Mobile games are video games designed for and played on mobile devices, including smartphones, feature phones, pocket PCs, personal digital assistants (PDAs), tablet PCs, and portable media players. Mobile games tend to be distinguished from handheld consoles, which are portable devices developed to play video games and for which any utility beyond playing video games is not an expectation but a feature. Mobile games largely started as built-in games for specific mobile phones, especially as each mobile phone had its own operating system, which made the development of mobile games for multiple phones incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
A variety of developments in technology have made mobile gaming more accessible and engaging for the player, including network technologies, connective technologies, mobile phone processing and graphical capabilities, an increase in the standardization of operating systems, and the development of marketplaces for applications.
Mobile games have largely been limited in comparison to those games developed for consoles (PlayStation, Xbox) or PC (Windows or Mac). This is in large part due to the limitations of the system resources of a mobile device: specifically, the compute processing unit (CPU) and graphics processing unit (GPU), the random access memory (RAM), and the resolution of the given phone display limit the potential applications and mobile games that can be run on the phone. Further, the mobile device's battery can impose limitations on the game; namely, if a mobile game requires heavy use of system resources, these resources can require a large power draw and rapidly drain a mobile phone's battery. This can limit the amount a user plays a mobile game and direct players to other, less intensive mobile games. These considerations also go into the design and development of a mobile game.
In some cases, mobile gaming and portable gaming (or handheld gaming) are comparable. However, mobile gaming and handheld gaming are typically quite different. Mobile games are developed for a series of phones, which are not necessarily developed for game playing. While through the history of handheld games, they have been developed for a single device or a series of similar devices, making them more playable and offering a greater depth in the gameplay.
In newer handheld devices, the CPU and GPU power have increased the playability of handhelds, giving users a chance to play AAA console and PC games on handheld devices, outstripping the capability of mobile phones, and offering physical buttons for ease of gameplay and high-resolution screens. These consoles have offered competition, if limited, to the mobile game market, due in part to the depth and playability of the games. However, handhelds remain more expensive to purchase—especially as most individuals have a phone capable of playing mobile games—and the games played on handhelds have a higher upfront cost.
Limiting the playing time of a mobile game usually beats the point of them because mobile games have been, since their inception, largely free-to-play or based on "freemium" business models. These business models require players, generally, to spend a certain amount of time on a game and enjoy playing the game enough to either watch advertisements to continue playing, pay for specific in-game perks or plays, or sign up for a subscription for similar perks.
With the relative ease of developing mobile games (when compared with traditional video games for consoles or PCs), as the popularity of these games grew, more developers rushed to get their games toward the top in ratings of iOS's App Store and Android's Google Play. The result was, many developers released their games as free-to-play or freemium and then found different ways to monetize their games. This is not to say all games were free initially.
Some games have had upfront costs, particularly more recently as mobile games have found themselves developed to be cross-platform (where the game can be played on mobile device, PC, or console, to encourage people to play together). These games may include costs in-game, such as for in-game items or power-ups, but generally, there is a cost to purchase the mobile game. This cost, similar to purchasing traditional video games, is an upfront cost, and any additional purchases are generally not considered important for playing or beating the game.
Freemium games, or games that are free to try, offer a small portion of the mobile game for free and keep parts of, if not the majority of, the game behind a paywall. Similar to a traditional game demo, the freemium model typically gives the player a certain amount of gameplay before requiring the player to purchase the game in a one-time purchase.
The freemium model is borrowed from the same model used in business software since the 1980s and is sometimes distinguished from free-to-play mobile games. This distinction tends to be made between games that require a user to pay to finish a game, versus games that offer in-app or in-game purchases to make playing the game easier or more achievable.
The latter type is still considered free to play, as the base game remains free, and in-game purchases tend to be focused on gameplay mechanics. For example, many games that are free to play offer a player a certain number of plays in a day or a similarly determined time period. If the player wishes to keep playing, they often have to purchase more plays. Other mechanics may see a player's progress toward completing the game slowed, while the game offers the players boosters or power-ups to complete the game faster. Similarly, a game can limit the number of actions or turns a player can take in a given period of time, with in-game purchases to allow the player to advance on the same day.
Despite free-to-play being commonly associated with mobile games, with many of the monetization features associated with popular mobile games, the monetization model had previously been used in various PC video games—particularly those developed by independent studios lacking a robust marketing budget and striving to rate on games charts—but have been popularized by mobile games.
Advertising-supported models look and act a lot like free-to-play, such that the game is free for the player to download, but in this monetization model, the game will serve the player with periodic and persistent advertisements. In some cases, the game will offer the same mechanics as free-to-play, such that the player is limited in their daily gameplay but can choose to watch an ad, or series of ads, to continue playing the game. Many of these ads are for other games and are playable ads, which work to interest a player in their game and have links to an application marketplace where the game can be downloaded. Similar to other advertising models, the more popular a game is, the greater rates a given mobile game can charge from an advertising network. Common forms of in-app advertisements include the following:
- Playable ads: These are interactive ads that give potential players an opportunity to interact with gameplay, offering the player a game experience prior to downloading.
- Video ads: Video ads are offered to give players a chance to receive an in-game reward.
- Display ads: These tend to be static or animated ads that come in a variety of formats: banner, native, or interstitial.
Subscription models offer a base version of a mobile game with limited features, but a monthly subscription fee is required after a certain point or to unlock greater features of the game. This is similar to the premium model in which after a point in the game, the player is required to purchase the remainder of the game; except, instead of the one-time purchase, the player is required to subscribe to the game. This type of subscription model has been taken in other video game markets, often called "battle passes" and have similar functions that see a player purchase new game content yearly.
Although it is not surprising, many mobile games pursue a hybrid monetization strategy. Especially as mobile games increase in their sophistication and development costs. A hybrid model will see applications combine in-app advertisements, in-app purchases, subscriptions, or up-front purchases. This mix of features has proven popular, as it allows players to choose whether they value making an in-app purchase to avoid watching ads and continue to play, or if they are happy to watch an ad, while others are happy to pay for a subscription and avoid both. How a hybrid model is implemented depends largely on the game but can be dependent on the genre of the game, as players come to expect certain types of monetization strategies from a given genre, and using a monetization strategy different than the rest of a game genre can turn players off of the game.
The oldest mobile games were puzzle games, and these types of games have remained popular. However, mobile handset connectivity and technology have improved and increased the types of mobile games that can be played. However, the technology constraints that remain on handset technology have limited the file size of mobile games, and therefore, the games have not reached the length or intricacy of console and PC games.
This is slowly changing, however, with evolving network technologies, such as the introduction of 5G to mobile networks and faster speeds over wireless networks, games can be hosted in the cloud and delivered over the network—as opposed to being hosted locally, or on-device—and the player can play a large and intricate game, such as those experienced on console or PC, from a mobile device. These networks have also enabled cross-platform play, allowing players of mobile games to play against players of the same game playing on a console or PC, as has been done with popular games such as Fortnite and Player Unknown: Battlegrounds (PUBG).
Multiplayer games allow several players to collaborate and play together either over a local network, such as via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or RF signals, or over a remote network. These types of games can be collaborative, competitive, or allow players to gamble money against each other. Some of the most popular types of these games include multiplayer battle arenas (MOBAs), massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), battle royales, and card strategy games (also known as trading card games or TCGs).
In a MOBA, the player controls a character, often called a "hero" or "champion," with a unique set of skills and abilities. These games offer similar mechanics and gameplay as their PC and console cousins, such as DOTA 2 or League of Legends, but lack the depth of mechanics and strategy on mobile due to the constraints of the handset.
MMORPGs allow a player to create or play a pre-made character in which the player develops and powers the hero through battles against non-player characters or other real players. These games tend to have worlds divided into zones with various fantasy creatures, and players go through to kill bosses, collect in-game equipment, and complete various quests. This genre is popular on PC and consoles and is growing in popularity in mobile gaming as the handset technology enables greater depth for the genre.
At the end of 2019, PUBG Mobile broke records for mobile gaming, recording 400 million players with about 50 million daily average players, and as new titles have come out in this genre, it has remained popular. In a battle royale game, as the name suggests, a user is dropped on a large map with various resources (which depend on the game) and fights against other players (in some cases, AI players, or bots, will be used to fill out the number of players in a game).
Card strategy games, also known as trading card games, require players to use a deck of digital cards with varying power levels and capabilities against an opponent's deck. To build out a deck, a player must either defeat opponents to obtain new cards or, depending on the game, spend money to unlock new decks. Battles are against either AI opponents or human opponents in special arenas, which can impact how the cards react against each other. These games are usually capable of cross-play with the same games played on PC or console.
Arguably, the largest game category for mobile games is the casual games category. These games are most closely associated with mobile gaming—such as Angry Birds or Candy Crush—and see around 58 percent of mobile gaming users play the game. These games can include puzzle games, slots games, bingo games, or similar styles of games, and feature bright colors and addictive gameplay that do not require users to learn too many mechanics or any in-game lore.
Once a player has played one of these games, the mechanics of other casual games become familiar, allowing a player to enjoy several titles at a time. These games are also typically played while people have moments of free time, which is part of their appeal. These games also tend to dominate the advertising dollars spent in mobile gaming, with game titles categorized under casual often seeing 28 percent (in 2023) of mobile advertising. Due to these advertising numbers, as well as the relatively low barrier to development entry, this genre tends to attract the most development, with more new games in the genre each year.
One of the larger sub-genres of casual games, puzzle games are classified as any game that uses pattern recognition to solve a problem, such as any "three in a row" game or games like Tetris or Angry Birds. These games find their way onto handsets of people who "do not like video games" or do not consider themselves "videogamers" but enjoy puzzles. And, as people of all ages can play and enjoy puzzles, these games tend to be safe for people of all ages, while offering users an appeal of requiring a certain amount of logic and pattern-matching to win, which, for smaller children, can be considered learning.
Hyper-casual games do not usually require users to add input, and the simpler the game mechanics, the better. The games often use minimalistic images in a cartoonish art style with colorful palettes that look good regardless of the phone screen's resolution, and the games offer rudimentary progression systems, which keep people engaged. Popular titles in this genre include Dodgeball Duel, Terrarium, and Hole.io. There are blurred edges of the genres, and what counts for a hyper-casual or casual game tends to be the level of focus and input a player is required to play the game and how much background information a player needs, with the less input or information a player needs, the more hyper-casual the game.
The hyper-casual category includes a number of genre. In simulator games, users create their own virtual world, but more commonly, these types of games include some farming of resources, which allows a player to upgrade a character, facility, or capacity to gather more resources. In combat games, such as Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter, a player needs little knowledge to play the game against various AI players. And in racing games, such as Rush Rally or Asphalt 9: Legends, players race a car, sometimes using on-screen inputs or various sensors in the phone to allow a user to use the phone as a steering wheel.
Another popular mobile game category is the augmented reality game. In these games, the player aims their handset camera at a location and views the computer-generated graphics imposed upon the background through the handset's display. The player is then able to interact with the generated image depending on what the game mechanics are. One of the earlier games in this genre was Sky Siege, in which a player shot down virtual helicopters flying around a room.
However, the genre did not reach popularity until the release of Pokémon Go, where players traveled to real-world locations to capture virtual creatures. The Pokémon Go game also paired location-based systems, which had the added benefit of, unlike most video games, requiring the player to move through a given location and in some cases, encouraging players to explore their city by placing important locations at specific landmarks.
Location-based games are any mobile games that use localization technology, such as GPS, to integrate the player's position into the game concept. These games tend to be paired with augmented reality, as they further incentivize location-based play, offering virtual graphics over a real-world location. One of the earlier examples of this kind of game was Niantic Labs' Ingress, in which players are divided into two competing factions that struggle to control "portals" at real-world locations. Niantic Labs is the same developer that would use the lessons from Ingress to develop Pokémon Go.
Multipurpose games, or educational games, work to offer players—generally, children—fun gameplay and an opportunity to learn. These games frequently have additional life-improvement purposes, such as learning a language, improving or rehabbing physical health, or acquiring healthy habits.
Some estimates suggest that anyone with access to a smartphone has likely played a mobile game. Games are available to anyone with access to a smartphone; therefore, they have (as any popular video game segment has done) raised concerns and raised interest in the potentially misunderstood advantages of mobile games.
One potential benefit found in mobile gaming has been the ability of games, especially in the casual and hyper-casual categories, to help raise a player's mood. This could be due to the game's colorful design, the feeling associated with meeting a milestone in the game, or the feeling associated with passing a difficult level or completing a given game. These feelings can follow a person throughout their day and can help players keep their anxiety under control while finding a moment to relax during stressful moments.
As smartphones are more ubiquitous, and as many games offer a free-to-play format, the games tend to be seen as easy to access. Once downloaded, games launch on most phones in seconds, allowing the user to play at any moment in their day and to stop playing with similar ease. Further, with the variety of games and developers, players can find a game that appeals to them fairly easily, while new games are being developed all the time to continue to offer players increased variety. The list of games offered on mobile devices is unrivaled by other gaming methods.
Similarly, mobile games tend to be suitable for players of all ages. This includes children, teens, young adults, and senior citizens, who can enjoy games in their favorite genre or find new games more interesting. Especially as games in the casual and hyper-casual categories tend to be easy to play and easy to master, they can appeal to people of all skill types despite most mobile games targeting engaging teenagers and young adults.
Most popular mobile games offer some a challenge, be it mystery solving, puzzles, anagrams, or complex strategies. These challenges engage a player's brain and their problem-solving faculties, and the consistent engagement of the brain in these ways can increase their brain capacity over time, as well as help with memorization and analysis, helping the player keep their brain sharp and healthy. Further, some games can help players increase their spatial awareness or improve focus.
Similarly, playing video games has been shown to improve the attention span of the player, and mobile gaming could offer a chance for players to continue to increase their attention span. This is especially true in fast-paced games where players focus their attention to the game, switching focus from one segment to another rapidly, helping the player learn to stay alert and focused for a long period of time, which can, in turn, increase other activities.
Games will offer players socialization options, including competing against friends and social options, such as voice, video, or text chats in which players can talk while playing together. Similarly, communities around games build up in which players can engage with each other to find friends who enjoy the same games and help each other get better at games or solve particularly difficult challenges. Similar to helping build social communities and for players to engage in social communities, mobile games that require players to work together to succeed can help those players practice team play and thereby increase their ability to work together as a team to achieve an objective.
Despite the various advantages of mobile video games, concerns remain regarding how safe mobile games can be for children. These concerns can be varied. For example, some are concerned about the content of ads a child may be served, especially if those ads contain explicit content or content a parent is concerned about a child viewing. Because many of the ads served on mobile games are clickable and bring a player to an app store to download the game, this concern can dovetail with a child downloading a game the parents do not want them to play.
Similarly, the social features of a game can foster friendship and community, but that can also be a place where a child may encounter explicit content. Chat functions have been game features of concern for some parents, as similar features on online games and other games have been used for cyberbullying or luring children.
As with every version of video games, there are concerns about the impact of gaming on children and adolescent psychology. This includes concerns around children and adolescents who find themselves presenting traits similar to addiction in playing games, including ignoring everything around them to play games, thinking about playing the games when they are not playing the games, and playing games to the detriment of the studies and overall academic performance. This can be especially difficult for those who are not succeeding academically and instead, find that appreciation for their efforts in mobile games. And, as many know, learning and education are typically not addictive while games are acknowledged to be so.
However, in some cases, the very mechanisms that make mobile games (or any video games) addictive have been used to make learning better and more addictive in its own way, in a process often called gamification. Although, mobile games (educational or not) have been noticed to make players more antisocial. When the content of a game includes fighting, killing, gunfire, absurd plots, and fast rhythms, the games are believed to negatively impact students' moral and psychological health.
In several cases, the in-app purchases that are part of the mobile game model can be detrimental to individuals. Especially those addicted to gaming or addicted to gambling, the use of real money in games, either to continue playing or for those addicted to gambling where they can gamble real money in the game. This can be difficult for those struggling with a gambling addiction. And in the case of children, if the game does not have robust child safety features and is linked to a parent's credit card, they can ring up a large tally to keep playing their favorite game.
There are concerns that, despite some mobile games emphasizing and requiring physical activity, many games keep people sedentary rather than moving, impacting the player's physical health and well-being. A lack of physical activity can also lead to social isolation, as players do not want to leave their house or their mobile phone.
The first game release for a mobile phone was Tetris for the Hagenuk MT-2000 handset in 1994. However, mobile games would not reach a certain level of mainstream attention and traction until Snake was released for the Nokia 6610 in 1997. Technology evolved with mobile phones, as phones were developed that could connect to the internet, which did little for the phone's ability to browse the internet; however, it enabled users to play board games, such as tic-tac-toe and Connect 4.
In the 2000s, one game that brought a new type of game to mobile and foreshadowed the kinds of games that would become popular was Alien Fish Exchange, in which players had an alien fish they had to breed. With the ability for phones to connect to the internet, players could trade and sell fish to other players, or the fish could be sold to in-game restaurants. Around the same time, the popular arcade game Space Invaders was released for mobile phones.
These early games and phones were rudimentary—the screens were relatively small and monochromatic in most cases, and the games were limited in their sophistication compared to the games that would later be developed. Further, due to the plurality of mobile phones, with each using its own operating system, it could be incredibly difficult for mobile game developers to develop a game capable of being used on a majority of handsets. Instead, many games came pre-loaded on a phone, or else a mobile game focused on a specific handset, such as early Blackberry phones or Nokia models, which would use similar or the same operating systems across handset models.
As mobile handsets increased in sophistication getting to 2004, some large game publishers, such as Electronic Arts, began investing in mobile games and their developers. One of the biggest mobile game titles to come out in 2004, and one that continues to be a popular title in mobile gaming, is Asphalt GT, released by Gameloft. Racing games as a genre would become a major genre for mobile gaming.
While this period established a lot of the basics of what would become the hallmark mobile games and solidified the market of mobile games, the period also saw a wide array of experimentation. The early 2000s saw media artists, start-ups, and academic researchers experiment with various mobile devices and location technologies to generate games that were based on the player's location as much as the game itself.
For example, in 2005, a group called Mobile Radicals designed a version of the popular Pac-Man game, which was played in the city streets using Nokia phones equipped with an RFID reader. The player would run around to collect pills, which were discs with RFID tags, and avoid ghost players who caused the Pac-Man player to lose the game. However, these games tended to appear and disappear relatively quickly but anticipated some of the technologies that would be later introduced in popular mobile games.
Arguably, the biggest development in mobile gaming was not the handsets themselves but the App Store. Before the App Store, the closest a handset got to a regulated storefront for applications, including mobile games, was the iTunes store for the iPod. Otherwise, most games were sideloaded from the web, came pre-installed, or else they came with a limited storefront. But in 2008, a year after the introduction of the iPhone, the App Store would be introduced and launched with native apps for the iPhone, and allowed third-party developers to develop apps for the phone.
The first App Store launched with 500 apps. And the idea spread, as different app clients were introduced. Android introduced Google Play, Blackberry introduced its App World, Microsoft introduced its Microsoft Store, and Amazon introduced the Amazon App Store. The various digital distribution systems increased the ease of use of all kinds of applications, moving them into the mainstream and making them a function of owning a smartphone. Mobile games further benefitted by being offered in an app store, which offered a level of trust for the end user.
The app stores also made it easier for the developers to develop applications and mobile games for the handsets, especially as the number of applications offered through a digital storefront became a vector for competition amongst the main operating systems of the handsets. These applications further the utility and capability of the handsets, which kept the phones in the hands of the users longer and ensured the hardware would continue to develop alongside the applications. Mobile games, as one of these applications, benefitted as the games were able to develop in their sophistication and immersiveness. And given the many safety features of the various app stores, they gave users increased confidence in downloading and trying various applications and mobile games.
The dueling phone operating systems (or in some opinions, ecosystems) emerged around the same time as the app stores. These operating systems allowed developers to develop for a smaller pool. In the case of iOS, developers had to develop for Apple's handsets, of which there were limited models, making development easier. Meanwhile, for Android, developed by the Open Handset Alliance, while the manufacturers of the handsets were various, the operating system was open source and offered developers a chance to develop for various devices. Both operating systems released their own digital storefronts.
Around this time, the competing phone operating systems—as phones were no longer defined as much by the manufacturer of the handset, but by the operating system the handset ran—including Blackberry (before it moved to Android) and Windows phones that would struggle to compete, in part because Apple's App Store and Android's Google Play were incumbent forces with large market share, and developers were used to developing for the platforms. Through this period, the two operating systems would prove too powerful.
More than platforms for applications and mobile games, the digital storefronts offered constant connectivity, which allowed game developers to profit off advertising, allowing them to distribute their games free of charge while making them profitable for the developers. This was an important part for mobile games because free distribution models allowed the games to get into people's hands by offering ease of use for the end user. This gave anyone with a smartphone a chance to try games they may otherwise not try, leading to mobile games increasing in popularity.
First released in December 2009, Angry Birds would go on to become one of the most popular mobile gaming franchises and one of the most successful freemium software of all time. By 2015, the game had over three billion downloads among all entries in the series, which resulted in several spinoffs and lines of merchandise, including movies, theme parks, and soft drinks, making Angry Birds one of the most popular video games of all time.
This game came during a shift in people's lifestyles, as people saw an economy rising around the development of mobile applications built for iPhones and Android phones, and by 2014, usage statistics showed that the smartphone was shifting from being a device for connectivity and mobile gaming to lifestyle. Mobile games continued to grow throughout the decade, and by 2020, an estimated 2.6 billion people were playing games on their smartphones. Further, it is estimated that by 2020, mobile gaming accounted for 60 percent of the overall video game market and generated greater revenues than other games. This is in part explained by the convenience of mobile games, especially as many people already own a smartphone capable of playing mobile games, whereas other video games require specific consoles or PCs to play.
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