“The subs war arrives on mobile – but not how you think”: Sensor Tower’s Craig Chapple on subscription services

The games market seems hellbent on heading towards a Netflix-like future of an all-you-can-eat subscription service.

On console and PC, Microsoft has the Game Pass, while EA has Origin Access and EA Access. On mobile, meanwhile, this year has seen the launch of services such as Apple Arcade, Google Play Pass, and GameClub, all costing $4.99 a month. Google’s Stadia is also launching as a cross-platform offering, promising access to its streaming service and a growing library of titles, though ones you’ll largely have to pay separately for.

For mobile at least, the potential for success of subscription services is unclear in a market dominated by free-to-play. The premium games market has long since been in decline, falling every year since 2015 from $642 million to $337.3 million so far in 2019 as of September 30th, according to Sensor Tower Store Intelligence estimates. But while the mobile space has transformed, Apple Arcade seeks to try and pry back open the market to get it back closer to its former highs. The challenge is significant, however. To reach back to 2015 levels, Apple Arcade would need approximately 11.7 million subscribers paying for 11 months following a one-month free trial.

For a market that struggles with the premium barrier, it’s a big ask. But while platformer holders are seeking new subscription revenue streams, new monetisation models are emerging on mobile: in-game subscription and battle pass systems. Mario Kart Tour made some headlines for its own $4.99 in-game Gold Pass sub, which unlocks in-game items and 200cc races.

Compared to the 100-plus games Apple Arcade promises for the same price, it looks like a bad deal on the face of it. But while the success of Nintendo’s implementation of such a monetisation method is up for debate, it recognises the current games industry landscape of games-as-a-service. People are playing games for months or even years, seeing these games as a regular destination to either hang out with friends or play as part of their daily and weekly routine. These players might be more willing to pay regularly for content they want in a game they enjoy playing, rather than a subscription service of 100 titles they aren’t as interested in.

When Supercell introduced Season Challenges and a monthly Gold Pass to its 2012 release Clash of Clans, revenue grew significantly. Sensor Tower estimates that in its first week, the Gold Pass spurred on a 2.5 times increase in revenue to $27 million during the period. In the 30 days following its introduction, revenue reached $71 million, up 72 percent from the previous 30 days. PUBG Mobile’s Royale Pass saw first-week sales spike by 365 percent, grossing $6.1 million across the App Store and Google Play. In the month following its implementation, daily revenue grew by three times to $650K a day from $220K, with sales hitting approximately $22 million. PUBG Mobile is now the biggest mobile game in the world.

In the mobile landscape of free-to-play and games-as-a-service, developers that are able to successfully implement regular payment systems for loyal players look to be creating more value than a Netflix for games ever could.

Craig Chapple is Mobile Insights Strategist, EMEA at mobile intelligence firm Sensor Tower and was previously Senior Editor at PocketGamer.biz.

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