Develop: Brighton board member Simon Oliver discusses the evolution of the smartphone gaming market

The fourth wave of mobile

Mobile’s journey has been extraordinary over the past nine years, since it truly began with the launch of the iPhone in 2007 – we’ll set aside the taco-phones of mobile’s dark ages. 

Mobile development went from being widely ignored to becoming the subject of tentative curiosity, and then the target of a full-on gold rush in the space of six months – and the pace has barely slowed since.

We got in early with our first title, Rolando, and it was a huge rush to be able to ride the first wave that followed the launch of the iPhone. The early days were filled with creative, innovative titles exploring new genres and mechanics: Eliss, Flight Control, Fruit Ninja, Tiny Wings, Pocket God, Helsing’s Fire, Sword & Sworcery – all demonstrating the massive potential of the platform and attracting devs to mobile like moths to that overpriced cashmere sweater you never wear.

The second wave was kicked off by a seismic event in 2009: the dawn of IAP and a huge shift to free-to-play. This second wave brought with it major changes to the mindset of developing games – moving from self-contained products to always-on services designed to be played frequently and over a far longer time period.


This shift brought with it a lot of experimentation in design; while some was outright abusive to players – “Pay now or the puppy dies!” – this also demonstrated the power of social connections, the power of selling well-designed IAPs that provide clear value and, above all, the extraordinary power of free.

The third wave was catalysed by this experimentation and the influx of new skills and disciplines, providing a deeper understanding of the audience, its behaviour and the context of mobile play. As this knowledge-base matured we saw the arrival of some of the titans of the mobile market – 2012 alone saw the release of Clash of Clans, Candy Crush and CSR Racing, fuelled by the dizzying increase in power of these devices. These titles pushed audience size and revenues to incredible new levels.

Clash Royale clearly shows the audience is starving for something new.

The rise of free-to-play has had a profound effect on the premium side of the business – disrupting discoverability, sources of funding and the willingness of the audience to pay for content. Yet, despite the increasing challenges of the paid space, independent studios have continued to demonstrate the creative potential of the platform during this third wave, crafting beautiful, creative pay-once titles that explore new genres, mechanics and directions for mobile: The Room, Year Walk, Device 6, Badland, Monument Valley, 80 Days, Leo’s Fortune, Threes, Alto’s Adventure, Her Story, Prune, and many more.

Another change is about to happen. At conferences and in conversations with other developers, I keep hearing the same thing: that there is a greatly increased appetite from the mobile free-to-play audience for new and fresh genres and a need to break out of the highly saturated, dominant genres: build and battle, tycoon, match-three, CCG.

This appetite presents a fresh opportunity for those looking to innovate and build upon everything that has been created and explored in the last nine years. It will drive the fourth wave of mobile, which I’d argue has already begun with Supercell’s unique MOBA/CCG fusion Clash Royale, whose rapid embrace and extraordinary rise clearly demonstrate that the audience is starving for something new.

So as this fourth wave brings huge creative potential, enormous financial opportunity, and an audience of billions crying out for innovative, engaging content, there’s nowhere I’d rather be. It won’t be easy, you might not be able to do it alone and success won’t be found on well-worn paths, but there’s never been a more exciting time to be part of mobile.

Simon Oliver is founder of mobile studio and Seabeard dev Hand Circus. He’s also an advisory board member for Develop: Brighton.

Article originally published in Develop: March 2016 issue.

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