Pocket Gamer's top 5 biggest moments in mobile gaming of 2019
2019's biggest mobile trends
Well, 2019 is over and done with and goodness me I'm glad. I don't know about you lot but I've had a rough ride of a year and the hits just kept coming. I'm glad that it's over and done with and I'm also glad that years don't just cycle around like a jangling, nightmare carousel. Goodbye 2019, ya filthy animal.
All of that said, there was some good to come of the dying breaths of the last decade, and as we leave the awkward twenty-teenies behind and head into the roaring twenties, we have the perfect time to reflect on some of the biggest moments in mobile gaming which took place in 2019.
This isn't a new thing, of course, regular readers will remember that last year we reflected on the surge of battle royales, VR's wane, Infinity Blade's exit, Apple stepping up their App Store 'Today' section, and - of course - our own snazzy redesign.
As with each of those, the biggest five moments in mobile gaming of 2019 have completely shaken up the way we view mobile gaming, and they've seen us tip-toe toward the big gaming singularity - where our mobile devices are as capable of running big-bucks AAA games as those powerhouse PCs which many of us have tucked away at home.
2018 was the year where we sobbed at the funeral of Infinity Blade - our first taste of AAA, mobile-exclusive gaming, but 2019 saw the duality of mobile, console and PC continue with the evolution of the battle royale. Fortnite and PUBG continue to make headlines, and there are certainly a few other titles which have made claims toward their thrones.
Of course, the fact that we're mentioning them above means that we're definitely not mentioning them in the list. That said, if you do get through our list and think that we've missed a massive moment then do drop us a comment below, or ping us a message on our Twitter.
Anyway, click on through below and that's us out for 2019 - unless you're reading through this in the future. With this momentous (for better or worse) year behind us, let's look ahead toward 2020, which will inevitably include just as many surprises.
Auto-chess is the new hotness
If you said to me in 2018 that some of our biggest, hottest stories would be about strategy games I'd have given an approving nod, and maybe even a cheeky wink. If you'd said that it was instead, very specifically, some sort of chess which is played automatically, well, my jaw would have dropped. But here we are, a year where we've had Auto Chess, Dota Underlords and Chess Rush be some of the most unexpectedly successful stories on the website.
As it turns out, Auto-Chess is the ultimate way for larger companies to test the mobile lay-of-the-land for the deep meta gameplay of their MOBAs, and while MOBAs have certainly seen some success on mobile it is undeniable that these moves from Valve (DOTA), and Tencent (Riot, League of Legends) are not only snapping at the heels of Epic (40% owned by Tencent) published Auto Chess, but also testing the grounds for their competitive audiences.
Regardless of the greater plan for the genre, Autochess emerged suddenly, and we found ourselves drowning in it at the mid-year point. Could anybody predict it? No, much like Battle Royale the year before, the genre's capture of mobile - or indeed gaming - was completely unexpected.
Who knows if we are better or worse for it, but I'm certain that we've not heard the last of the genre, or of MOBAs as we sign off 2019.
Apple Arcade: When curation closes the door
As we said in 2018, Apple has been massively upping their curation game over the last few years. Both the Apple App Store and the Android Google Play stores have gone through massive evolutions over the last while. Back when I started playing mobile games you could view the app store in chronological order, something you can no longer do. Whether you view the changes as crippling blows or required curation, new game creators can only be found on the App Store and Google Play landing or Games pages if they've had at least one person give the product a thumbs up.
In a time when games are releasing onto storefronts after 6-8 months of restricted access (be that regional or closed distribution) it means that what's new and what's recent - or even recently updated - is a massive blurry area. This means that these curated areas are still quite flooded and hard to browse, be that for premium or free-to-play games.
Apple's solution to this came in the form of Apple Arcade, a subscription-based service not too different from the other subscription services out there - Game Pass, Netflix, etc - except in some of the extra caveats. Games releasing on Apple Arcade would be Apple Arcade exclusive on mobile - the premium games which they bring into the service won't appear on the standard store, and won't appear on alternative, Android stores or other subscription services.
For those of us who already have Apple devices, and regularly dip into premium games, it is an amazing service. Outstanding premium games like Oceanhorn 2, Mini Motorways and Tangle Tower are all included in the $4.99 fee, and they even gave a month's free use for the more trepidacious of us. It answers the curation problem, it brings Apple into the subscription service, and it delivers a jam-packed selection of games which - hopefully - they'll keep topping up and twisting around into something even more special.
However, for those of us who primarily game on Android when it comes to mobile, it leaves us feeling even more estranged from the frontline of mobile premium. Is this the death knell of Android Premium Gaming?
It's probably not, but it certainly shows that you can't wait around while your competitors are working away. Google have, indeed, released their Google Play Pass but, well, it soft-launched in America and it was heavy on lifestyle apps, so it has been a hard beast to follow.
Maybe 2020 will bring clarification from Apple about their greater plans for Apple Arcade, and maybe Google will turn some of their wealth toward a gaming-only Play Pass, complete with exclusives, but we'll have to wait and see.
The Perfect Mobile Design Formula: Rush Wars, Elder Scrolls Blades, Mario Kart Tour & Wizards Unite
Whenever I talk about the mobile games industry in relation to the wider gaming industry I always underline that it. is. incredibly. fast. paced. Video games, in general, are rapid-moving. From 1999 until now console games went from a war between 64-bit graphics and polygons to even smaller budget titles toting graphics unimaginable in those years past. Mobile gaming was hardly a thing in 1999 - Snake had only launched two years previously.
You could argue that mobile gaming was built on the shoulder's of giants, and you'd be right. But the annual renewal of mobile phones created by phone-contract culture created a hardware and specifications race which saw us go from 1997's Snake through to a pretty high-quality GTA III port in 2011. In 2014 we had the impressive Assassins Creed Identity and Modern Combat 5 looking like of-the-time console releases.
But if we step away from the games which use the hardware to try and push console-quality visuals onto mobile we find a deep bed of other games which moved the industry as a whole forward - for better or worse. Casual gaming, microtransactions, free-to-play all cut their teeth on mobile before moving to other platforms, and the clean UI required - and minimalism which came from that - spread wider too.
All along the way, these elements were rolling into other genres and game types, but one thing was obvious: so much of it was being in the right place at the right time. The longer your production cycle, the more likely that you'll miss the mark. 2019 has really hammered this point home for the industry.
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite had everything that it needed to succeed three years earlier. It was running on proven technology, it had a - dare I say it - more suitable for AR brand behind it, and its community elements were well thought out, and well designed. The Harry Potter universe is deeper than the Pokemon universe due to the potential that it has: magic is the ultimate justification for something happening 'just because'. But, despite the fact that they had an incredibly renowned brand behind them, one which is intrinsically tied to Earth more than Pokemon, it just didn't do the numbers.
In other areas, Nintendo's Mario Kart Tour did - in my opinion - a great job of bringing over the controls and essence of a kart racer, but the subscription model was scary and unpalatable. For that to be in there, even after the learnings from closed betas, showed a blind confidence which hasn't worked well in mobile ever before and didn't this time.
Meanwhile, Elder Scrolls: Blades and Rush Wars launched strong, but the former's paywall and adoption of chests, and the high expectations of the latter's developer, meant that one saw a massive redeveloping and the other was completely canned before the year was out.
What is the perfect formula for mobile design? I don't know, but speed, engaged community, and consistency are all well-established pillars.
What's in a name? The Switch Lite
If you said back in 2018 that there'd be a Nintendo Switch - the console notorious because you can pop off the controllers, Switching it from docked to handheld mode - released in 2019 where you can't actually do the ol' Switch'ing thing then I'd have been surprised, to say the least.
But, after all, this is coming from the company who still hasn't formally put the 3DS to bed, and who has gone from being seen as an outsider to mobile handset gaming to being the most mobile phone minded of the big three console publishers. Where's Gran Turismo Mobile? Where's Halo: Mobile Combat? Where's Death Stranding Mobile?
The answer to the question is that they aren't there. However, we do have Mario Kart Tour, Fire Emblem Heroes and Dragalia Lost - all generating big bucks for Nintendo alongside their incredibly strong console performance this generation. The Switch Lite plugs a gap between mobile and console gaming which many others are trying to fill: A mobile-only version of a device which can run stalwarts like Skyrim, The Witcher 3 and Dark Souls (before you even get onto Nintendo's amazing catalogue) - it's a sign of things to come for certain.
The Singularity: Google Stadia
I said a few entries back that when I talk about the mobile games industry I talk about its speed, and about how it is advancing at a rapid pace. When two things are racing towards the same point there's inevitably going to be a point where they cross over, and a further point where the two become one... The Singularity.
2019 marked the year where Google did that thing that Google does with technology and threw a big ol' cluster of Google Bucks at individuals to try and thrust ahead of the competition in technology. What competition, you ask. Well, the general computing competition. Google Stadia was (as Google Glass was to AR) the be-all and end-all of video gaming - a platform which could cross over almost any screen, delivering the same experience from your mobile phone through your lounge TV up to that oversized cinema-TV your neighbour has got.
Did it work? Sure, sure.
Did it catch on? Well, there are some caveats that have thrown ethereal spanners into the cloud-powered prodigy.
As it turns out the discussion about required latency and internet speeds became a bugbear, even though Google spent a long time discussing that this was the most viable attempt at cloud gaming yet, the average person doesn't feel like their internet is as good as they would like and that's enough of a doubt to not even engage.
Soothing words of reassurance travel slower than worries and bad news, and so the 'launch' of Google Stadia was a slow start - something that most consoles don't have to contend with. I remember working in stores when the Xbox One launched, and word of the always-on internet connection had permeated through the populace even though the feature was removed for launch - that non-feature influenced many decisions between Xbox One and PS4 even though it was removed long before launch.
If Stadia's (latency) performance stays consistent over the next few while then there may be an uptick in adoption rates, but even if Google didn't quite pull off cloud gaming on the grand scale that they wanted to then they still moved us closer and closer to the ever-approaching Gaming Platform Singularity.
More on that in 2020.