Even though mobile gaming has a ways to go before it's just like playing on a desktop or console, it's inching closer every year - and it might grow in leaps and bounds in 2020.
Why? AAA publishers are getting good at translating their AAA franchises to mobile, but the onset of 5G and cloud gaming could elevate mobile gaming across the board.
At E3 2019, we talked to publishers, game developers and phonemakers about their products and projects to get a hint at what's coming for mobile gaming in 2020.
The top-level observations aren’t too surprising: the dependable recipe for success is to make new titles from old but well-known IPs or craft mobile versions of already-popular desktop/console franchises. With so many games out there, new titles have to be platform-savvy and a bit tailored to their audience's regional tastes.
Overall, mobile gaming in the next year will slowly iterate on lessons learned - but the industry is also looking ahead to a sea change from 5G and cloud streaming, both technologies that could change how, and what, we play. Read on for the five trends we see coming in the next year.
Trend 1: big franchises, small screens
By far the biggest new title for mobile gaming shown off at E3 2019 was Call of Duty: Mobile, a version of the hit franchise shrunken down to be playable on smartphones. We found the game to be a remarkably similar experience to its fully-fledged siblings, featuring levels ripped straight from the older games, including a bunch stitched together to form the game’s huge battle royale map (which should give seasoned Call of Duty fans an advantage).
Otherwise, the game plays a lot like other more serious mobile shooters: move with your thumb on the left side of the screen, perform actions like shooting, crouching or switching loadouts by hitting the appropriate button on the right side of the screen. It works...once you’ve gotten the hang of it.
But attempting to replicate a console experience on smartphones makes for a cluttered interface, something that plagues every game that uses on-screen controls rather than a dedicated external gamepad (which aren’t common).
To its credit, Call of Duty: Mobile introduces a few control innovations - like auto-shooting once a player hovers their crosshair over an opponent - but these are intended for newer players to get the hang of the game until they transition to the precision of manually moving/aiming/shooting.
In essence, mobile titles inheriting IP from consoles and desktop gaming have good reason to try to import that experience as wholly as possible, but - at least right now - compromise is essential. But there can be elegance in that adjustment.
The other big example on the show floor was The Elder Scrolls: Blades, a game that’s been out in the US in early access for some months before a general release (everywhere but China) in time for E3 2019.
The control scheme is a simplified version of traditional Elder Scrolls combat: once engaged with an enemy, players swipe the screen to attack. It’s missing the free movement that’s defined fighting in the main games, but it enables one-handed play.
Or two-handed, if players prefer: the game’s big innovation is supporting both portrait and landscape modes, with seamless transitions between either, even in the middle of a fight.
“It took a lot of dev time” to pull off, Veronique (Vero) Bruneau, Producer at Bethesda Game Studios for TES: Blades told TechRadar in an interview at E3. That was surely an understatement: he and Craig Lafferty, Senior Producer and Project Lead at Bethesda Game Studios explained they had to program that swapping mechanism for many phone types and tablets.
The result is “a classic dungeon crawler designed for the modern day,” Lafferty said.
Of course, the game has a lot of accoutrements from the Elder Scrolls franchise, though Blades is deliberately set in a different time period than the other ongoing TES game, Elder Scrolls Online, to avoid content overlap. The wild success of the 2016 game Fallout Shelter convinced Bethesda that its IP could be suitable for mobile titles, provided they found satisfying gameplay mechanics appropriate for the franchise.
Which, in its own way, explains Commander Keen.
Trend 2: novelty stands apart in a crowded market
During Bethesda’s E3 2019 showcase, Kira Schlitt, Creative Director at ZeniMax Online Studios, came on stage to introduce a new mobile title she’s helming: Commander Keen. Based on the beloved PC platformer pioneer that was first released in 1990, the game looks to revive the classic side-scrolling gameplay on iOS and Android smartphones and tablets.
The announcement was a surprise: while Commander Keen certainly has cultural cachet with older gamers, and a place in the history books as the title that enabled the foundation of id Software, it’s not a franchise players have clamored to revive.
But the Bethesda keynote didn’t fully explain the game. Commander Keen will be a platformer with a similar goofy, light-hearted cartoony style as the original...and a card game, too. Each of the title character’s signature gadgets (like pogo sticks and sci-fi traps) is activated via a card, which is shuffled back into their mini-deck once used.
The resulting game sounds like a novel combination of tried-and-true genres: a real-time platformer that requires less twitchy reactivity and more thoughtfulness to proceed. Players can bring eight cards with them into a level, which they can cleverly combine: create a hazard with your vortex gun and then bounce enemies into it with a trampoline. Voila!
It’s hard to imagine how a real-time card-platformer will work out - Bethesda rescinded their offer of a hands-on demo just before E3 2019 - but it sounds different, and more delightful than the usual AAA mobile game (outside of Nintendo’s chipper games, anyway). The Commander Keen team began developing it in early 2018 and were inspired by Hearthstone, The Elder Scrolls: Legends, and Clash Royale, but unlike those, the game ended up being more physics-based (and real-time), Schlitt told TechRadar.
Whether the game is a hit, the bigger lesson is that it will (unsurprisingly) be free-to-play with in-game purchases. Schlitt assured that those won't be pay-to-win - they’ll just be cosmetics and time-savers, which should preserve the balance of the 1v1 PVP battle mode coming alongside the single-player story mode. New gadgets will only be unlocked via randomized packs awarded from playing battle mode, which hopefully won’t lock out unlucky players from drawing a complete arsenal.
If established franchises (or ‘intellectual properties’ as the lingo goes) draw more interest than new ones, Commander Keen is a sort of test balloon for dormant franchise palatability: as a F2P title on mobile, there’s conceivably less risk with reviving an old and unlooked-for series than re-introducing a full AAA title on console and desktop. And companies could certainly do worse than Commander Keen’s whimsical pop sci-fi action.
Trend 3: Established franchises could be the key to popularizing new genres
South Korea’s biggest mobile game company, Netmarble, didn’t debut new titles to the public at E3 2019, aside from one showed off behind closed doors that’s set to launch in the US before year’s end. But the company’s biggest titles have been ongoing for awhile: Marvel Future Fight, and until last December, Star Wars Heroes and Disney Magical Dice. The company even has an officially-licensed game about the globally popular K-pop boy band BTS.
In other words, Netmarble has plenty of experience securing globally popular IP - but to stand out in a saturated game landscape, the company can’t just dash out a quick title to cash in on very recognizable names. Instead, Netmarble’s current strategy is to build themes and gameplay mechanics that match the IP, Netmarble US CEO Simon Sim explained to TechRadar.
He came to E3 2019 with Netmarble to promote a mobile game coming to the US later in 2019: King of Fighters All-Stars. Just like previous games in the main King of Fighters series, the free-to-play title will feature characters from many SNK games - but the mobile game is a side-scrolling beat-em-up instead of a traditional fighting game.
The genre switch seems like a shrewd move to preserve the fun of hand-to-hand combat without forcing players to use clumsy mobile game controls for fighting games, which require precise inputs to compete. Indeed, KoF: All Stars abbreviates those inputs with a small cluster of buttons on the right side: a big one for basic strikes surrounded by three for signature moves, while buttons at the top of the screen switch out teammates.
The game proved popular in Japan, where Netmarble first released KoF: All Stars back in 2017, and has been a success in South Korea after launching there in May 2019. When asked whether KoF: All Stars will catch on in the US - a market where side-scrolling beat-em-up mobile games aren’t super popular - Sim explained that the genre didn’t need to be a top-seller for Netmarble’s title to be successful.
The company has experience pioneering mobile game genres, Sim continued. Netmarble beta launched Lineage 2 Revolution in South Korea in late 2016 at a time when mobile MMORPGs weren’t popular. Back in January, the game crossed $1.5 billion in player spend, according to Sensor Tower.
It’s possible that KoF: All Stars could kick off its own trend in the US. “That’s what we believe: if you change the game you will change the trend,” Sim said.
That doesn’t mean every game will work everywhere - the company tweaks its games slightly for each market for legal compliance and for playerbase taste. Asian markets don’t mind the randomness of true ‘gacha’ systems, while Western and US players prefer a more expected reward system that grants, say, a guaranteed five-star character or one from a certain game. As a result, KoF: All Stars has three distinct versions for Japan, South Korea, and the upcoming US/Western release.
But Netmarble isn’t just trying to hit big with already-popular IPs - the company aims to release a popular game featuring its own intellectual property, for obvious financial reasons (licensing fees, etc). Sim used Stone Age as an example (Stone Age Begins first came out in 2016), but when asked if they had new games to announce from its IPs, he only had one thing to say: stay tuned.
Trend 4: Phonemakers are still committed to local gaming, not streaming
In the last few years, phonemakers have released handsets aimed at gamers that pack high specs and special modes that optimize phone gaming. One of these, the Chinese OEM Black Shark, just released its second phone (the Black Shark 2) in April - but it’s already looking toward the future.
The company didn’t show off its anticipated Black Shark 5G, which some reports say could come out before 2020, but Black Shark VP of Yang Sun, VP Marketing of Black Shark Global, had serious thoughts about how the next year of gaming might change - specifically, with hardware.
Currently, the best phones for gaming are high-specced flagships, but specialized handsets that pack in more features specifically for playing games. The Black Shark 2 is one of these, and its additions range from the obvious (a liquid cooling system to lower internal temperatures during intense gaming sessions) to the subtle (large antennas so players can won’t impede signal wrapping their fingers around the phone).
Others, like the Red Magic 3, have ‘shoulder’ touch buttons. If you’re playing locally, these handsets provide the best gaming experience.
But 5G and cloud gaming could alter how we think of mobile gaming devices. 5G will have obvious benefits, like faster internet speeds and lower latency, which will likely help across the board. It could take awhile for these changes to affect consumers, with all the network and server infrastructure that still needs to be built.
And 5G-compatible devices will probably be expensive for the next three years until the tech trickles down to more affordable handsets. Even the Black Shark 3 coming in 2020, which will pack Qualcomm’s next 5G-capable chipset, will almost surely be as pricey as the last.
Instead of relying on your local hardware, cloud gaming shifts the processing to massive server farms; upcoming services like Google Stadia and Microsoft xCloud promise to deliver console/PC-level performance to any device that can stream media. We simply won’t need local hardware anymore - not to the extreme degree it’s at right now, anyway.
Mobile devices would need failproof connectivity, of course, but the other major priority to reach parity with PC and console gaming lies in improving displays. Smartphones and tablets lag behind in screen clarity and quality; eventually, cloud gaming would reduce the choice between mobile, tablet and PC to which size screen you’d like to game on.
There are other obstacles limiting mobile gaming, like inferior screen controls vs. gamepads - and even hardware limitations. There are tricks Black Shark is ready to build into its phones that they claim will bring mobile gaming closer to parity with PC and console, like interpolating game framerates of 30 frames per second to imitate 60fps - but it’s the hardware that restricts them. If Qualcomm opened up their chip tech to Black Shark, the company claims it could improve the mobile gaming experience.
Which would help the chicken-and-egg situation that has kept mobile gaming stagnant for years: why build a better experience if there aren’t games that need it? And why would developers raise the production level of their games if they’re only playable on less-accessible higher-spec phones? Something needs to come along to break this quagmire.
Perhaps it is 5G, or cloud gaming, or even next year’s Black Shark 3, which the representative told me is “just completely other stuff.” Sea changes are most likely coming...but slowly.
Trend 5: 5G is coming - and how will it change mobile gaming?
Tucked between IndieCade, Sega/Atlus and Nintendo’s massive floorspace at E3 2019, Verizon had a simple presence: one screen on each side of a square booth, each showing off a different mobile game developed during a game jam the carrier held in December 2018. All were made to show off the potential of 5G.
Like many games made during a jam, these had easily-grasped concepts: Knights on a Rocket, for instance, featured two knights battering each other while trying to steer themselves through an asteroid field. The point, one of the game’s developers Kevin Harper told TechRadar, was to showcase 5G technology.
If you could stream in far more data - at the game jam, Harper and his team saw 1Gbps download from Verizon’s temporary 5G setup - then you could make a game that relied on assets downloaded very very quickly. You could see the result as asteroids came hurtling quickly but seamlessly at his game’s knights, without any visible network slowdown.
Another game in the Verizon booth featured a simple dagger shooting up the side of a pillar and veering from side to side dodging obstacles - simple enough gameplay, but the mesmerizing, shimmering lighting effects were console-level quality.
Current mobile games can’t pull this off, even those adapted from console/desktop titles. Fortnite, for example, is “very much a mobile build,” Harper said.
5G could enable much more dynamic gameplay...eventually. “Techwise it’s there, but the infrastructure needed is huge,” Harper said. By his estimation, we won’t see that 5G-enabled next-generation of mobile gaming arrive in 2020. Next year will be about validating the technology first, then seeing if and where it can be useful to consumers.
When it arrives, Harper sees a mobile gaming future much like Black Shark’s representative: devices will require much less hardware, essentially narrowing their development priorities down to handsets that process video streamed in over the air and send inputs back to servers.
That’s a potentially scary proposition for OEMs that have justified ever-higher flagship phone prices by including higher and higher-specced hardware. “But there’s definitely an opportunity for someone to take advantage of,” Harper noted.
Even with less complex devices that just stream video, one roadblock to 5G mobile gaming looms large: carrier data caps, which seem prohibitively limiting compared to the massive data speeds 5G is capable of. These, Harper noted, are ‘artificially imposed’ and hopefully ripe for change before a single night of gaming wipes out your data allocation for the month - but we’ll have to wait and see how carriers meet customer needs when the next-gen networks expand beyond the handful of coverage pockets that exist today.
- E3 2019 (opens in new tab) is the biggest gaming event of the year. TechRadar is reporting live from LA, telling you all about the biggest announcements of the week, from epic game trailers to shocking release date reveals. Follow our expert analysis of the keynotes and what we see on the E3 show floor.