Market Insight

E3 2019: Mobile games afforded increasing coverage from AAA-publishers, whilst Nintendo prioritises Switch

June 20, 2019

Louise Shorthouse, Ph.D. Louise Shorthouse, Ph.D. Research Analyst I, Games and Apps

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Despite the persistent Western aversion to mobile play amongst hardcore gamers, popular franchises continue to make their way to smartphones and AAA-publishers seem increasingly committed to the platform. The focus is on taking established IPs to mobile rather than creating entirely new brands; typically in tandem with a significant console or PC release to boost initial interest.

Nintendo’s mobile no-show raises questions

Of all the publishers, Nintendo seems best-poised to capitalize on the lucrative mobile gaming market given its huge collection of suitable IP, and its existing expertise and fan-base in handheld devices. A Nintendo audience would surely be far more forgiving in this era of platform-snobbery, so why the E3 no-show, and why can’t the publisher seem to fully commit? Previous mobile excursions have proven disappointing – Super Mario Run was bogged down by its premium business model – and with a substantial pipeline in place for the flourishing Switch, perhaps Nintendo prefers the safety of promoting its established successes. It could also be the case that the publisher is being more selective about its audience, but is it worth it? There is virtually no bigger platform than E3.

Multiple mobile titles showcased across the board

Conversely, many of the other big publishers used the stage to share their mobile plans. Ubisoft announced Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad: a F2P RPG battler which combines characters from across the Clancy franchises. Bethesda opened its show with Elder Scrolls Blades, and built on its existing mobile catalogue with a new expansion for CCG Elder Scrolls Legends and the porting of Fallout Shelter to Tesla autos. Old school id Software title Commander Keen also got a 21st century mobile makeover – likely to the disappointment of many of its original PC fans.

Square Enix introduced a global version of the gacha title War of the Visions Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, and a corresponding partnership with singer-songwriter Katy Perry to use her music and likeness in-game. This mirrors an earlier strategy involving Ariana Grande. It is no surprise that the publisher – as a Japanese company with a considerable IP roster - continues to build on its smartphone titles, but this makes Nintendo’s relative inability to establish a solid mobile presence all the more perplexing.

Even Microsoft made room amongst the Project Scarlett, xCloud and Cyberpunk 2077 hype for its Gears of War-meets-Funko Pop strategy mobile title, Gears POP!, with a brand-new trailer and pre-order details. Inspired by Clash Royale, the game will be online only, and will be released a matter of days before Gears of War 5 hits Xbox One and PC, likely hoping to ride the wave of excitement for the AAA-title.

Blurring platform boundaries on the physical stage

Most of the newly-announced mobile titles were showcased via proper trailers and given the time and space to breathe on stage, indicating that the platform is no longer an afterthought, but a key component of many publishers’ offerings moving forward. However, try as they might to minimize the platform divide, traditional console and PC gamers remain resistant to the mobile onslaught.

The issue here is perhaps the converging of physical platforms. Diablo Immortal was famously ill-received by a PC-centric Blizzcon crowd, and the E3 audience is similarly PC and console-focused, resulting in a lukewarm response to mobile announcements. Can there be a physical space where all platforms are equally celebrated? Force-feeding hardcore gamers mobile titles under the guise of a favoured IP remains contentious, and it may take some time for consumer sentiment to catch up with publisher strategies both in the West, and amongst the hardcore crowds.

It seems doubtful that a traditional AAA publisher will ever manage to top the app store charts. Although EA and Japanese publishers Bandai Namco and Capcom have seen relative success, the mobile/non-mobile player-bases remain too distinct. Nintendo, perhaps the most likely contender, failed to showcase its upcoming mobile titles Mario Kart Tour and Dr Mario (which drops worldwide next month). Whilst it may not consider E3 the optimum platform for mobile-related content – and for good reason - this still suggests that its priorities lie elsewhere.

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