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[Gamesbriefers] Is there a market for real-time, multiplayer, free-to-play games on mobile?

By on December 10, 2012


Is there a market for real-time, multiplayer, free-to-play games on mobile? Most successful f2p, multi-player mobile games these days are asynchronous. While this may sound better fit to the use case of a mobile phone (short sessions at unpredictable times reduce the likelihood of engaging into an online game), data also suggests that most people actually play at home in longer sessions.


Eric Seufert Head of Marketing & User Acquisition at Grey Area

I definitely think there’s a market for synchronous real-time multiplayer on mobile; it has developed out of continued growth in the tablet space. I think games must accommodate both gameplay components for universal contextual relevance: short sessions on the small screen (ie the 2-minute session on the tram) and longer sessions on the larger screen (the 1-hour session on the iPad at home). Real-time multiplayer is a better fit for the second gameplay scenario, but a mobile multiplayer game can still accommodate the first scenario by incorporating some single player-style development mechanics. While not on mobile, Kixeye’s War Commander and Battle Pirates games are good examples that provide for both the short session and the long session with both single-player and synchronous multi-player modes.

Tadhg Kelly Creative Director at Jawfish Games

Well I’m about to move to the US and become the creative director of a startup focused in this space. So I sure hope so 🙂

More seriously, I think there’s something to it. When well executed, responsive and fast, real multiplayer games are one of the most engaging kinds of game there is. Also, unlike most async games, they tend to create lots of emergent outcomes and so are less reliant on content to keep play exciting. So, fast multiplayer often retains players too (oh and by the way, it’s really good for you: )

All of this is as true of Halo as of Bridge. The real tricks for multiplayer seem to be that the player needs a high agency (lots of different things they can do, which breeds tactics and strategy), short round time and good matchmaking. This last is essential, as one of the main fall-offs in multiplayer has always been novices playing experts, being blown out of the water and then leaving.

Is there a market? Yes. The question is more whether developers are set up to deliver. Synchronous, responsive servers and so forth are very difficult to get right in terms of scale, cost and so on. This is perhaps why most studios have tended to shie away from them, preferring parallel, serial (turn-based) or single play instead.

Oscar Clark Evangelist at Applifier

There is a massive market, but most developers haven’t got a clue how complex and difficult it is.

  • First thing is critical mass – realtime needs you to have enough players that you want to play with online at the same time. This requires a huge amount of personal commitment and scheduling to sustain. This is a non-trivial problem and going real-time inevitably requires a huge marketing and technical investment in order to pull off.
  • Asynchronous games are way more easy to sustain.  Players simply need to have a persistent game state which can be interrogated by the game even if they are offline and the game needs to communicate all the actions which affect that player and their friends.
  • Turn-based games are more problematic as you generally have to wait for all the other players to take their turn before you can act yourself; generally a frustrating experience. Even in board game design there have been attempts to reduce this frustration by requiring players to submit their ‘orders’ and resolving turns simultaneously.
  • The worst case scenario for multiplayer management occurs with games which require a host and all the players to be present at the start. This is a nightmare as its so easy for them to be disrupted by even just one player dropping out half-way through, perhaps not even deliberately.

If we want this to work we have to consider the effort required for the player to participate in the game and make sure the benefits outweigh the issues.

Martin Darby CCO of Remode Studios

The whole technical side is definitely not something to be underestimated.  These are all areas we have dealt with making games for Habbo.  You have to have a lot of the game loops running on authorative game servers so they can’t be hacked, this also needs lag interpolation depending how real-time the gameplay is.  Incidentally though our next Habbo game should run on mobile too so it will be quite interesting to see what the uptake is across platforms.

Melissa Clark-Reynolds Founder of Minimonos

I think we should stop lumping all kinds of devices together and calling them “mobile”.  People want to do very different things on a phone screen vs a tablet.  Lets remember all the cool stuff tablets can do (touch, movement, camera….) and make cool games that use those features.  I want to play multiplayer touch based games (oops that kinda sounded better in my head).  I think the question is all wrong.  Yes, people want to play multiplayer real time games on tablets.  Those games should not be HTML5 or streamed versions of browser games – what a waste of the device.

Anthony Pecorella Producer of Virtual Goods at Kongregate

There are a few general types of synchronous multiplayer that have different characteristics and experiences.  For example, poker games are very much synchronous multiplayer and have had huge success on iOS.  There’s no question that there is room for short-session synchronicity – games that last 1 – 5 minutes but involve other live players (poker, puzzle battles, some collectible card games, various mini-games, etc.).  Quick turnover helps with matchmaking (long games tie up players, reducing the pool of available players for new entrants) and the session length remains palatable for mobile users.

On the other end of the spectrum are action-oriented, mid-length games like first person shooters, DotA-style, real time strategy, MMORPG, etc.  Even for this model, there are some games out there already, like the “N.O.V.A.” series, Order and Chaos, and the upcoming Solstice Arena, that have more traditional live multiplayer.   These don’t work as well for the stereotypical mobile use case of standing in line or waiting for the bus, but as has been pointed out we are seeing longer play sessions, especially with tablets, that make sense for even these types of multiplayer.

The line between mobile and computer/console is being blurred more all the time, as the Wii U and the Ouya demonstrate.  With modern mobile processing power, the ability to tether to a TV if you so desire, and physical controllers for those who want them, there is no reason to think that nearly any type of game cannot succeed using mobile devices.

Charles Chapman Director of First Touch Games

For an asynchronous, turn-based game the quality of network connection is pretty much meaningless. It either works or it doesn’t, and the ‘turn data’ taking a few seconds more to arrive makes no difference.

A less than ideal connection for synchronous play, especially in an action based game, has a serious impact on the user experience, and though there are ways of mitigating these issues for some game types, for others it’s more of a challenge. This is of course the same for a console games, but in mobile the number of failure points are increased. Users (rightly) expect stuff to work, and when it doesn’t (often through no fault of the devs), your app reviews can get a hammering.

In answer to the original question though, from our experience there is definitely a market for synchronous multiplayer, but the practicalities, often out of the devs control, make it really tough to execute on. It’s is still something we’re pursuing though, but for now it’s not something we’d build an entire game around.

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