analysts at GameRefinery by Liftoff. How is it going, guys?
[00:00:31] Erno Kiiski: Going great. Good to be here again. It’s probably the last episode for me for the year. Interesting to look back at what’s happened.
[00:00:42] Jon: We have an important milestone before we get there. We have a little celebration if we can be so bold. The podcast series now has over 25,000 downloads. So, congratulations to us and everyone who has been downloading, watching and doing things with the podcast and videocast. Thanks to everyone for that. It’s good to know that we’re not just talking into the ether and that people are getting valuable data out of that. Let’s move on now. Yes, end of the year. It has been a pretty eventful year. We’re going to focus on mobile games.
As our overall broad theme, we’ll look at various things; the main thing shaping quite a lot of what’s gone on is scaling games, so taking games and making them more popular and profitable. Erno, you will lead us with how that has shaped the mobile game trends in 2022.
2022 mobile game trends
[00:01:40] Erno: Yes. Of course, if we talk about the whole game industry, especially the mobile game industry, the biggest topic in everyone’s thoughts has been the big changes in terms of scaling the game. So in terms of the UA, Apple changes, ATT, etc. That can be seen in the market and in the games that have been able to scale and find audiences. If we need to pinpoint any bigger thing from the market in the past year, that will probably be the one.
Or everything else that is going on in the world, the macroeconomic stuff and so on, but if we talk about specifically the mobile games industry, that has to be the main topic to start with. Then how it affected the market and in terms of especially the new games where the, of course, UAs are important for the whole lifecycle of the game, but especially if you bring out the new game, how you can find the audience, so more crucial than ever.
If we look at the data, for example, for the iOS US market now, we can see that if we look at games launched in the past 365 days, only eight games are currently in the top-grossing 200. Only a few less-than-a-year-old games have been able to scale among the top 200 grossing games, so there is quite a big difference. For example, if we compare it to the games that have been released in the past two years but are older than one year, there are over 20 games. This is not counting the games released in the past 365 days.
Between the 365 days and 730 days, there are over 20 of those games. If we look at that, there’s a big empty space in the newer games in the top-grossing 200 currently in the market. Naturally, the most significant thing over here is the difficulties of scaling, UA, targeting, finding new audiences, and scaling the latest games. Of course, as mentioned, COVID has gone away to some extent, and people are doing many other things, including macroeconomic stuff.
If we consider the ATT-driven factors and look at what games have been scaling over there in the past year, eight games passed, and five have some IP slapped on top. We have, of course, Diablo Immortal, Marvel Snap, we have Apex Legends, The Office Idle game, the MLB basketball game, and so on. Most games have utilized an IP’s strength to scale and find organic users and downloads in this changing landscape.
Quite an interesting factor that I want to highlight also, if we look at, for example, Dislyte, it’s a brand new IP from Lilith, a time-based RPG. If we go deeper and look at what kind of a game it is, it uses mythological gods like Loki and Odin. It’s not specifically an IP, but it can be thought of as a soft IP, so to speak, that they are using well-known things but then reimagining that. If we count that, six of the eight games have some existing connection for the users and the players in the market.
Overall, I would say that is a big commonality; the toughness of scaling games to the very, very top nowadays and the strength of organic or the impact of an IP is bigger than ever, I would say, that we can see already in the market data.
[00:06:28] Kalle Heikkinen: Comparing that is very interesting. Because if we look at the data in the Chinese market and see how many new games have been released and have been able to sustain in the top 200, it’s a pretty different story. There are 44 new games in the top 200 there. Various reasons behind that. One of them is that after the stringent regulations for releasing new actual IDs to the market, the floodgates have opened a little bit. There are a lot of new titles coming to the market.
Also, the Western games that used to use the same app IDs that they use in the West have now been forced to use Chinese app IDs. That means practically that these games have had to be relaunched in the market, so they show up as new games. That’s been interesting. Then another one relating more to the Western market is that while it has been tough to scale new games, there’s one corner that I would like to highlight as being very active in the sense that a lot of things are going on, and that is the merge space.
If we look at, for example, the top 10 merge games in the West, we can see that the first two are, Merge Dragons! and Merge Mansion. Both have been around for a while, but the next eight games are new games released during the last year. One specific trend we see in the merge market is the rise of these narrative-focused Merge 2 games, such as Gossip Harbor and Love & Pies, which have recently been doing very well. That’s been a new shift in the merge games regarding what kind of merge games have succeeded. One final note on merge is that it’s also a mechanic that, in 2022, we saw utilized more in non-merge games. To name a couple of examples, Cash Tornado Slots. That’s a slot game that has a pretty exciting merge event going on there. Then, Top War is another example of a strategy game that utilizes merge. Then Gardenscapes just recently launched a mini-game event that is all about merge. Exciting things are happening in the merge space.
[00:09:19] Jon: For people who aren’t up-to-date with it, Apple changed how you could target users. That was important because mobile game developers are very good at identifying the right target. They wouldn’t necessarily know the person, but they could accurately target a device. They could target advertising on people who loved hardcore RPGs. That was good for mid-core developers looking at these highly monetizable games to find hundreds of thousands of people who liked those games.
As soon as you lost that, those genres tended to do worse because they had to do more general advertising to everyone, and they couldn’t find these people who liked to play and spend in those games. That’s the broad trend that’s happened. The interesting thing is Apple led up for a long time about how these changes would happen and had lots of debate. We all had opinions about what would happen, and then we’ve seen over this year what has happened, and it’s been as bad as all the pessimists suggested it might be. We’ve seen roll-on effects on companies like Facebook/Meta. It has impacted them more generally, but it is interesting that even in that space, what you find is the landscape changes, giving you relative winners and losers even within that.
Hit launches of 2022
[00:10:48] Erno: In that also, actually, if we go a bit deeper in the individual games, it’s quite interesting. If we talk about the most recent ones, like Marvel Snap, there are the IP and organic benefits. But also, if you go into the game design of Marvel Snap, first of all, it’s absolutely a great game.
I love the game, but if you look at the monetization model, it’s quite different from this traditional CCG gacha-based monetization. However, it has a much more player-friendly monetization where you play the games, and you progress through an XP bar where you get XP for upgrading the carts where the upgrades are just cosmetic, but you’re just unlocking cards. You’re not able to buy gachas, and there isn’t a similar spent depth possibility as for the gachas. That game has gathered a big hype around it.
Even in the more traditional Western hardcore, PC and console players have been loving the game, and it has gathered a lot of attention. They are going for a bit lower revenue per download type of model. I’ve been able to get crazy amounts of downloads with all of those combined, but it’s interesting to see how sustainable that model is. That’s the big question because when the initial hype dies down a little bit, how will it sustain? That takes us to another similar low revenue per download type of game that scaled in the past year, Stumble Guys.
It had big viral hits and crazy amounts of downloads, but if you look at that game now, when the download virality peak is going down, the revenues are going down on the same scale. It has been declining quite a bit. If we look at, for example, from the last couple of years, there was Among Us, which had the same kind of graph. Nowadays, it’s a much tinier game than it was during the peak of COVID and so on. The performance graphs of those two games, Stumble Guys and Among Us, look similar. Now, they got acquired by Scopely a couple of months ago. It’s interesting how they can turn it around by operating the game with more muscle.
[00:13:37] Jon: Good. Okay, so that’s interesting. Again, you’re playing into how the marketing landscape has flipped the way games are made. A game like Marvel Snap wouldn’t have worked so well a year ago because it would’ve been competing with people who could target their audiences better and make more money, but we’ll see how that one plays out. Let’s move on. Let’s talk about a game design type trend: mini-games. We mentioned it a little, and Kalle said it, but where are we with mini-games? Is this going to be the next thing for next year?
Are minigames the next big thing in mobile?
[00:14:13] Erno: Yes, it’s an exciting trend that has been happening. To some extent, for a longer time, it has increased based on our research. It has been increasing quite a bit, and the interesting thing is that there are a couple of different motivations with this approach and a couple of different ways it has been utilized. If you start from the simplest form, we have these UA creative mini-games that, for example, Playrix has been doing for a while.
I don’t have exact data for the actual gameplay and retention. Still, because they are the same misleading ads implemented in the usually early player funnel to some point, they pop up. They are just there so they can say, “Okay, we have these mini-games in there.” Then if we go further, that’s happened this year and found big successes. This is an interesting case for a game called X-Hero. X-Hero is an idle RPG that has been on the market for almost two years.
The success, especially in the West, has been low, but what they started to do a bit similarly is that they began to experiment with different hyper-casual mini-game types of advertising. Then they made these Save the Doge ads, which probably everyone has already seen. Then if we look at the performance, that was a thing that skyrocketed the downloads. Then how it defers from the Playrix approach, it’s a permanent mode nowadays in the game, so you’re playing this Idle-character-collector-RPG, that’s the main game.
Then you have these hyper-casuals mini-games, Save the Doge levels, then you play those, and then you get some resources in your main game, but it’s a permanent mode. It’s going further in terms of thinking of how to do that. It’s an interesting case to study. As mentioned, if we look at X-Hero, we see a massive download spike. Then also, the revenues followed quite a bit, but then if we look at the revenue per download, it went down because the conversions of the players that they were able to get those Save the Doge ads weren’t as good as before. If you look at the margins, they are seeing a much better performance after all. That’s an interesting, next step UA-driven approach, and then we see a couple of examples that did that.
[00:17:15] Kalle: We see these games in China as well. There are at least two similar games in the top-grossing. It will be interesting to see. Will we see more of this in the West as well? On the topic of mini-games, of course, everyone has their definition and opinion on what a mini-game is. I think slots are one genre where there’s a lot of innovation going on when it comes to mini-games. Currently, at GameRefinery, we’re tracking the top slots games for the live abstracter tool that will be released later in the following months. We can already see that approximately half of the top slot games utilize some mini-games.
For example, we have some games, such as bingo and working mini-games. I already mentioned the merge one was quite interesting. There’s this lottery chatbot thing going on. That’s one way they are trying to freshen up the slot gameplay with various kinds of side core game places to have at least in an event format in this game. I would follow that space for exciting innovation.
[00:18:50] Erno: Yes, exactly, and that takes us to if we talked about people doing for the UA purposes. We have the slots genre, in which the mini-games are still a bit simpler, but the main idea is there. Of course, some are purely monetization disguised in a mini-game format, but then we go to retention-driven and engagement thinking. If we think about acquiring new users, it’s more complicated than ever again. Then you want to keep your players in as well. That is also an approach that we have seen. One good example is what Playrix has been doing with their game called Township, which is a tycoon game.
They have been doing this for a long time, but nowadays, if you look at their events, the core events that they have, most of the events they have always have something active, or there’s what I would call a proper mini-game. It’s actual gameplay, whether it is a platformer. They have added, for example, Match 3 mini-games into the Township on top of the Tycoon core gameplay. Many other Tycoon games, like Family Farm Adventure, have these approaches, but it’s different with an energy-based exploration game. They have had merge games, and they have had archery mini-games.
Then with all of these events, mini-game events are then intertwined into the whole gameplay loop of your game, so you’re getting benefits to your main core gameplay. For example, in Township, you get Battle pass progression by doing quests, you get progression for your Guild War, and then you get rewards for your main core game plan. This is a different way of thinking about mini-games, adding something refreshing for the player, and some new core gameplay is also on the mid-core side. Shooters have been doing it for a while, especially Garena Free Fire; they have had, for example, Stumble Guys, Among Us modes.
They recently had a 1v1 brawler-fighting Mortal Kombat type of gameplay mode. These mega games are adding these things to bring variety to the players, which is interesting. Then as the last example, which is a bit different as previous ones have been done in an event format, AFK Arena has now added a permanent mini-game. They had a Match-3 mini-game they implemented just recently. Survivor.io scaled quite recently like a hit game from Habby with their gameplay. And now AFK Arena has added a similar gameplay mode, which you can then play, and then get variety for the player in terms of different types of gameplay. This is a different approach than, for example, Playrix does with their UA creative mini-games. It’s a more retention and engagement-driven approach, but we have seen both methods much more during the past year.
In-game events are a good way for developers to try out new things
[00:22:24] Kalle: Yes, because these are in an event format. Apart from the stuff that Erno just said in the end, there are good ways for developers to try out new things because you don’t have that fear of messing up the core progression and gameplay. You can have it as an event for, let’s say, seven days, and then if the metrics need to improve, move on to the next thing.
[00:22:54] Jon: They have to be very careful with what everyone wants is something to be so synergistic that the mini gameplay or whatever you are adding into really already appeals to that market. Then you can bake it more permanently, have a better product and be very nervous about one’s exact opposite. Some of the ones where 95% of people care less about it and don’t play it, but 5% care about it. You’re also using it as an internal funnel for different monetization. Again, we’ve discussed this with some previous podcasts, a game within a game.
It shows how some of these games started as very simple mobile games, and now they’ve become this enormous great gargantuan metaverse; maybe metaverse is the wrong term, but a whole entertainment super apps. Super apps are quite an exciting concept, but games are becoming that way. You can have all manner of games within a game, and if people are stuck in it, then keep them in there. Something else we have discussed previously, but good to get a 12-monthly overview: we see a lot more competitive gameplay in mobile games across all genres. Why is that happening, and have we got any good examples?
Why are competitive gameplay elements gaining more popularity?
[00:24:19] Erno: Yes, especially, what I would tie this into, especially in the casual, and especially in the puzzle game market, which is a big part of the casual market. Of course, competitive elements, depending on the genre, have always been part of the game, and we have seen increasing in games like puzzle games where the competition naturally hasn’t been a big thing. It’s always been about just playing your own games, completing levels, and so on. It’s been going for a while, but it exponentially increased in the past year due to different competitive events and features in these games.
What is important here is to differentiate from direct PVP games and stuff like that most of this, 99% of these are indirect competition. It’s done with the event. A classic example of this is the leaderboard-based event that has been used for Match 3 games for a long time. I don’t know, two-day, three-day event. When you play your primary progression levels, you get a score for the event, and then you’re placed in a leaderboard with, say, 50 players. Then after the event ends, you might get a reward if you play the levels the most. That’s the classic traditional example, but this has been expanded.
Especially if you look at, for example, Royal Match, the mega-hit of the past two years and how they have been scaling their event framework. Over half of the events they have now running are if someone is unfamiliar with Royal Match; it’s a Match 3 where you complete levels one by one after your classic Match 3 game in the gameplay loop. How that game has been evolving is since the launch, pretty much everything has been concerning events. Over half of these events they have added to the event framework have been competitive.
Different twists to this same idea that, okay, they have added, for example, the Lightning Rush event, which was this event that you player trigger yourself, and then you have one hour, a leaderboard competition. Again, this is the one hour I will play competitively, but if I don’t want to, I can play by myself. There’s also that extra competitive push for me that, okay, I’m close to the rewarded positions, then that pushes me to play a few more levels, and then naturally, that drives me to do the monetization part of your game. For the puzzle games, nothing has changed.
It’s the extra moves, it’s the boosters, but these competitive events give the extra push for players to play those primary progression levels. It gives them extra incentive because, for a long time, casual players didn’t like competition at all. They didn’t care about it, but when it’s implemented in this indirect format, it’s easy to not care about it. If you don’t want to compete, you can easily skip that. If a player gets that sense of “I want to get a little bit further, get that rewarded position,” it gives an extra push. With that variation from different types of race events, I will go to individual examples. Still, many twists around this, a fundamental idea of creating an event and adding a competitive side to it, has been increasing. If we look at the events that different puzzle games have been adding to their event frameworks.
[00:28:37] Jon: It’s interesting the users choosing to opt into it. You might be interested, then you go, “I’m going to be sitting in a queue for two hours or something or waiting in the air for something.” Using it to fill the time that you know you have available. You’re already incentivized to be more competitive.
[00:28:54] Erno: Exactly, and if you look at those direct PVP-type features or games in that space, few examples have worked. Match Masters is probably the only game in that space that has found relatively big success. That game has also been scaling in the past few years. In that sense, there’s demand for a competitive element in these games. Then if you look outside of that, there has been little; for example, in Candy Crush Soda Saga, they tried to make a more direct PVP feature. In terms of performance, we didn’t see any significant effects, and they have yet to scale it across their portfolio, for example.
This type of direct PVP, I get that for this audience, it’s not necessarily, or it has to be a specific type of an audience, or there might be less overlap. Still, this more indirect little bit of extra push utilizing that competitive motivation has worked because we have seen to scale in a big manner in the past year.
[00:30:10] Kalle: I only want to add that it makes total sense as games tap into an extended set of competitive and king-of-the-hill motivations. What we see here is the same as when casual games started expanding their meta layers, and through that, we’re able to tap into new motivations related to those. This is not a puzzle game, but if we’re talking about just competitive elements getting more popular in casual games, Stumble Guys can also be linked to this conversation. Of course, it’s very casual and party-like but also very competitive by nature, and that’s also one example of a very competitive event-casual game.
[00:31:09] Jon: We get to Battle Royal as a similar thing where many players never get their chicken dinner, but they’re still quite happy to play within that role. You can be competitive and force your way through it, or you can play more casually, even though it’s a very competitive game, so that’s down to the individual. Cool, okay, so renovation and construction, what do we see with those? They’ve been around for a while.
Renovation trend in Casual games
[00:31:40] Kalle: Yes, we’re talking about the progression visualization where players have to fix, renovate, or decorate. Maybe it’s a room, a manager, a garden, or a garage. All of us have been engaging with these types of games, and this is nothing new, but we are seeing more coming up in event format, also in games that don’t have these scape styles renovation methods. But, to answer why these events are so popular, especially in the last year, if we deconstruct these events and go to the deep end of this, we can see that they are task-based events with a progress bar. Just in renovation events, the progress bar is visualized more compellingly. Cleaning up a house or renovating a garage feels more satisfying than watching a progress bar grow.
That’s one or even the biggest reason why we are seeing more and more of them. Just a visually engaging way to give players a concrete sense of progression. A more specific trend related to this is that in certain games, we also see permanent features related to renovation events. For example, Lily’s Garden has this; what was the name? I didn’t check the feature’s name, but maybe Design Home was the feature’s name. The idea was that you play these recurring events in Lily’s Garden, get these tickets through engaging with those events, and then use those tickets to renovate this permanent feature you have in the game. Similar kind of feature I’ve seen in, for example, Solitaire crews as well. It will be interesting to see if these kinds of permanent features that are renovation-related support the recurring event frameworks. Will these get multiple in the future as well? I’m interested to see it.
[00:34:10] Jon: There’s a little like what Erno was saying about if you have an hour leaderboard, you’re opting into that. It may appeal to a certain mindset of people who like to complete it and get everything nice and tidy. You choose the right psychological cues you know your audience will be interested in. Probably it could play better in more mid-core games, but you can see a laid-on process.
[00:34:40] Erno: It’s like Kalle said, it’s interesting because it’s nothing new. Playrix escape games are almost ancient already. They’ve been around for a while. For example, Toon Blast, which, again, didn’t have any meta. Just play level after level. The background picture changes in the menu, and then you have events, and so on. They started to implement a more permanent meta layer, where you have a similar view for a limited time duration as in Royal Match. You have the permanent meta layer, and then you know you can renovate the castle in that game, so tapping it through their event framework is interesting.
What Kalle mentioned about this Lily’s Garden one is also quite interesting, and we have seen it in other games. The difference is that Lily’s Garden has this permanent meta layer. It’s like a Gardenscapes type of game, but they added another renovation that is progressed by playing any of the events in the game. This feature ties in all your event frameworks and gives even more extra incentive to participate in the events, and they give this a connected progression vector for all your events. Royal Match added a similar type of feature as well. They added this collection. It’s not a renovation, but you collect cards and complete albums, and it’s a permanent one. It’s not limited time, but the way to get those cards is by all the game events, giving this extra push for the events. These types of things wrap up the whole event framework together. It’s also an interesting one to follow.
[00:36:33] Kalle: This was also discussed in some previous episode, but it would’ve felt wrong to omit it from the list of the top trends we’ve seen in 2022. What we’re talking about here is that we are seeing more and more games utilizing out-of-the-app purchase options for developers to bypass the Apple Store fees. We have seen developers such as Supercell, for example, using external stores, but the most interesting example of this has been from Game of Thrones: Conquest, which is a strategy game. They added a completely new currency. It was called Gems, which is used to buy offers in the game nowadays.
I assume you can still use real money, but you are incentivized to use Gems as a player because it’s cheaper. It’s only sold outside Game of Thrones: Conquest. You can only get it from a specific website or occasionally in some of the in-app offers in the game. As I said, players get a significantly better deal when they buy the Gems from the website versus just buying offers with real money. This has been a hot topic in the industry, and we have seen it implemented in some games. The Game of Thrones: Conquest example has been the most interesting.
[00:38:23] Jon: Do you think that Warners, a big media company, has been in a stronger position to negotiate those sorts of things with Apple as a separate thing or is this something that, over time will become available to everyone? Because clearly, the more of their revenue they can get out of the App Store, which is 30%, then that’s what they’re going to want to do. It’s interesting. How are people being allowed to do it now within the App Store? It seems very open.
[00:38:53] Erno: Yes, it comes back to the epic Apple lawsuit case and the verdict. You can have these outside app monetization stores, but the funny thing is that you cannot advertise inside an app that’s not allowed by Apple. That’s why as Kalle mentioned, the Game of Thrones example is quite interesting because you have the currency inside the game, and then when you go and try to find out where can I get this, it’s just like, “Find out more somewhere else” in their website.
This is playing around with the rules. Is it allowed? Is it not allowed? Either way, it’s still part of the game. It’s increasing more and more, and some companies are helping different developers to do this type of thing, so more and more of this type of store. Of course, we see it first in the big companies like Supercell, which have the resources to make their own web stores. However, looking at the top-two grossing games, which is naturally most of the big companies, or mostly big companies. We’re seeing it increasing more and more.
For example, Supercell added this one for Brawl Stars last week. Now, they have Clash of Clans, Hay Day, and Brawl Stars, and you can get better deals if you go to their web store and webshop to buy the deal compared to buying in-app. Then, it’s harder, especially for the casual genres. Mid-core or hardcore players will find the way; they will figure this out, but for a casual player who plays casually, how you will get them guided into your apps outside the app web store is much more difficult.
We have a list of these games among the top games that are utilizing it, and, Yahtzee With Buddies from Scopely, it’s the only casual game, well, Hay Day, of course, is a casual game as well from Supercell, but those are the two only casual games, and all the others are mid-core, mainly these hardcore, mid-core type of strategy and RPG type of games, and so on. Definitely, a bigger trend over there, not so much in the casual. Then these big companies with a wide portfolio already have this infrastructure ready, like Scopely have a store for all of their games nowadays. Yahtzee is up there as well.
Yes, as Kalle said, if we look back at the more prominent trends of last year, it has to be like I mentioned. Not yet super widely used, but it’s increasing over the past year. I’m 100% sure that in the next year, we will see it even more.
[00:41:56] Jon: I guess, yes, as you pointed out, but for someone playing a casual game and occasionally spending $5 once every couple of months, the friction of going to a website and putting in your credit card doesn’t matter versus someone who spends a thousand dollars a month hardcore gaming, they leave a 30%, it’s going to be worth your while doing that. Cool. We’ve covered quite a lot of stuff there. Thank you very much, Erno and Kalle, for your expertise. Also, in this podcast, we will look forward to what will happen in 2023.
The time never stops on the Mobile GameDev Podcast, so remember to subscribe to the channel through your podcast channel or subscription service. Aso, if you’re watching on video as well, please subscribe. Every episode, we’re looking at the mobile game space, which is still, as we always say, the biggest single sector in the gaming universe and growing fast globally. We are providing these insights that will keep you informed and come back next time to see what’s happening. Next time we’ll talk about 2023, so that’s a good one to tune in. Till next time, see you then. Goodbye.
[00:43:14] Erno: Thanks. Bye.