If 2014 was a year defined by singularly significant mobile games, 2015 was a year that struggled to live up to its predecessor. That’s a strange thing to say in an industry as big as ours, but really, no one game managed to change the landscape in the way the biggest titles of 2014 did. There was no Flappy Bird in 2015. No Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.
But even on a smaller scale, there were some games and trends that seemed to be everywhere in 2015.
One of the year’s biggest mobile hits was also one of its biggest surprises. Bethesda Softworks, the company behind the Fallout franchise (as well as The Elder Scrolls, DOOM, Dishonored and more), announced from the stage at E3 that players could take an early trip to the Wastelands with Fallout Shelter, a mobile game that launched that night and had no prior announcement.
This became a very big deal very quickly for a number of reasons. A major AAA console publisher had never announced (and released) a mobile game from their press conference at E3 before. The game shot to the #1 spot on the App Store’s Free chart instantly, and flew up the Top Grossing chart, where titles rarely change and nothing ever climbs fast. Regardless, Fallout Shelter reached #5 Top Grossing in its first 24 hours.
The end of Fallout Shelter’s success was just as interesting as its beginning. It climbed a little higher, peaking at #3 on Top Grossing before falling out of the Top 10 altogether just 11 days after release. There was a slow descent from that point, and as of this writing, the game sits at the #74 spot. Still respectable, but certainly not the chart-topping hit that it once was. So what happened?
The game wasn’t designed with longevity in mind. Players got to the end-game much too quickly, leaving them with little to do. Fallout Shelter still performs well, and has added a fair bit of content in later updates — but its quick rise and fall from the top of the charts presents developers with an interesting case study on why designing with long-term interest on mobile is a must.
If 2015 had anything that was a hit like Flappy Bird, it was Mr. Jump. While neither endless nor randomly generated, its blistering difficulty and score-based competition make it an apt comparison. Also, everybody was playing it, and it became a hit seemingly out of nowhere.
Mr. Jump was created by a small three-person team who had released a handful of nifty games before it, but nothing that had taken the world by storm. It’s impossible to say why Mr. Jump become the App Store darling that it did, but once you start playing, you’ll refuse to stop. An auto-running platformer, Mr. Jump challenges you to complete jumps with painfully precise timing, displaying a percentage at the end of each failed attempt to let you know how close you were to finishing the level. After a few hundred tries, you may beat it… only to find out that the next stage adds another gameplay mechanic you’ll need to master in addition to the simple jump.
Fiendishly difficult and with brilliant level design, Mr. Jump ended up doubling its content shortly after release and has since made its way to Apple TV. There’s no word on what’s next for Mr. Jump, but its developer 1Button released the slicing puzzler Super Sharp later in the year, and both games were selected by Apple for their Best of 2015 roundup.
Hearthstone (and Its Shadow)
We live in an era where the idea of “finishing” a game just doesn’t make sense anymore. And if a player is going to keep playing, a developer needs to keep developing. No company has personified that more this year than Blizzard with their frequent and ongoing additions to Hearthstone.
After a strong 2014, Hearthstone’s second year saw the addition of two new adventures (Blackrock Mountain, The League of Explorers), its second massive expansion (The Grand Tournament), and an incredibly popular weekly game mode that shakes up the rules every time (Tavern Brawl). Not bad for just twelve short months!
Blizzard has done a fantastic job of demonstrating how to engage customers on an ongoing basis, but they’ve done something else too — and frankly, we’re surprised took so long. In 2015, their popular CCG inspired a legion of similar games that are now playable on the App Store and Google Play.
We’re not talking clones, mind you; just games of a similar ilk. Collectible card games that require a bit more brain power than the “fuse and evolve” standard that mobile developers had adopted in recent years. 2015 featured plenty of titles that try to appeal to a Hearthstone-style gamer. World of Tanks: Generals, Earthcore: Shattered Elements, and Heavenstrike Rivals all came out this year, and each put their own unique twist on card-based combat.
We’re sure to see more games like this in 2016. The Elder Scrolls Legends will likely destroy your free time whenever that arrives — assuming Hearthstone’s next expansions, adventures and modes don’t get you first.
New Apple Hardware (that you probably didn’t buy)
Apple revealed two new products that could support apps in 2015: Apple Watch, and the latest iteration of Apple TV. When they were first announced, game developers were giddy with anticipation. If they could establish themselves as early leaders on the latest tech that everybody had to have, they could be sitting on top of a gold mine.
Only… who do you know that actually owns an Apple Watch?
Apple has been coy with sales figures around both devices so far, and speculative reports have veered too wildly to really get a good sense of things. That said, I’ve yet to see a single person with an Apple Watch on their wrist, and the number of Apple Watch game pitches we’ve received at Gamezebo practically came to a standstill just weeks after launch.
The situation for Apple TV doesn’t seem much better. Eli Hodapp at Touch Arcade wrote a pretty comprehensive accounting of the struggles developers are facing on the system, with the most popular games “making $100 a day or less.” Having a storefront that struggles to highlight new games, early adopters (myself included) are left wondering what (if any) new content is being made for gamers.
Both the Apple Watch and Apple TV have plenty of potential, but for developers to do their part, there has to be an incentive. Killer apps can help sell software, but who is going to make them if the chance of success is low-to-unknowable?
When it came to mobile storefronts this year, just like the real world, Star Wars was everywhere. New games, new updates, new apps — you couldn’t avoid it if you tried. (I’d have hated to have been a Trekkie in 2015.)
Not everything that was released was great, mind you, but there’s no denying that Disney tried to make sure there was a little something for everyone. Wish you could have a Kylo Ren or R2-D2 emoji? There’s an app for that. Wish you could trade Star Wars cards with your friends like it was 1978 all over again? There’s an app for that too. There was even a Chewbacca / Contra crossover from Konami, and a BB-8 robot that’s controlled entirely through your mobile phone. Star Wars was everywhere.
Interestingly, while there were a number of games that featured content from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Star Wars Commander, Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes) and one that even tried to fill out some the connective tissue between the old films and new (Star Wars Uprising), there wasn’t a game that was specifically set within the confines of this year’s movie.
The Verge’s Andrew Webster was curious about this too, and got the answers straight from EA’s Star Wars GM Justin McCully: “Movie tie-in games have rarely been successful… We’re going to be inspired by the entire universe of Star Wars, and create different experiences for different players.”
Apps for Gamers
We often here the term “games as service” when talking about the mobile space, but we rarely talk about services for games. 2015 took some interesting steps to change that.
To give you a sense of what I mean, let’s talk about YouTubers and livestreamers. Anyone who was interested in capturing video from their mobile devices in 2014 would have had to jump through a ton of hoops, buying different equipment and different software in the hopes that maybe they could find a setup that was easy to replicate. As the guy behind Gamezebo’s brief experiment with Twitch, I’ll happily go on record as saying it was a nightmare.
By contrast, in 2015 we saw the addition of all sorts of services tailor-made to streamline the process. Apple created ReplayKit, a simple framework that lets developers add video and audio recording to their games (including player footage via the FaceTime camera). Google released the YouTube Gaming app that, on Android, lets gamers livestream their play sessions with the tap of a button. Even Mobcrush is becoming huge as a mobile-focused alternative to Twitch.
And it’s not just video apps that we’ve seen in 2015. Jason Citron – the man whose OpenFeint network once dominated social interaction in mobile games (and was later sold for $104 million to GREE) — has recently launched Discord, an voice and text chat client designed exclusively with gamers in mind. Think of it like Slack meets Skype, but in a way that lets you chatter away with your Vainglory friends as you crush the opposing team.
With so many companies focused on making mobile games, there’s a very real chance that the next million dollars won’t be made by fighting for shelf space on the App Store, but by offering peripheral services that enhance the player’s experience.