The future of mobile gaming: thinking outside the app

Jobie Tan, Global Head of Business Development, Gaming at InMobi, says consumer behaviour has changed in the mobile gaming industry, so developers’ strategies for attracting gamers should too.

Mobile gaming has changed a lot since the introduction of Tetris and Snake in the mid-’90s. And a key driver of this change has been the rapid increase in improvements to micro- and nanotechnology, which have brought about a whole new experience with smartphones, and ushered in many new user habits.

Our average screen time is slowly increasing each year, sitting at 4 hours and 14 minutes during 2022 in the UK. Mobile users in the UK also racked up 2.21bn mobile app downloads in 2022. This tells us there are still vast opportunities for game developers to reach new customers (and retain existing ones).

However, young Millennial and Gen-Z consumers have changed the rules of engagement when it comes to interacting with mobile games – they often want to “try before they buy”, or rather “play first, download later”. They want to know they’ll enjoy the experience before committing to downloading the game.

This behaviour puts pressure on developers (and advertisers) to find new and engaging ways to deliver ‘instant games’ – which also changes the content of the player journey.

The updated stages of the player journey
Fundamentally, the what of the journey remains the same: discover, engage, activate and return. However, there is now a difference in how players go through these stages. The main difference is that the process has exponentially accelerated.

Discover: Players want to discover a game organically, i.e. happening across it as they go about their (online) day. This point is critical, as mobile gaming penetration in the UK has fallen in the last two years as Covid-19 has eased off.

Engage: Players expect engagement to be seamless, quick and easy, offering instant gratification. If not, engagement rates will quickly fall, especially in the UK where only 13 per cent of Brits play for one to seven hours per week, and only 5 per cent play for seven to 14 hours per week.

Activate: From the start of their experience, players need to be entertained. The game needs to be sticky, i.e. memorable after the moment has passed. For mobile, favoured genres among players are casual/puzzle games, and board/word games. These games do well on mobile because they’re typically lightweight, and require less concentration or time commitment – which means they’re ideal for playing on the daily commute, while waiting in line or during TV ad breaks.

Return: Being sticky is just the beginning. Games that have a loyalty strategy baked in, ready to build a meaningful community/audience, are more likely to find success in driving up loyalty intentions among players. Think about the virality of Wordle, where gamers can play against family and friends, creating referrals and building community.

New player journey challenges
This “play first, download later” behaviour also presents some critical challenges for developers to address: 

  • You still need to invent and build a sticky experience
  • You must still invest in building a meaningful and engaging audience
  • You still need to build a loyalty strategy to keep gamers coming back

But you must now do all of these while enabling organic discovery and make it easy for players to “try before they buy”.

One of the key reasons developers struggle with these challenges, especially with a younger audience, is that many are only trying to solve acquisition and monetisation (activate and return), but very few are solving discovery and engagement.

Unlocking mobile gaming starts outside the app
Getting your game in front of more eyeballs (or a new market) relies on your mobile-first discovery strategy. In a world where mobile’s share of digital advertising is expected to be
as high as 70 per cent by 2026, competition will only increase.

One creative strategy you can use is highlighting a largely unutilised (but always seen) part of the mobile experience – the lock screen.

For instance, using the Android lock screen, you can deliver compelling content, games and experiences – removing the friction of a multi-tap journey to let users find content buried inside app folders and libraries. To do this, you can use purpose-built platforms for organic discovery and instant gratification that enable this strategy, setting your game apart from the competition.

Surfacing games to the lock screen is a solution that addresses the challenges facing the industry today and helps to set up mobile gaming discovery and engagement in the future.

The lock screen experience is just one of many innovative technologies emerging in 2023. As mobile gamers demand faster, more immersive ways to sample their favourite games, advertisers and developers need to stay one step ahead of the curve and experiment with these new out-of-app experiences before they become mainstream.