One of the great quirks of mobile gaming is the way that so many games can come as surprise releases to everyone. In fact, the two biggest games of 2016 so far were both complete surprises when they were revealed. First you had Clash Royale (Free), which was revealed and soft launched on the first Monday of 2016, with its eventual launch coming unexpectedly on the first Wednesday of 2016, with no warning whatsoever. Then, Pokemon GO (Free), which was quite known, had a surprise rollout, and the eventual world domination that ensued was without warning to seemingly anybody at all. Not even Apple, who had none of the featuring you would expect from a major game like this. While surprises can be really interesting, they have a very interesting secondary impact that I don’t think people really consider that impacts the mobile gaming landscape.
One recent case is Super Stickman Golf 3 (Free). I don’t know the full extent of the relationship between Noodlecake and Apple, but considering how often they get featured, and that they have an Apple Design Award on their portfolio from Chameleon Run ($1.99) which they published, we can assume that it’s pretty good. And that the release of Super Stickman Golf 3 and its potential as that week’s Editor’s Choice was probably not a secret to anyone at Noodlecake. Should be a great week for them, no? But, because of this standard of chaotic, unexpected mobile releases, what happens is that Pokemon GO releases in the USA without warning to anyone (the game still hasn’t gotten any sort of featuring from Apple) and suddenly Super Stickman Golf 3 is suddenly going up against The Devourer of Worlds.
Another potent example is Days of Discord (Free). I visited the studio, and chatted with the key principals behind that game. They had big plans, and some interesting ideas for streaming and competitive play. But unbeknownst to them, and few people outside of Supercell, Apple, and Google, Clash Royale released the same day that they did. It hit them in a big way – they only got 5000 players and shut the game down a month after launch. Sure, you could debate the merits of a Hearthstone (Free) style CCG and how well it would do even if Clash Royale didn’t exist at all. But I’m pretty sure that if they had any idea Clash Royale was launching on that day, they wouldn’t have done so!
The problem is that these situations that could sink developers without even knowing could easily be avoided, and are avoidable in every other form of media! Movies, books, music, other forms of gaming, release dates are well known in advance. This means that everyone involved when they can strategically avoid releasing during a bad time. But not on mobile, where so many publishers and developers keep secrets as to their release windows, to a point that any developer has to be scared that at any moment, a major, earth-shattering release could drop and stall any momentum they would otherwise have.
And you wonder why developers might be scared to release on mobile? We can debate the value of specific release dates on a platform where physical supply is not an issue, but a reality where blockbusters release without warning is a not healthy one for anyone involved, especially smaller developers. Maybe that puzzle game you’re releasing, and are counting on a big launch week for, gets undercut by the sudden release of a new King puzzler going global. Or a console port in a similar genre as your game releases without warning that very week. Even Apple themselves got burned by the surprise Pokemon GO launch affecting the potency of their features that week. In fact, the chaotic release timing of mobile games being the norm has even messed up Pokemon GO – the surprise Canadian launch wound up messing up the major Chicago meetup for the game. But the idea that mobile games can be released just whenever without any sudden warning creates problems for everyone.
— TouchArcade (@toucharcade) July 17, 2016
This isn’t to say that it’s all bad. The hype cycles that surround major AAA games and the fixed targets of game releases have their own issues. When a game has to release at a certain time, it can lead to games that aren’t quite ready because of the need to hit that release date, not to mention the human toll of crunch time. And the extended hype cycles means that games have to be flashy to get people to care about them a long ways out. And I’m kind of glad that crowdfunding doesn’t really work for mobile games. Do we really need a disaster on par with Star Citizen? But then again, it’s sad that something like Hyper Sentinel can struggle with its reasonable Kickstarter. And for free-to-play, mobile is so much about the long tail, to make money not just on one day, but weeks and months after that, to where the first day of launch isn’t necessarily that important. Plus, it’s kind of cool to suddenly get like a Crypt of the NecroDancer ($3.99) port on mobile out of nowhere, no?
It’s quite possible that mobile’s release patterns are a net positive, but there are lots of drawbacks. If you’re a developer releasing a paid game, you’re still worried about that initial launch timing, and mobile is impossible to time right because you can get so easily undercut. For players, you have no idea if any given release week is going to keep you busy or not. And for the media, it’s not the ideal set of circumstances. It’s weird to fire up the TouchArcade work chat when I wake up and suddenly realize everything’s on fire because Clash Royale or Pokemon GO has released without warning. I envy the console and PC gaming press to a certain degree, because it’s not like Fallout 5 is going to suddenly release overnight. And I think it makes covering mobile for press that isn’t immersed in it so much more difficult, because mobile has this chaotic flow to it that requires a lot of effort and an affinity for the platform to talk about it well. And why spend your time on that when the established audience wants more of the same content?
I don’t know if there’s much of a way to improve the drawbacks here. How much of a role Apple or Google plays with influencing the current circumstances is a good question – those in the know are not likely to say much, and Apple insiders often have contradictory things to say to developers they talk to. Maybe mobile is just the canary in the coal mine for the way that games are talked about and consumed in the future, where the hype cycles and launch dates are relics of the past. Particularly with the free-to-play long tail, this could happen. It’s tough to deal with for everyone, but it might be just the reality of games culture in the future. But I’m not convinced that it’s the best possible reality for developers, enthusiasts, and commentators to have literally zero idea when major happenings are set to go down.