June 17, 2024

Game changers: How mobile games can flip the script and stand out in a red ocean marketplace

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History of innovation in mobile gaming

5 ways publishers can (and do) break barriers in mobile games

  1. Give an old genre a new audience
  2. Change up the motivation to play
  3. Solve old problems in new ways
  4. Combine genres to find something new
  5. Break visual expectations

Mind the failures: Where innovation goes wrong

Forging a path forward and finding new ways to innovate in mobile gaming

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In a saturated market where mobile games are as abundant as fish in the sea, the need to stand out has never been more crucial for publishers amidst rising CPI and falling ROAS. With countless titles vying for players' attention and engagement, the challenge lies in creating experiences that not only captivate but also redefine the boundaries of their respective genres.

As Artour Goldenberg, Mistplay’s Director of Special Projects, aptly puts it, “The top F2P games continue to retain audience mindshare with a constant stream of new features, LiveOps and content. Innovation is the lifeblood for any team looking to carve out their space in this saturated market. In particular, new games should focus on innovative game concepts that can carve out blue waters in today's red ocean marketplace.” 

Incorporating a culture of continuous creativity and inventive gameplay mechanics is essential for mobile game publishers to gain a competitive edge and engage with players in meaningful ways. And as Picasso once (allegedly) said, while good artists borrow, great artists steal – so in this article, we’re taking a look at how publishers of innovative games are breaking the mold, challenging convention, and redefining what it means to be a game changer in the ever-evolving landscape of mobile games. 

👀 Related reading: Future-proof your profits: Forecasting monetization trends on the rise in mobile gaming

History of innovation in mobile gaming

Innovation in gaming has always been a constant, serving as a driving force that propels evolution as technology, platforms, and user preferences continuously shift. In mobile, as devices advance and user behavior evolves, there have been pivotal moments where publishers have redefined their genres and set new standards. These releases tested the bounds of player expectations to not only challenge existing norms but also inspire a wave of creativity within the industry, establishing new benchmarks for gameplay, storytelling, and player engagement. 

Turning accidents into innovation in Monument Valley (2014)

Innovation can come in many forms – whether intentional or not. As Isaac Asimov, famous science fiction author, once said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny,” and the same can be said for the science of innovative game design.  

Take Monument Valley, for example, a game released in 2014 that has since accumulated over 160M+ installs across platforms and won numerous awards for its revolutionary mechanic that started as a bug. 

"We built something that was an isometric puzzle game and the idea of impossibility came as a bug initially. Things weren't supposed to be layered in that way and you weren't supposed to navigate between those layers. That's actually the best thing about this game, that we just built by accident. And then we based the whole game on that." – Danny Gray, Chief creative officer at Ustwo (1)

What captivated audiences about Monument Valley was that it took advantage of its virtual medium to take puzzle-solving into uncharted, impossible territory, where optical illusions became a key point to unraveling the game’s mysteries. The title influenced a new generation of developers, with many creators still today striving to achieve the same level of captivating gameplay as Monument Valley.

💡Takeaway: Not every mistake or bug is something to be removed – sometimes the best innovations come from turning something accidental into something intentional. Have an interesting bug? Evaluate if it could play an intentional role in your gameplay experience. 

Taking inspiration from non-gaming apps in Reigns (2016)

While many innovations come around by accident, others are from taking intentional inspiration from other creators.

For example, Reigns turns strategy on its head by taking the popular Tinder-like swipe mechanic and basing a narrative-driven game off your swipe decisions. By borrowing a well-known mechanic and bringing it into a core gameplay loop, Nerial was able to create a unique experience that blends strategic management with narrative decision-making and even get picked up for publication by Devolver Digital. 

“I think the success of Reigns is a combination of factors. The game mechanic is extremely simple to understand, but as simple as it appears, the game has a lot of depth. The quality of the writing combined with the artwork and soundtrack all make a really strong impression – Reigns stood out. That's pretty hard to do on the App Store.” – Graeme Struthers, Chief operating officer at Devolver Digital (2) 

Since its publication in 2016, Reigns has accumulated over 1M+ downloads (as a premium game no less) and even won the Google Play Store Most Innovative Game of 2016 award. The innovative game mechanic opened many new doors for Nerial to continue exploring its application in new titles, from Reigns: Game of Thrones in 2018 to a new board game, Reigns: The Council.

💡Takeaway: There’s a wealth of inspirational material out there in the mobile app space so borrow inspiration from successful UX and mechanics from non-gaming apps and websites to introduce interesting new mechanics into your game. 

Leveraging emerging tech and device capabilities in Pokemon Go (2016)

Mobile devices and technology evolve fast, and there’s a wealth of innovation possibilities for publishers who adapt alongside the tech they publish on. 

One of the most successful examples of this is with the launch of Pokemon Go in 2016 by Niantic, which took the world by storm (gamers and non-gamers alike) and launched the augmented reality (AR) revolution. By leaning into new AR technology, Pokemon Go “gamified reality” and encouraged players to step outside, explore, and connect in a brand new way facilitated by a powerful (and nostalgic) IP. 

Plus, the game’s innovation had an impact well beyond just mobile gaming. 

“When Pokémon Go landed in 2016, it wasn’t just Pokémon that exploded—it was the whole concept of augmented reality (AR). [The game] turned the whole globe into a giant, interactive game board and catalyzed a surge in AR adoption, showcasing its mass appeal and accessibility. It elevated the public’s awareness and understanding of AR, sparking interest and curiosity in the technology’s potential applications. Almost overnight, AR shifted from a niche, experimental technology to a mainstream phenomenon.” – Yasir Drabu, Founder and CEO of Taaza (3) 

As mobile gaming continues to evolve, the impact of Pokemon Go's AR innovation cannot be understated. To date, the game has generated nearly 180M downloads and still generates hundreds of thousands more every month (based on data.ai from May 2024). Its influence can be seen in the growing number of AR-enabled games that seek to replicate its success by immersing players in dynamic and interactive virtual worlds. From AR-based navigation apps to location-based experiences, the legacy of Pokemon Go serves as a testament to the transformative power of AR in shaping the future of mobile gaming. 

💡Takeaway: Pokemon Go's success showcases the potential of emerging technology and device capabilities to create compelling, immersive gaming experiences that break expectations and build new categories of games and mechanics. Stay up to date with new product developments and you may find a new idea for how to innovate as mobile devices evolve. 

5 ways publishers can (and do) break barriers in mobile games

As Goldenberg underscored above, "new games should focus on innovative game concepts that can carve out blue waters in today's red ocean marketplace” – and publishers can take a variety of approaches to find their own impactful niche. Here are five strategies modern publishers are employing to reshape norms and stand out in the mobile gaming market, and how you can learn from them. 

1. Give an old genre a new audience 

In a mobile gaming world saturated with repetitive themes and formulaic gameplay loops, how can you breathe new life into an old genre and attract a fresh audience? Space Ape's 2023 launch, Chrome Valley Customs, offers a pioneering answer. While Match 3 is a popular mobile genre ranking as the leading genre by US consumer spend as of 2023 (mostly among middle-aged women), this specific title teaches an old genre a new trick by designing it specifically for an audience less tapped by Puzzle games – young men. 

By flipping the genre on its head and tailoring the game for male gamers through its car-centric design, Chrome Valley Customs has shaken the industry with its remarkable success. With over $1.5 million USD in monthly revenue across iOS and Android platforms, and having grown to over 1 million monthly active users (MAU) in less than a year, Chrome Valley Customs stands as Space Ape's most significant launch in 11 years – and an inspiration for publishers worldwide. 

"There are hundreds of millions of people playing puzzle games, but the vast majority of games in the space are overtly targeted at 40-60 year-old women. You have a whole bunch of men in that age group playing these games in spite of the fact that the branding and the marketing and the theme is just not speaking to them. It's a massively under-served market, in our view." Simon Hade, Founder and CEO of Space Ape (4) 

By recognizing the untapped potential in the gaming industry and innovating within a traditional category, Chrome Valley Customs has not only attracted a new demographic but has also challenged the conventional stereotypes associated with match-3 games. 

The success of what could be considered a game design gamble serves as a testament to the power of reimagining established genres and catering to diverse audiences, proving that with the right approach, even the oldest genres can find new life and appeal in a rapidly evolving market. 

As Deconstructor of Fun emphasizes, “The casual puzzle (specifically match-3) market is so crowded that it is incredibly difficult to distinguish yourself from the others…When the market seems so saturated, you need to start looking at the blue spots in the red hot ocean. That is exactly what Space Ape is trying to do with their latest release Chrome Valley Customs.” 

💡Takeaway: Innovation in reimagining established genres and reaching under-served markets can lead to unprecedented success and audience engagement in a competitive mobile landscape.

 

2. Change up the motivation to play

A major part of the game design process lies in asking yourself this question – why would a gamer play this game?

Motivations to play can vary greatly across genre, audience, and even gaming platform, yet understanding this critical driver sets the stage for developing a game that meets that need. 

That’s why Alto's Odyssey stood out upon launch in 2018 – for its unique approach to gameplay that deviates from the traditional fast-paced frenzy commonly associated with endless runners. This tranquil adventure trades in “progression” for “relaxation” when it comes to top motivations to play, tapping into a different audience need than other games of the genre. And while “Progression” was found to be the third-top motivation to play in our 2024 Mobile Gaming Spender Report, “Relaxation” holds first place, which could help explain why Alto’s Odyssey motivation pivot led to such success for developer Team Alto (and publishers Noodlecake and Snowman). 

The top motivations for mobile IAP spenders to play mobile games

After only eight months, the indie-created title already earned over $1 million USD, which its predecessor Alto’s Adventure (2016) had taken a whole year to hit. 

In terms of gameplay, Alto’s Odyssey opts for graceful movement and serene transitions, captivating players with its focus on exploration and relaxation rather than adrenaline-pumping action. The visual style of the game supports this switch, with bright and intense colors and assets being swapped with minimalist, muted, and more simple designs. 

“When it comes to the design of Alto’s Odyssey, there are a couple of different ways to think about it. At a purely visual level, our Lead Artist & Programmer Harry Nesbitt embraces a sense of clean visual minimalism in the way he crafted the world of the game. The idea with the way everything is depicted in-game is to reduce things to their simplest and clearest depiction, favoring signal over noise. In a practical sense, this means resisting the urge to overcomplicate with detail, instead thinking of ways to ground players in the game’s dunes, canyons, and temple spaces with a cohesive visual style.” – Eli Cymet, Lead Producer (5)

Alto's Odyssey introduces a low-stress progression system, encouraging players to navigate challenges at their own pace without the pressure of punishing obstacles or time constraints. By offering a gradual difficulty curve and accessible gameplay mechanics, the game prioritizes relaxation and enjoyment, providing a sanctuary for those seeking respite from the fast-paced demands of everyday life. Elevating mobile gaming to an art form, Alto's Odyssey stamps out a place for immersive, tranquil experiences in a traditionally fast-paced genre. 

Even six years later, the mark Alto’s Odyssey made on the industry can be seen, as Apple Vision Pro is bringing a new version of the game (Alto’s Odyssey: The Lost City) to its platform to put players back into that immersive, zen atmosphere in a new way.

💡 Takeaway: Finding innovation within a saturated category sometimes involves reshaping fundamental factors such as player motivations. By flipping the script on those early game design decisions, publishers can create unique and compelling gaming experiences that stand out amidst tough competition.

3. Solve old problems in new ways 

Every genre has its challenges. And as social and multiplayer games grow in popularity and adoption in the gaming market, toxicity rears its ugly head in parallel to this rise, with a Unity report finding that the proportion of players encountering toxic behavior increased from 68% to 74% from 2021 to 2023. 

In the MMO genre in particular, publishers have often grappled with issues of toxicity, hindering the experience for many players. However, Sky: Children of the Light, a visionary creation from the developers of the revered title Journey, has boldly redefined the landscape of social gaming by addressing these challenges in a refreshingly innovative manner

With over 10 million downloads on Google Play and a thriving player base contributing to $300-500k USD in monthly store revenue, Sky: Children of the Light represents an innovative approach to an increasingly-problematic issue in a popular genre. The game steers clear of traditional methods of verbal or textual communication, instead relying primarily on non-verbal gestures and expressions for players to connect and communicate. By promoting a culture of collaboration and mutual understanding, the game effectively curtails toxicity that often plagues multiplayer and social gaming spaces, offering players a safe and harmonious virtual haven.

“It’s the opt-in nature of conversation. When we look at the toxicity that can exist in the gaming space, I do think this limits that toxicity and allows people to feel safer. You can be vulnerable, you can choose to be vulnerable with other people, but you get to choose. Look at the progression of communication. It starts simple with emotes, and those emotes express something about you. Then you can get to know this other player you’re emoting with, and say, ‘okay, great, like, I’d like to sit down on a chat bench and talk with you’.” – Robert Wing, Head of community at Thatgamecompany (6)

The game design approach to empathy-first communication transcends the gameplay experience and has a positive impact on the game’s community, too, with players caring for and helping each other inside and outside of the game. The multiplayer and social atmosphere of the game can overall be described as “wholesome,” which stands in stark contrast to the negativity and disruption that can commonly be found in other multiplayer titles.

💡 Takeaway: Innovating through genre-specific problem solving can make your game stand out in a saturated market and contribute to a player-driven growth flywheel. When players discover a refreshing approach in a genre often overshadowed by consistent challenges (like negative communities), they can swiftly turn from player into brand ambassadors, propelling new word-of-mouth growth and overall improving the community atmosphere of your game. 

4. Combine genres to find something new

A tried-and-true method of innovation lies in creating new genres from the combination of others. This approach of combining genres has given rise to a new wave of games that offer players a fresh perspective, challenging conventional norms and redefining traditional gameplay dynamics. When genres converge, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, resulting in experiences that transcend individual genres to create something truly unique and captivating.

One prime example of this trend is Coin Master, a 2019 sensation that fuses the elements of a Social Casino title with competitive and multiplayer gameplay mechanics found in a Battle Royale. By merging elements from both genres, Coin Master carved a niche for itself in the mobile gaming landscape, offering a unique and immersive experience that resonates with a diverse audience.

“A three-reel slots game at its core, [Coin Master] cleverly combines a casual Saga Map and city building meta-game with effective mid-core multiplayer mechanics such as attacking, defending, and stealing… ultimately making it appeal far beyond the typical casino player.” – David Fox, Founder of Double Coconut (7

In 2023, Monopoly Go! launched with a similar approach that merged dice and board games to create another casino battler to capture both midcore and casual audiences. 

And combining genres opens up endless possibilities for new types of mobile games, beyond just the combo of Social casino and Battle royale. Another example of genre-mashups is Weapon Survivor, published by Supersonic by Unity, which merges first-person shooters (FPS) with merge mechanics, allowing players to upgrade their weapons by buying and merging parts. 

As you continue to explore new ways to stand out in the market and give a fresh take on an old genre, these titles (and many more) serve as a testament to the limitless possibilities that arise from genre mashups. 

💡 Takeaway: Embracing genre fusion and cherry picking the best elements from different genres in game development allows publishers to create unique and captivating experiences that transcend traditional boundaries, offering players innovative gameplay that is greater than the sum of its parts.

5. Break visual expectations

Games are a strikingly visual medium, and as such, one way to capture attention in the market is to break expectations by embracing fresh art styles and unique visual aesthetics. By deviating from conventional designs, mobile games have the opportunity to elevate their appeal and create memorable experiences for players.

Take Cats & Soup, for example, a (mechanically) simple game launched in 2021 where you adopt cats that make soup for you to sell. You can dress them up, decorate their home, and watch them while away the day doing activities such as chopping carrots, stirring soup, or taking a break on the hammock. 

“Though clicker games have the reputation of being boring or annoying—think Cookie Clicker, in which your main objective is to rapidly click on a cookie—Cats & Soup is more than clicking. The incredible level of detail in its design maximizes its cute factor. And it offers robust gameplay for anyone seeking a pleasant, cat-themed phone game for bus rides, waiting in lines, or other moments of downtime.” – Melanie Lau in “Cats & Soup: The Quintessential Clicker Game” (8) 

Cats & Soup is an idle game at its heart, designed to get you to the next ad watch or buy one of its subscription options. But the Ghibli-esque, chibi art style has players flocking to build their soup-making kitty kingdoms, and as such has garnered over 10M+ downloads on the Google Play Store and brings in over 600k USD per month in store revenue (according to data.ai as of May 2024). 

💡 Takeaway: It's no secret that many mobile games can feel formulaic in both their mechanics and design. By injecting a dose of creativity into the visual elements, publishers can breathe new life into even the most familiar gameplay mechanics. 

Mind the failures: Where innovation goes wrong

an illustration of a red mobile game developer falling into an abyss

It’s easy to say “just innovate!,” but the reality of break-through game design is far more complex. While innovation serves as a driving force behind the creation of successful gaming experiences, not all innovations are created equal. 

One common approach to innovation is to reimagine popular IP in a mobile-friendly way, with titles like Fallout Shelter and the aforementioned Pokemon Go being prime examples of just how successful this approach can be. However, cashing in on a cult classic isn’t as easy a road to innovation (and success) as you might think. 

Mighty Doom, launched March 2023 by Alpha Dog, was an ambitious endeavor to capture the essence of the legendary Doom franchise on mobile platforms that fell incredibly short of player expectations. From aggressive monetization mechanics, to an inconsistent visual aesthetic compared to Doom predecessors, the title failed to resonate with players and ultimately led to servers shutting down only months after the game’s launch.

Similarly, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite aimed to transport players into the enchanting world of Harry Potter through augmented reality (AR) gaming, hoping to cash in on the success of both the famous IP and Pokemon Go’s AR mechanics. While the initial concept held immense potential, the game struggled with repetitive gameplay, a lack of engaging content, and the inability to sustain long-term player interest, and was ultimately shut down in early 2022. 

And just because one publisher was successful with their game formula doesn’t mean that it’s that easy to cash in. Take Peridot for example, an AR game that tried to follow in the footsteps of Pokemon Go’s success to little avail. The game takes a new swing at AR gaming by bringing the vibe of Tamagotchi to players worldwide in 2023 and introducing breeding mechanics to add an exciting new variable to the game. However, the fun and intrigue doesn’t last for long, and aggressive monetization led to major disappointment among hopeful gamers. 

“Peridot claims that dots were created to "cultivate whimsy in the world." But as one Instagram commenter noted, that's hard to do when it costs so much. "Nobody can play due to your greedy pay to play scam," they wrote. "The 'whimsy' is at an all time low."Elizabeth de Luna, Culture and technology reporter at Mashable (9

Ultimately, publishers must treat innovation with care and always assess the risk you take when you introduce something new into the market, in case it doesn’t pan out. 

“The downside of innovation in gameplay is that you are introducing new systems or mechanics that players may not be familiar with or ultimately enjoy. An iterative design process mixed with user testing can help spot issues early in the process, but it can also stifle innovation. The trick is knowing when to seek user feedback and when to trust your gut.” – Artour Goldenberg, Director of Special Projects at Mistplay
a quote on mobile game innovation from Artour Goldenberg of Mistplay

Forging a path forward and finding new ways to innovate in mobile gaming

The realm of mobile game innovation is a dynamic and often unpredictable landscape, where both bold creativity and thoughtful execution are essential for success. By learning from both triumphs and failures in the pursuit of groundbreaking experiences, publishers can continue to explore and iterate to deliver immersive, engaging, and enduring gameplay that captivates audiences worldwide. 

As Oscar Clarke, CEO of Fundamentally Games, aptly puts it in an article on breaking the rules in game design, "Creating a memorable and successful game experience is no easy feat, not only do developers need a solid core idea, they also need to execute it well and present the experience to players in a way that keeps them hooked and becomes memorable. In a sea of other video games, standing apart is difficult, yet by breaking down the rules of the game and accessing how each one impacts the player, something magical can be created." (10)

If you’re looking to create memorable and impactful experiences with your players, reach out to learn how Mistplay leverages play-and-earn mechanics to deliver real results for publishers world wide. Check out our case studios to see how we’ve turned player loyalty into LTV results for publishers across the globe.

Sources: 

  1. https://www.gamesindustry.biz/the-accidental-inimitable-success-of-monument-valley
  2. https://www.gamedeveloper.com/design/game-design-deep-dive-creating-an-adaptive-narrative-in-i-reigns-i-
  3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2023/11/20/augmented-reality-is-transforming-user-experiences/?sh=27b7da906311
  4. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/few-thoughtsobservations-chrome-valley-customs-kevin-chapeau/
  5. https://www.dice.com/career-advice/altos-odyssey-winning-mobile-game
  6. https://ftw.usatoday.com/2022/05/sky-children-light-vulnerable-multiplayer
  7. https://www.deconstructoroffun.com/blog/2019/3/4/is-coin-master-the-new-face-of-social-casino
  8. https://pome-mag.com/cats-soup-the-quintessential-clicker-game/
  9. https://mashable.com/article/peridot-app-niantic-review
  10. https://www.pocketgamer.biz/comment-and-opinion/82174/breaking-the-rules-magical-secrets-of-game-design/

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