Subscription-based gaming has been a thing for many years now, from platform-specific options that allow for online play as well as a catalogues of titles to play, à la Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus; to game-specific options like Battle Passes for the likes of Call of Duty and Fortnite. Whether you agree with the concept of them or not, they have brought about a huge change in the gaming space – allowing games to have continuous content be implemented throughout their lifecycle. This is equally true on mobile.
Louise Shorthouse of Ampere Analysis – which specialises in data analytics over a wide range of areas – discussed the ideas and benefits behind subscriptions with us, emphasising the adaptability of the model within the mobile gaming market.
"[Subscriptions are] extremely dominant in mobile games," she says. "Most of the top-performing games have some form of subscription option. They work well because they don't stand as an immediate barrier to new players, but they give more dedicated players or willing spenders something to invest in to improve their gaming experience.
"It can work for many different genres or game formats. At the moment these premium subscriptions – though popular – are heavily concentrated within midcore titles, and I think there's a chance they could be adopted more widely in the casual mobile games space in the future."
Whilst library-style subscription services do exist as an alternate option – the likes of Apple Arcade and Play Pass coming to mind – these are more generalised, covering a wider span of titles instead of a more targeted approach.
"Subscription services are a hard long-term sell and content has to be constantly refreshed, which can be difficult when not all games developers/publishers are on board with the idea of subscriptions yet," Shorthouse explains.
As more companies open up to these services as a whole, this may change over time, as we've seen with console services such as Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus, but in-app purchases will likely remain. Shorthouse continues: "For some gamers, in-game spending is part of what makes the experience enjoyable. Some people just like to spend money on their hobby; monetisation can enhance their experience."
With the increasingly improved displays on phones, and processing power that now vastly outshines the console generations gone by, mobile phones can handle much more now than they ever could. Games that were once seen as only having been possible via PC or consoles are now getting their own mobile versions, sometimes as a counterpart to the 'actual game', and sometimes as their own platform releases entirely – with games like Fortnite and Minecraft having cross-play capabilities built-in. There are also services such as Apple Arcade that give access to a Netflix-style selection of titles that can be dipped in and out of at no extra cost over-and-above the monthly fee.
We are now in the mobile gaming renaissance, with billions being spent each year across the catalogue of mobile games. We spoke with Craig Chapple, previously of mobile analytics firm Sensor Tower, about the implementation of subscription schemes and just what makes them so successful.
"[They] aren't a surefire hit," he says. "If they are implemented poorly, there is a possibility that they can actually cannibalise in-app purchase revenue… What makes them successful is when they offer good value to players and are engaging".
He explained that the key to a good Season Pass is the content it includes: Does it have objectives? What rewards are there for achieving these objectives? It doesn't always come down to the rewards themselves; his viewpoint is that they are "first as an engagement tool, rather than just a layer of monetisation", which is a key aspect on the longevity of these services.
Quite often we'll see that games with Season Pass, Battle Pass, or whatever-other-Pass content are released as 'Freemium' titles, as opposed to having an upfront cost in addition to the recurring monthly fees, and this is particularly true in the mobile space. Chapple feels that what works for each game or developer depends on their chosen business model.
"Some games work best offering just in-app purchases, perhaps utilising timers, gacha or another monetisation model," he explains. "Others, meanwhile, may find a season pass or subscription works best or, more likely, can be integrated on top of these existing systems."
Developers have a lot to consider for their game's launch, as going one way versus another can have huge repercussions on the success – and visibility – of their title.
"If developers are looking to create a premium title with an upfront cost, they may decide that cutting a deal with Apple or Google to release on Arcade or Play Pass works best for both the game's design and maximising their returns," Chapple adds. "Premium is a tough market on mobile, with a limited number of publishers supporting the release of these titles."
The fear of the unknown can also be a huge swaying factor for many developers, especially ones that are new to market. Inkle co-founder Jon Ingold – whose studio has made its acclaimed narrative adventure 80 Days available through Google Play Pass – spoke to us about how embracing subscription services was something they were wary of to begin with, due to the potential decreased demand.
"The revenue model for Play Pass isn't transparent, and there's no way to know in advance how much money your title will make there – if any," he says. "But in general, we feel the store holder has all the power: we can't prevent subscription services being rolled out, so it's better to try the market than refrain from it, and in general we've found that the market is large enough to accommodate both Play Pass and the traditional Play store without one cannibalising the other."
If a company can guarantee returns via a deal with one of the mobile gaming platforms, then that might seem like the smartest choice for them, as Ingold explains: "Broadly, if you can do, then do it. The rule with digital distribution seems to be there are never too few customers. Every additional market we've added for our games has attracted new customers without any visible cost to our other markets, and Play Pass is no exception."
It wasn't all that long ago that the first Season Passes and Battle Passes came about, and when they first started appearing, it was mostly for AAA titles – but now it seems that any game can implement one if they so choose. So are we actually seeing more companies looking into this than we had previously? Chapple certainly seems to think so.
"Over the last few years, we've seen subscriptions and season passes become increasingly popular across an ever-wider range of genres on mobile. The Battle Pass was first popularised by Epic's Fortnite, before it was successfully integrated into other Battle Royale titles and Shooters like PUBG Mobile, Garena Free Fire and Call of Duty: Mobile. Each of these titles have become billion-dollar hits, with PUBG Mobile picking up $8.4 billion from global player spending across the App Store and Google Play to date."
We're also seeing these subscription-styled purchases expanding into other areas of the market, from Puzzle and Casino titles both old and new, Chapple adds.
"For example, Supercells' farm Simulation title Hay Day was first released in 2012. In December 2020, it introduced the Farm Pass, sparking a 62% increase in player spending month-on-month to approximately $14 million. Those gains have persisted ever since, helping revitalise what is now a decade old title still going strong."
It's clear subscriptions are here to stay, as more and more games are seeing massive increases to their revenue through their introduction. According to Chapple, Sensor Tower's data showed that 76 of the Top 100 revenue generating mobile games in the United States across the App Store and Google Play in Q2 2022 utilised a subscription and/or a season pass.
"This shows that, where possible, the top mobile titles are looking to integrate the system as best practice for monetisation and engagement," he adds.
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