The Rise & Rise of Free-To-Play Mobile Gaming

The mobile gaming market is massive. At the end of 2019, the total video gaming industry was worth over $150 billion globally. Almost half of that revenue was made up of mobile games. Last year’s growth – 10.2% to be exact – confirms huge consumer demand. But it is also indicative of unprecedented investment in the industry, ensuring consumers’ thirst for new and exciting games is being served.

It’s time to “make a game”

If the huge potential of the mobile gaming mark wasn’t already clear, analytics firm AppAnnie compiled a report called “State of Mobile 2020” and in it revealed that 72% of App Store spend was directed at mobile games. It prompted AppAnnie’s Managing Director Paul Barnes to advise anyone who has just learned to code to “make a game”.

One of the defining factors why mobile gaming has seen such growth is due to upfront app fees becoming almost obsolete. Nowadays, mobile games have an attraction that is immediate because they don’t cost anything initially. Last year, of the 250 most popular apps, only 6% had an upfront fee. The rest were monetized in other ways.

What’s perhaps most compelling is that these staggering revenues have been made through games – like popular releases Fortnite, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Apex – being made available without an upfront cost. Through adverts displayed within the game or in-app purchases that can unlock extra features, new levels, and additional characters amongst other things, these free-the-play games can monetize amongst an engaged audience hungry for more.

A global phenomenon

The mobile gaming industry has been particularly adept at understanding its audience and satisfying expectation. It’s a fervent market. There has been a 35% increase in the amount of time we spend on our phones compared to 2016. That’s seen us use our phones for three hours and forty minutes every day on average.

And the phenomenon is the same the world over. New RPG release Fate/Grand Order, a free game with in-app purchases was Japan’s top performer in 2019 while PUBG was the world’s 2nd biggest earner thanks to its boost in revenue as a result of its launch as Game for Peace in China.

Indeed, Asia is the leading continent for free-to-play games, expected to generate $53.3 billion in profit in 2020 (equating to 60% of the gaming market’s total). North America is second and Europe is third with $11.5 billion expected in free-to-play gaming profits this year.

The dominance of the free-to-play market has been driven by advances in mobile technology. Rapidly developing smartphone operating systems and hardware have allowed game developers to be more expansive, providing the market with even more variety.

Coincidentally, the gameplay and immersive graphics once the reserve of consoles and PCs are now being witnessed on phones too. Nimian Legends: Brightridge, Returner 77, Darkness Rises, Tekken Mobile and Dead Trigger 2 have all been lauded for their high-definition worlds, sporting graphics that would not look out of place on today’s latest consoles. It’s perhaps why the market for free-to-play games on PCs and consoles has begun to contract.

Free is the norm not the exception

Unsurprisingly, it’s a model that’s been successfully rolled out across other markets seeking consumers via their mobile phones. The iGaming industry, which sees a large proportion of its customers using a mobile device, has made some of its most popular games available for free such as slots like Quick Hit and Double Diamond. Customers can then choose to sign up for a real money account.

Similarly, online exercise brand Seven allows users to follow some 7-minute workouts for free before offering the option to purchase additional workout routines. Spotify, the music streaming service is also free to use. However, customers can get a premium product and turn off adverts by signing up to an account.

Afterlight (photo editing), Yummly (recipes and shopping), Audible (audio books) and Strafe (Esports) are others which join literally hundreds of apps that are free-to-use and monetized through subscription services, in-app purchases and add-ons.

The year-on-year growth of the free-to-play game industry shows its revenues are going to keep rising. When you consider that in the US we now spend more time on our phones than we do watching TV, it’s easy to understand just how huge the potential is.

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