Why Does No One Play Mobile Games Anymore?

Ethan
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THE STATE OF MOBILE GAMING

Remember 5 to 10 years ago when everyone used to play mobile games. You had cult-like friend groups that swore by Clash of Clans Clash Royale or Geometry Dash. They would spend all of their allowed iPad time or iPod time on these games and that’s all they would talk about at school and at hangouts and basically anywhere else they met up. Don’t ask me how I know. 

And those were just the tier 1 games, you also had a slew of tier 2 games that were sometimes even more popular. These games didn’t have as dedicated fan bases though. They were more of something that you would play on the bus or at lunch or whenever you had a bit of free time. I’m talking about games like Temple Run, Subway Surfers, Flappy Bird, Crossy Road, 2048, Andry Birds, and so much more that I can’t even remember because those days are unfortunately long gone. 

At first, it seemed like it was just these OG games that were dying out as they had simply run their course. But, the more time that passed, the more it became clear that mobile games in general were falling out of favor. Of course, we’ve seen newer games like Among Us and Fall Guys clones have their 5 seconds of fame but none of these games have had the same sticking power as the OG games. 

interest graph looks for Among Us


Here’s how the interest graph looks for Among Us for example. As you can see, it was just one massive spike. 

interest graph for Clash of Clans


For perspective, here’s how the interest graph for Clash of Clans looks like. It’s much more of a mountain of interest that lasted multiple years than just a singular spike that lasted months. 

the interest graph for Geometry Dash game


Now, I do want to note that Geometry Dash has made a comeback out of nowhere which I think is largely due to extremely high-quality videos made by people like Samifying and MathGenius that have reminded millions of OG players just how fun this game was. 

But aside from this exception that we don’t even know how long will last, mobile gaming is very much a shell of its former self which is extremely confusing given that smartphones have just become even more popular throughout all of this. So, why does no one want to play mobile games anymore? 


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THE GLORY DAYS

To answer why no one plays mobile games anymore, we first have to take a look back at what made mobile games so popular in the first place which I think can be boiled down to 3 reasons starting with the network effect. None of the games that I played as a kid were something that I found on my own on YouTube or the App Store or something. 

All of the games that I played as a kid were games that people around me played. People at school, people on the bus, people at hangouts, and also a few dads who wanted to be cool. Nowadays, I never see anyone around me playing mobile games. My only exposure to mobile gaming is through ads from games like Raid Shadow Legends which is obviously not as effective. This isn’t to say that the network effect ever changed. 

The number one reason that people download apps today is also because of the people around them. But, what did change was the type of apps that benefitted from the network effect. Nowadays, it’s much more common for a social media app or TV show to benefit from the network effect than a mobile game. And that brings us into reason number 2 which is that mobile games used to have larger than-game goals. 

Take Clash of Clans for example. Progressing in the game wasn’t just about personal growth or something, it was much more competitive. You wanted to be the first guy to get to town hall with 10 or 3000 trophies or beat hexagon force in your friend group, and that was just on a micro-scale. The most successful games also had larger macro goals. You wanted your friend group to beat a rival friend group in a clan war or your clan to have more champion league players or whatever the case may be. 

Zooming out even more, you wanted your favorite YouTuber to be the one that won those massive YouTuber Clash of Clans and Clash Royale tournaments. This competitive spirit probably doesn’t seem like that big of a deal but it made all the difference. Why you ask? Well, because no game is always 100% fun. 

With any game, there’s high points and low points. But, for these games with larger than game goals, you didn’t just quit when things got a bit slow or boring because you still had larger than game goals. You still had to beat that rival clan, you still had to get to the legendary league, you still had to beat Theory of Everything 2. 

And these macro goals gave these games an insane amount of sticking power. It wasn’t until entire communities got bored of a game and its overarching goals that they would actually die. Speaking of communites, mobile games back in the day also benefitted from massive YouTube promotions and I’m not talking about paid promotions. I’m talking about dedicated YouTube channels that covered these games. 

People like Chief Pat, Galadon, Molt, Clash With Ash, Orange Juice, BjCanDive, Flammy, and so many more. Not only did these channels help these games grow in popularity but more importantly, they helped them stay relevant through ups and downs. This sort of community is what has kept games like Minecraft so popular over the years. But, a lot of these channels nowadays don’t even cover mobile gaming anymore or even post for that matter. 

And we have yet to see a new wave of YouTubers take their place. For example, there is no such community for Among Us or Fall Guys or some other new mobile game. Combine this lack of community with very little network effect and no larger than game goals, and it’s no wonder why these games have fallen out of popularity. But all of that only tells half the story which brings us into the developer side of things. 


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PREDATORY MONETIZATION

One of the main reasons that mobile gaming became so popular in the early 2010s is because they were free to play. As long as you had a smartphone or tablet, anyone could download a mobile game and start playing. This isn’t to say that developers didn’t make any money though. If your game was super popular and you had super enticing in game purchases like SuperCell, you could also become super rich. 

But somewhere along the line, monetization became more important than the user experience and the enjoyability of the game itself. At first, this was just something that manifested in tier 2 games. You know, those airplane mode games like Subway Surfers that filled up time. Initially, the economics of these games were simple. You usually had a lite version of the game and a full version of the game. 

The lite version of the game was usually free and came with fewer levels and maybe some ads here and there. The ads weren’t all that serious though as developers weren’t really trying to make money off of ads. Their number one goal with the lite version was to convince people that the game was actually fun and worth spending a dollar on to get the full version, and the full version is where they actually made their money. 

But all of this changed with the rise of free to play tier 1 games like Clash of Clans, Clash Royale, Pubg mobile, Fortnite mobile, and so on. There was like a direct inverse correlation between the popularity of these games and people’s willingness to pay for mobile games. If something as built out as Clash of Clans could be free, why did they have to pay for these stupid tier 2 game. 

All of a sudden, trying to convince free users to pay for the full version of the game became magnitudes harder. These developers had to pivot and figure out a way to monetize free users and the easiest way to do that is to just show a bunch of ads. And this is what has led to the app store being filled with thousands of games that are actually somewhat fun but completely unenjoyable because you see an ad every 30 seconds. 

As such, one of the main reasons that mobile gaming has plummeted is because of corporate efforts to monetize and restrict these games. It wasn’t just tier 2 games that made this transition. Tier 1 games would also make this transition. Tier 1 games didn’t plague their games with a bunch of ads but what they did do was make the game worse and worse for free players. 

Now of course, these games were always easier to progress in if you spent money but it was also realistic for a free player advance and do well in the game. But, in the second half of the 2010s, this would all change as these games essentially became pay to win. 

Clash of Clans for example currently costs $143,000 to max out. And a recent Clash Royale update increased the cost to max out by over $14,000 by itself. Back in the day, it didn’t cost that much to max out the entirety of Clash of Clans. 

And the worst part is that the stuff that costs the most money doesn’t add anything to game play or enjoyabilty. It actually has to do with upgrading walls or getting cards from level 14 to level 15, things that add no value to the game other than just making these companies more money. 

These companies probably thought that they were doing the right thing for the company as revenue continued to go up but they were also simultaneously alienating free players who over time wanted nothing to do with mobile gaming. 


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THE X FACTOR

We’ve clearly seen massive changes within the mobile gaming space both on the community side and on the developer side, much of which has been to the detriment of mobile gaming as a whole. But, while these shifts explain a lot, I think there is actually an X factor that we have yet to consider which is shifting demographics. 

I would bet that most of you guys watching this video are likely in your early to late 20s and are reminiscing about the good old days of mobile gaming back in middle school and high school. And that’s not surprising given that the primary demographic that plays mobiles games are teenagers. 

And that’s why it’s important to consider just how different modern teenagers are compared to 10 years ago. Back in the day, smartphones were just starting to gain steam meaning that most of us had to beg our parents for a smartphone and when we finally did get a smartphone it came with a bunch of caveats. 

We may have only had a gigabyte of data, our phones may have had parental controls enabled, and maybe we weren’t allowed to use social media apps like Instagram and SnapChat. I remember one of my elementary school friends, his parents would turn off the wifi at like 8 or 9 because there was simply no need for internet at night. So, if he wanted to use his phone after 8 or 9, all he could do was play offline games like Geometry Dash. 

Not everyone had the same restrictions but the restrictions were widespread enough that one of the only things that everyone could do with their phones together was play family friendly mobile games. But a lot has changed since then. 

Nowadays, smartphone have become a necessity and if you’re over the age of 12, you probably have a smartphone. Parents have also become a lot less strict when it comes to phone usage. Not only do modern kids have less strict screen time but they also have unrestricted access to the internet and social media. 

This isn’t to say that parents have become more irresponsible per se but simply that there is no other choice. I mean like what are you gonna do, just shelter your kids from the internet till their 18? First of all, that’s just a massive disadvantage in the modern age, and second of all, it’s not even possible as kids are more tech savvy than ever and know how to bypass any and every restriction. 

As such, the focus has shifted from blocking what teenagers have access to to teaching them how to be safe and responsible on the internet. In other words, the average teenager nowadays has access to social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat and that’s where they spend all of their time. Aka, the casual teenage mobile gaming market, the once largest market for these games, has completely disappeared. 

And the teenagers that are still interested in playing games usually have console or PC for that leaving modern mobile games in no man's land. It’s really quite shame because playing these games were some of my best childhood memories. But the reality is that the mobile landscape has massively shifted for gamers, developers, and casual smartphone users and that’s why no one plays mobile games anymore.

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