Revisiting mobile platform advantage

This post, which is mostly a rehash of ideas I’ve written about previously, is inspired by the following two gaming industry stories:

These two stories are very interesting when looked at side by side. On the one-hand, Overwatch is certainly one of the best new-game launches ever (for console/PC platforms), and has great potential to engage millions of players for years to come (in the clichéd games-as-a-service model). On the other hand, its impact (whether monetary or number of players or player-hours served) is completely overshadowed by Honor of Kings, and we are not talking about a small gap – it’s probably a 2-5x difference today and could grow to an order of magnitude difference (10x).

In one sense, a hardcore game having fewer players than a more accessible/casual game is nothing new (top Facebook games easily had tens of millions of players). However, compared to other popular mobile games (e.g. Pokemon Go), Honor of Kings is a much more hardcore game and it certainly serves plenty of hardcore gamers.

It is from this lens – viewing Honor of Kings as a game that’s closer in spirit and purpose to League of Legends/Overwatch as opposed to Candy Crush/Farmville – that the expert opinion in the 2nd link above is even more interesting. I have a lot of respect for the opinions voiced from the 4 industry peers interviewed – they made many reasonable points, such as concern over the average session length as a blocker for attracting players. However, I also think these opinions are founded on some assumptions about what mobile games are / aren’t which may not actually hold.

The biggest shift in perspective required is not viewing mobile as an inferior platform versus console/PC for gaming, but rather a superior platform. Mobile does have some severe constraints (such as the lack of physical feedback for input, and input often taking up valuable screen real-estate), but many commonly-cited constraints are artificial. Take average session length – Honor of Kings has easily proved that almost 200 million players in China 1 have no problem regularly spending chunks of 20 minutes for one match, which is certainly mind-boggling for anyone used to thinking of single game length of under 5 minutes as a golden rule for mobile. If you are able to suspend belief and imagine players spending hours a day gaming on their phone (which they do in China), your perspective of what games are possible on mobile changes. Another common constraint I see is somehow phone-screens “are not large enough for complex gaming”, and devs end up optimizing for tablets2.

Put another way, I see a self-reinforcing cycle – if devs don’t believe in the potential of mobile and blindly accept conventional-wisdom constraints, then they can only make games that operate under these constraints3.

I’m often reminded of phone industry experts reactions to the iPhone when it was first announced 10 years ago. A lot of very smart people made some terrible predictions, when in hindsight the conclusion was so obvious. I feel more and more that mobile gaming will continue to grow and grow, and eventually force devs that prioritize console/PC to make some very painful transitions.

  1. Based on analyst estimates in this Bloomberg article.
  2. e.g. Vainglory was clearly seen as a game intended to be played on tablets, as evidenced by its marketing videos
  3. i.e. the casual arcade / casino and async strategy games that dominate the US app store rankings

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