clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why the biggest mobile games are released in December

A look at the attention economy of mobile games

Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

December 2017 was one of the iOS App Store’s best months. We saw iPhone and iPad versions of Inside, Gorogoa, Life Is Strange, Sid Meier’s Civilization 6, Reigns: Her Majesty, Arena of Valor and Fez reach the App Store within the span of a few short weeks.

Nintendo released Super Mario Run right before Christmas in 2016, joining other big games like Bully: Anniversary Edition and The Walking Dead: Season Three. While many of those games are ports or reimagined takes on popular console titles, they are major new releases for the mobile market. And they often hit both iOS and Android near the end of the year.

What makes the final quarter, and December in particular, so appealing for mobile games? We asked developers and took a look at some of the mobile games launching near the end of 2018.

And yes, it’s been a big December this year as well.

Revenue and exposure

The App Store and the Google Play Store aren’t physical locations, so there’s no need to have product on the shelves in the lead-up to the holidays for gift shoppers to consider. Why, then, should releasing a well-known or much-hyped game during the holiday season be any different than launching in the spring or summer?

It’s all about money and visibility, and the confluence of the two. The week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve drives enormous revenue for Apple, thanks to the piles of App Store and iTunes gift cards given as presents and stuffed into stockings.

Apple reported App Store spending of $890 million between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve in 2017, with another $300 million spent on Jan. 1, 2018, alone. People who receive a new iPhone or iPad as a holiday gift may also be on the hunt for new games to show off their fresh hardware.

Which games are they likely to see when they pull up the App Store? The biggest and newest ones, of course. That’s why developers push their games out in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and why there’s been a growing surge of notable mobile releases of late.

”The biggest advantage is exposure,” explains Ryan Holowaty, chief operating officer of mobile developer and publisher Noodlecake Studios. “During the holidays, the amount of eyes on the App Stores increase substantially. This is from a combination of sale awareness, new device activations, and gift card redemption. Suddenly, lots of players are looking at the store and either have a shiny new device they want to load with games, or have a bunch of credits to spend on games they might not usually buy.”

It’s a flood of interest that may not be there throughout the year. Holowaty says that his company’s games usually see about a 20 percent increase in revenue during December. The CPI (cost-per-impressions) rate soars during December as well, which means that free-to-play games that rely on ads can become more profitable for a short time.

Granted, that ad value suffers in the subsequent quarter, but the extra revenue is there for companies that embrace the holiday rush and try to get their games in front of as many eyes as possible. The competition among mobile games, in December, is for attention almost as much as sales.

Another factor is the App Store’s annual holiday cutoff for developers. Apple stops approving new submissions and updates for games during a small window, and the highlighted apps are locked in for a short amount of time. It’s a holiday break for the Apple team, in essence. The window runs from Dec. 23-27 this year, and has landed on similar dates in the past. If you’re lucky enough to land on the charts during these dates, the competition can’t knock you off.

Game developers vie to have one of the big mobile titles that secures a spotlight during that span, ensuring that scores of extra people see their game. Holowaty suggests that hitting this window may not be as critical as it used to be, however.

”During this time [in the past], the features would not change for an additional week and allow you to get even more bang for your buck,” he says. “However, over the years, Apple has changed this length of time and how the lockdown works. With the new dynamic storefront that has the Today tab and changing features, I would not be surprised if we see more rotating content during the lockdown period.”

If there’s even a chance of extra attention and sales during this span of time, however, you’ll see developers compete to try to win it.

Lost in the flood

The higher stakes of December mean that big-name companies dump significant amounts of money and effort into promotion during this time period, creating a situation where games with a large audience, or a potentially large audience, have a huge advantage in resources when competing for store placement and attention.

The December rush benefits games whose publishers can throw money at promotion, or titles that are ports of games people already know or may want on their phones. It’s a time for big games to get bigger, not for smaller games to make a name for themselves. Players notice many of the games being released in December for that circular reason: They already know about the games, and recognize the name or property behind them.

It’s no surprise that indie games or quirkier titles might actually decide to stay away from a December release so they don’t get trampled among the giants rushing for a bigger slice of the pie.

”There is a lot of ‘noise’ with a large number of competing titles being launched at the same time,” Andrei Hanganu, business development manager at Atypical Games, explains. “Without the right visibility, a game is doomed if launched during the holiday season.”

His studio creates the Sky Gamblers combat flight sim games, with Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders 2 released in November.

“The high-profile games have an easier time gaining visibility, so they can avoid the noise issue and capitalize on the higher downloads,” Hanganu says. “Sometimes this means that smaller games get drowned out, so we try to never launch a game in December if we can.”

With a Super Mario or Civilization game launching, or even critically acclaimed indie favorites like Inside or Fez coming from other platforms, what chance does a smaller mobile exclusive have to contend for one of the rare App Store feature slots?

”These companies also have the weight to throw around that smaller indie teams do not,” Holowaty explains, citing mobile gaming giants like Disney and Supercell. “They can invest millions in marketing outside the store, as well, and push their titles to the top of the charts — thus maximizing exposure for organic players who look to the Top 10s for recommendations to download. The storefronts are a business, in the end. They know that if a high-profile title is coming out with a huge marketing machine behind it, they will reap way more rewards by putting them front and center over some small indie game.”

There’s an incentive for these companies to focus on bigger games: Apple and Google take a cut of every game sale, so it benefits them to feature games that they believe will reach the most players.

Holowaty points to Supercell’s Brawl Stars as an example. Supercell is the developer behind mobile smash hits like Clash Royale and Clash of Clans; the company tends to get a lot of promotion from the platforms when it releases a game.

“Last time Supercell launched a title, the App Store gave every feature spot to them, so I would avoid the 12th [of the month] on like the plague,” Holowaty said before the release.

”I have steered many developers away from launching in December for this exact reason,” he continued. “When there is a wealth of choice, you really have to be confident that both of the storefronts will give you decent placement and that your game can hold its own against the top-tier mobile developers — which in many cases are now AAA studios that have a mobile arm.”

The big December releases of 2018

The Elder Scrolls: Blades was poised to be December’s highest-profile mobile game, translating a AAA-caliber role-playing experience to smartphones and tablets, but Bethesda has pushed it back into 2019.

It might have been a wise call, especially considering Fallout 76’s troubled launch and brutal reviews, but it also likely came at a cost. A new Elder Scrolls game is the sort of title that gets the most out of December timing. Blades was also featured during an Apple presentation, which means it’s very likely to get prominent placement in the App Store when it debuts.

Instead, Supercell’s aforementioned Brawl Stars is currently the biggest release of the month. Brawl Stars is the latest original offering from the successful mobile publisher, which has turned out only a few games but earned massive bank from all of them.

This particular free-to-play game, a 3v3 arena-style brawler/shooter with a potential esports hook, spent more than a year and a half in a soft-launch period before Supercell thought it was fit for release.

”Since soft launch, we’ve changed the game from portrait to landscape, completely revamped the controls, made major changes to the progression system, upgraded 2D environments to 3D, and added community-made maps, giving players a seat at the table during the development process,” Frank Keienburg, the game’s team lead, says.

Brawl Stars is sure to get a lot of attention this month, but according to Keienburg, holiday timing wasn’t a factor in Supercell’s scheduling. “We launch our games when they’re ready, and the holiday timing hasn’t impacted our decision-making,” he says.

The game’s December debut is certainly not going to hurt, however.

Electronic Arts just released Command & Conquer: Rivals on Android and iOS, and the mobile exclusive uses the classic real-time strategy franchise as a jumping-off point for a streamlined, Clash Royale-esque experience. Our own Colin Campbell went hands-on at E3 in June, and wrote that it “feels like it’s honoring the legacy of more complex PC-based games of yore, while accounting for the limitations of a smaller screen.”

Acclaimed indie adventure game Gone Home — ranked #31 on Polygon’s list of the 500 best games of all time — just made the move to mobile last week.

“There’s something really nice about being able to curl up with Gone Home like you would with a good book,” Steve Gaynor, co-founder of developer Fullbright, tells Polygon. “We love Gone Home on PC and console, but there’s something really unique about being able to hold this little window into another place in your hands. I think there’s an added intimacy to the experience when you can take it with you to your favorite, coziest place and enjoy the experience on those terms.”

Other ports that made their way to mobile devices in December are Tropico and the indie coding game 7 Billion Humans, along with the brand-new Tony Hawk’s Skate Jam. Japan will also get in on the App Store holiday action, with Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box and Romancing SaGa Re: Universe both launching in the country this month.

November also provided some notable games, including tower-defense sequel Kingdom Rush: Vengeance and the aforementioned Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders 2, along with Assassin’s Creed Rebellion and NBA 2K Mobile Basketball.

A holiday release doesn’t always make sense for mobile games, but it’s an opportunity to pick up additional buzz for a debut for well-known games and established brands.

That is Scopely’s plan for Looney Tunes: World of Mayhem, a team-based battler that launched last week. The developer hopes that the licensed brand will help drive the game onto plenty of devices, even amid heightened competition.

”It’s a competitive market,” Scopely’s Jori Pearsall says, “but if you believe in your product and brand, the holiday run-up is a great time to be part of the crowd.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon