At this point, you may have heard of a little mobile game called Pokémon GO. It’s doing rather well and is gaining a bit of popularity?
But while Pokémon GO is busy redefining everything we know about mobile gaming and the revenue potential thereof, it stands on the shoulders of giants. Over the past half decade, we’ve seen more than a few games go on to gross more money than stockbrokers would dream of earning in a lifetime.
Here’s the current top ten, and today we’ll be looking at them with a simple game design question in mind: how did they get so successful in the first place?
Highest Grossing Free-to-Play Games, Examined
Chart placements may vary if all platforms are considered, but for consistency we’ve stuck to the US App Store data as of 15 July 2016.
And bear in mind that the revenue isn’t the amount the app has earned over its life time, but per day.
1. Pokémon GO
Days on App Store: 9
Publisher: Niantic Inc.
How it Got There: Needless to say, even at this very early stage in Pokémon GO’s life it has become a global phenomenon the likes of which gaming – mobile or otherwise – has never seen before. Its insane performance is down to a perfect storm of factors, which we discuss in more detail here.
2. Mobile Strike
Days on App Store: 246
Publisher: Epic War Llc
How it Got There: Advertising as aggressive as a napalm firestorm. Mobile Strike was one of the first free-to-play app games to have gotten on board with TV advertising, coupled with an A-list endorsement by none other than Arnold Schwarznegger. If you haven’t seen Mobile Strike’s marketing campaign in action either on screens or across promoted social media ads, you’re probably on board the International Space Station.
3. Game of War – Fire Age
Days on App Store: 645
Publisher: Machine Zone Inc
How it Got There: Having never strayed far from the highest grossing game spot since its release in 2014, Game of War has maintained its throne in very much the same way as Mobile Strike: sheer advertising bucks and celebrity endorsement.
$40 million was thrown at the game in 2014 and included a campaign with a very scantily-clad Kate Upton (since replaced with Mariah Carey.) In terms of return on investment, the developers came good – players spend a whopping $550 on average in the game, compared to just $87 typically spent a year in other titles.
4. Candy Crush Saga
Days on App Store: 1338
How it Got There: Before Pokémon GO came along, Candy Crush Saga was pretty much the first game anyone would name when you mentioned the phrase ‘addictive mobile game.’
While aggressive advertising is once again a big factor in Candy Crush’s app store dominance (particularly in the far East and with a clever spot in Psy’s then-to-go-superviral Gangnam Style), it’s the addictiveness that has really pushed the game to stratospheric heights.
And it’s literally addictive. By combining simple, accessible game mechanics with a perfectly sloped difficulty system as well as a reward system that physically releases neurochemical dopamine in the player’s brain, it’s a model of game design, which many developers are scrabbling to implement in their own apps.
5 and 6: Clash of Clans and Clash Royale
Revenue: $321,783 and $271,718
Days on App Store: 1043 / 136
How it Got There: Arguably, it got there because it got there first.
Supercell’s two Clash titles aren’t wholly dissimilar to Mobile Strike and Game of War and they all share the same winning formula, but Clash of Clans beat them to the punch by a good couple of years. The fact that the gameplay is generally lauded as a good game and that the developers have kept on top of updates has helped keep it near the top ever since.
7. DoubleDown Casino & Slots
Days on App Store: 669
How it Got There: Let’s face it, it’s a straight-forward gambling app – this essentially operates on an ‘if you build it, they will come’ philosophy.
Being installed nearly 20,000 times a day, most of the success here lies in the fact that DoubleDown have succeeded where similar apps have failed: making a real-money gambling app that abides by Apple’s strict policies while still delivering a slick user experience for the player.
Or perhaps we’re reading into it too much, and they may have simply been lucky with keyword searches. The app’s full name is DoubleDown Casino & Slots – Free Vegas Games, Win Big Jackpots, & Bonus Games!
8. Candy Crush Soda Saga
Days on App Store: 612
How it Got There: See above.
9. CSR Racing 2
Days on App Store: 15
How it Got There: While it may only stand at No. 9 on the highest grossing apps chart currently, this is exceptional given how recently it was released (rivaled only by Pokémon GO in growth) and it did peak at No. 1 in its first few days.
CSR Racing 2’s success can be largely attributed to the performance of its predecessor, which got healthy showcase promotion at the 2012 WWDC and went on to take a gigantic $12 million a month shortly afterwards.
10. MARVEL Contest of Champions
Days on App Store: 583
How it Got There: The developers can thank the Chinese.
While a game based around a brand as strong as Marvel is almost always guaranteed to do well, it was only when Kabam carefully redesigned the game to appeal to the Chinese market and released it there in late 2015 did the game really take off. The lesson for game designers here? Don’t neglect your potential foreign markets!
In conclusion, the take-home message for game designers looking to make a financial success from their work is this: there’s more than one way to skin a cat, but there are also proven tricks that seem to work every time, too.
Then again, Pokémon GO has completely changed the landscape of mobile gaming in less than a month.
Whatever happens from here, it has certainly thrown the Meowth amongst the Pidgeys.