From Tetris to Candy Crush: The History of Mobile Gaming

The global games industry is a rapidly evolving market with an estimated worth of $160 billion in revenues by the end of 2020. Nearly half of this revenue will be generated from mobile gaming, the fastest-growing sector. With this continuous growth, it’s no surprise that venture capitalists and game investors have contributed over $9.6 billion to the industry, with that amount predicted to rise to $250 billion by 2023. Boom Fantasy, for example, raised $2M million from ESPN in 2019 and many larger game studios have been acquiring smaller players over recent years. So where did it all begin? What made mobile gaming so successful? 

The Origins of Mobile Gaming

Many people think that the first mobile game was Snake, launched in 1997 on the Nokia 6110, but that is not the case. The first mobile game was introduced three years earlier. In 1994 the Hagenuk MT-2000 had a version of the popular arcade game Tetris pre-installed on the device, which marked the beginning of what would become a majorly successful and profitable industry.

The First Mobile Game

Since the launch of the first mobile game, thousands have followed, with over 900,000 active games on the App Store, making up 22% of the total. In 1997 when Snake was first introduced, it became a worldwide phenomenon due to its simple gameplay, addictive premise and the fact that it was suitable for all ages. The game even made a comeback in 2017 with the relaunch of the Nokia 3310 at Mobile World Congress. Being the first games on handheld phones with simple gameplay and short session lengths, Tetris and Snake are predecessors of the genre known today as ‘hyper-casual games’, which are once again populating the app stores.

space invaders on old mobile phone

Multiple other widely-popular games followed 1999 to 2005 such as Alien Fish Exchange and Space Invaders. One of the milestones in mobile gaming devices of the early 2000s is the release of Nokia’s N-Gage phone: a device that combined gaming with telephone features. The N-Gage allowed playing a myriad of games, even 3D titles such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. The phone that had to compete against the Nintendo Game Boy with its gaming offers was discontinued in 2005 in western markets.

Fast forward to 2007 when the iPhone was launched and one year later, with the introduction of the App Store, a new era of mobile games was born. When the App Store first launched, it offered only 500 apps, such as Texas Hold’em and Super Monkey Ball. With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, mobile game developers were able to make use of multitouch-controlling. In 2009, the first smartphone game to reach global popularity in a short amount of time, Angry Birds, set the bar for mobile gaming in the 2010s. At the start of the new decade, many video game publishers started to use apps as a second screen extension and as companion apps for video games such as Assassins Creed or Grand Theft Auto. 

Modern Day Mobile Gaming

In 2012, one of the highest-grossing mobile games of all time was introduced to the app stores; Candy Crush, followed closely by another great success, Clash of Clans. As the numbers of new mobile game releases continue to rise, new technology is used to diversify and stand out, as can be seen in AR-based games such as Pokemon Go and Wizards Unite. Nowadays, a myriad of different genres of mobile games can be found in app stores, with many different approaches to define the mobile gaming taxonomy. The striking development of mobile games has led to an audience that does not only consist of core gamers. Today, a large share of mobile gamers belong to a target group which does not define themselves as gamers but are drawn towards the casual and hyper-casual mobile game genre. 

Mobile Game History Timeline

Today, there are over 6 million apps available. The majority of apps can be found on Google Play, with 2.57 million apps, followed by 1.84 million apps on the App Store, 669,000 apps in the Windows Store, and 489,000 apps on Amazon in 2019. The striking growth of the app stores is equivalent to the global rise of mobile games in the market. Due to the increasing number of app releases, not all of them manage to survive very long. Finding the right monetization strategy can often become a major obstacle that many apps, unfortunately, fail to master. Roughly 94% of free mobile games monetize through ads and the share of games that integrate an advertising SDK keeps rising.  App Annie reports that the number of apps with an SDK rose from 83% to 89% between January 2019 to December 2019 among the top 1000 app games in the App Store and Google Play Store.

Monetization of Mobile Games

Most mobile games in the app stores follow a free-to-play or freemium approach. To monetize the game, their strategy involves either in-app purchases or in-app advertising. When it comes to mobile ads, the AdTech industry is evolving fast. Nowadays, ‘in-app bidding’ is often used to reduce issues such as high ad latencies and many more inefficiencies met in monetization. In-app bidding is the mobile counterpart to desktop header bidding, a method enabling publishers to offer their ad inventory to various exchanges at the same time. This method makes the bidding process more transparent for all parties involved. However, a lot of publishers still struggle with its implementation either due to limited understanding of the technique or technical implementation issues.  This is where hybrid solutions come in, bridging the gap between old and new monetization methods. You will also find open-source tools such as Prebid an organization that PubNative is actively contributing to, which supports publishers with the integration of in-app and header bidding technologies to their apps.

If you are interested in implementing in-app bidding or learning more about which mobile monetization strategy would best fit your gaming app, get in touch. 

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