Why game content is more important than quality, style and social features

Note: Each week, Inside Mobile Apps’ Kathleen De Vere delves into evolving trends in mobile games and apps. The current topic, games as a service, is part of an ongoing effort on the part of mobile and social game developers to maximize engagement and maintain dominant positions on app rankings charts.

Some of the most profitable mobiles games available today aren’t games at all — they are entertainment services.

If that seems strange, consider the average review of mobile card battle games. The genre seems to defy all the lessons developers have learned about what makes a “good” game: graphics quality is low, the user interfaces are unintuitive or cluttered, and the battles (such as they are) don’t require any user input beyond pushing a button.

Despite all that, these “core games” titles earn incredible amounts of money. At the height of its popularity in Japan, GREE’s card battle game Driland was earning more than $26 million a month through in-app purchases. DeNA’s hit Rage of Bahamut has spent 10 months at the top of the Android top grossing chart, generating average revenue per daily active user (ARPDAU) in excess of $1.00. Card battle games like Zynga’s Ayakashi Ghost Guild, ATeam’s Dark Summoner and Applibot’s Legend of the Cryptids are also immensely profitable.

These games are popular and addictive because what they are selling is not the basic gameplay, but an ongoing service that keeps players returning. A game-as-a-service provides endless additional content, a player community and a persistent competitive environment. Financially these titles are supported by microtransactions or monthly subscription fees.

Always something to do.

MOBA games like League of Legends, Valve’s Team Fortress 2 and paper-based collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering all have two things in common. They are all extremely popular and are all ongoing entertainment services. Mobile card battle games like Rage of Bahamut offer the same experience on a simplified scale.

The real “gameplay” for many these mobile games today is in the extras: the free bonuses, daily levels, multiplayer raid bosses and limited time special events. For dedicated players, there is always something new to do and it’s easy to become addicted — not to the game, but to the never-ending stream of content and the diversion it provides. Just introducing service components to an existing game can create a huge boost in monetization and retention.

Last summer, Big Fish Games added a Daily Mode to its hit game Fairway Solitaire. Every day, the company puts out two new levels. One is free, the other is bought with in-game currency. On the weekends, the levels that need to be bought might be longer, or offer extra completion bonuses. If a player completes enough of these daily courses, they can use their completion bonuses to unlock even more content.

According to the Fairway Solitaire team, Daily Mode was explicitly created to give players a never-ending feed of new content. Big Fish Games tells us Fairway Solitaire’s engagement and retention are “outstanding.” The game’s daily active user (DAU) count has doubled since Daily Mode was introduced.

Previously, game developers have placed a lot of importance on adding social features to games, but these games aren’t popular because their players can share their high scores on Twitter and invite their Facebook friends to play. Games like Fairway Solitaire inspire great loyalty because their players can always find something to new to do in them.  

The goal of a properly designed game-as-a-service should not be to make the best, or most social game possible, but to create a game where it is nearly impossible for the player to become bored with it. That is the “secret sauce” that makes Magic: The Gathering, League of Legends and Rage of Bahamut so profitable.