What if the mobile game blockbusters never leave the app store charts?

Shane Schick

I am trying to remember the last hit song that I wanted desperately to stop playing on the radio, but in an age of streaming music the only thing that comes back to me are the really old ones. When I was a teenager, for example, there was "The Sign," from Ace of Base, which enjoyed at least 14 weeks in the No. 1 spot on my local station. Even the DJs seemed sick of it, but in the grand scheme of things it's nothing like the enduring success that certain mobile games enjoy.

Recently The Wall Street Journal published a story highlighting the fact that, not only is the mobile gaming sector dominated by a few large players, they are having a hard time competing with their own success. My favorite quote came from a consultant, Tero Kuittinen, who noted that "Clash of Clans," "Puzzles and Dragons" and "Candy Crush Saga" are reaching a new level of industry maturity, if that's the right term for it: 

"At the end of 2013, people were excited about the longevity of these big three," he said. "But now it has been over two years, and it is beginning to look a little creepy."

I completely agree. Imagine the great indie movies you'd miss out on if all the theaters were still showing the last Batman movie, or if a John Grisham novel from two years ago was still pushing new authors off the bestseller list? It would be depressing for creators and consumers alike.

Mobile games, of course, have a different kind of life cycle, one which the entire industry is still trying to figure out. They're also being developed at a time when the form factors to distribute and enjoy them are rapidly changing. It's not unlikely, for instance, that some of the most popular mobile games that began on smartphones and moved to tablets may do equally well or better in their smart watch version, or the smart eyewear version.

The more important difference, perhaps, is that access to the market remains wide open to developers of every size. Most will never have the marketing budgets to compete with the likes of Rovio or King, but no one has a monopoly on the kinds of ideas that will create a new app store sensation. It may become increasingly rare to see a breakout mobile game from a complete unknown, but that's true of almost every creative field. 

What the seemingly never-ending hold of the biggest mobile games may do is force indie developers to reconsider their notion of "success." Should it really be creating the next Angry Birds, or should it be creating a mobile game with enough downloads and engagement to support advertising or some other viable monetization stream? Or is it less about money and more about building a base of fans, a community of people who will enjoy a mobile game and reward it only by spreading the word or offering helpful feedback? To paraphrase the late pop music radio program host Casey Kasem, mobile game developers should keep reaching for the stars, but they can still get pretty far if they keep their feet on the ground.--Shane