There’s a peculiar dynamic going on in Los Angeles this week, as E3 — the biggest gaming showcase of them all — is taking place and, once again, paying little attention to the hugely profitable mobile games market. By most estimates, mobile gaming is generating in excess of $30 billion per year, and it’s projected to eclipse consoles and the PC as the single most lucrative platform for games. And yet, cast your eye across the vast gaming landscape of E3 and you’ll see mobile as only a space filler in between the traditional AAA blockbusters and barnburners. Why, I wondered, does the form of gaming we’re increasingly spending the majority of our time and money on get so little hype and attention?
I realize that, on one interpretation, this question is tantamount to asking why there are no Oscars for YouTubers. And I want to encourage that interpretation! Because, seriously, why are there no Academy Awards for the work people publish on YouTube? Some of the cinematography and performances I’ve seen inside Google’s bottomless pit of user-uploaded content now rival the best Hollywood has to offer. And, moreover, YouTubers are rarely as inane and uncreative as the latest Tom Cruise summer flick or yet another shakedown of the Pirates of the Caribbean money tree. My instinctive answer with regard to both E3 and the Oscars is that it’s simply a matter of inertia. That’s the way we’ve always done things.
Others will tell you that it’s more complicated than that. The economics of mobile games are vastly different to those of flagship PC and console titles. Free-to-play games, even hugely successful ones like Dota 2 and League of Legends on PC, have never garnered much stage time at E3. And the big moneymakers on the mobile front are almost all free-to-play, with in-app purchases and upgrades making up the bulk of their income. It’s tricky to figure out a sizzle reel for hot new IAPs. Tricky, I would argue, but not impossible.
2016’s biggest gaming sensation was undoubtedly Pokémon Go. It was a massive global success, estimated to have produced nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2016 alone, and it was socially transformative, too, dragging many of us out of the house and giving us a reason to talk to strangers with a shared interest. At E3 that year, Nintendo wasn’t afraid to give Pokémon Go its due time in the spotlight. Now, of course, Pokémon hype is a whole thing unto itself, but I think more companies should embrace the model set by Nintendo and commit to promoting their mobile games on an equal footing to their desktop and console titles. Hell, I’d at least like to see Nintendo keep it up, but the company’s reverted to spending all its E3 time talking about its Switch console.
There’s honestly little to lose by communicating to your players in the language they understand and giving them the game experiences they actually want.
I recall an old Malcolm Gladwell talk where he recounted some unintuitive statistical findings by researchers. If you ask people what type of coffee they favor, he pointed out, they all say something along the lines of a dark, rich, hearty roast. When you look at what they actually buy and prefer, however, it turns out the answer is a weak and milky coffee. Without wishing to offend mobile game makers, that’s where we are today: with mobile games being the mild and milky coffee we actually consume but don’t feel exceedingly proud to admit to liking. E3 still thinks all we’re after is the glitz and violence of AAA console titles, and the real world is instead tapping away in Clash of Clans.
E3 doesn’t need to be entirely transformed, but I do think it can make some changes to better reflect the way that most of us game nowadays. To do otherwise would be to accept an increasingly niche role in the wider gaming landscape. I’ve got a huge water-cooled gaming tower of doom at home, but I also have a stupidly powerful smartphone in my pocket — and it’s the latter that now garners more of my time and attention. So if the established gaming companies are not going to try and capitalize on that new opportunity, odds are that I’ll end up spending more time in the realms created by small-scale developers like the people behind Egg Inc. and Tap Tap Fish.
Alas, E3 is a show tailored to the long lead times and slow-burning buildup of $60 titles that are months away from release. The resources committed to the promotion of those games still dwarf anything invested in hyping up mobile games, and the reality is that my dream scenario of E3 as the all-inclusive gaming extravaganza is unlikely to ever happen.
I’d love to one day attend E3 with the assignment of covering only mobile games and to feel as overwhelmed with new stuff as my colleagues covering console and PC launches. But at E3 2017, we had very little of that: just the announcement of a new South Park game, a trailer for a new Alto game, Alto’s Odyssey, and the utterly inexcusable travesty that is Garfield Go. Compare that against the glories of Anthem or that gorgeous Beyond Good & Evil 2 trailer, which showed zero gameplay, but was still thrilling to watch and appreciate. All I’m asking is a little bit of that extra love for the mobile gamers out there, for we are legion and we like to be flattered with beautiful imagery and hype-building showpieces just as much as our console-playing brethren.