People will remember 2020 as the ‘year of the pandemic’, when cities locked down amid the spread of a deadly virus but, while the situation has been extremely grave, there were other noticeable trends taking place.
One of them has been the unprecedented growth of cryptocurrency, estimated to have tipped the $1 trillion mark in 2020, brought about by uncertainty in the global economy. Another has been the rise in online gaming.
Long hours spent at home have seen gamers download, play and even create games more than ever before – a whirlwind of consumer action that has led to a booming industry.
As always, Android devices have been at the center of the action. Google Play has thousands of titles for users to choose from, spanning all types of genres; but which ones have made the biggest impact?
In this article, we’re going to focus on those top-grossing titles of 2020, according to the US Google Play ranking, to find out what made them so popular, as well as the methods they use to generate so much income.
Coin Master has grabbed 2020’s top spot in a similar way to how its players grab treasure and villages: aggressively. To start with, the popular ‘adventure game’ is supported by an omnipresent social media strategy that has seen the likes of influences Jianhao Tan and Naomi Neo promote it. Coin Master ads also make frequent appearances on YouTube – an annoyance to many users but a campaign that has still attracted millions of new players this year.
Once started, Coin Master plays on our instinctive human need for gold and land with an objective of winning coins and conquering villages. The game itself looks harmless enough, with its colourful setting and cartoon characters, but after a few minutes we start to see why it has attracted such controversy. It uses several gambling mechanics to get you to continue playing including a slot machine — the same type you’ll find in traditional casino games — that dishes out coins for you to upgrade and defend your acquired land. Critics have argued that it paints gambling in a harmless light to children and vulnerable players, and also gives rise to habits that could lead to problematic gambling later on.
However, it also explains why the game has grossed so much money. Buying in-game coins and free spins with real money gives you the chance to progress through the game faster, while their clever ads strategy – users can get more coins by watching commercials – means they boost revenue in this way, too.
Despite the moral objections, Coin Master doesn’t appear to be leaving the top of the cash charts any time soon.
Candy Crush Saga
The Candy Crush franchise is probably the biggest mobile phone game phenomenon of all time. Its billions of downloads over its eight-year history — 2020 topped the 1-billion mark in itself — are down to a simple yet effective Tetris-style formula: players rearrange the falling candies into winning sequences to earn points. Its success has led to a series of spin-offs, with Candy Crush Soda Saga, Candy Crush Jelly Saga, and Candy Crush Friends Saga all hitting our screens at various points.
Like Coin Master, the game follows a freemium model: while players can complete the game without spending a cent, they can also purchase special ‘premium’ perks to help them pass more difficult stages. With such an incredible amount of downloads, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that this equals big money even if a small percentage of players decide to part with their cash — and it explains why it’s so high on the list of high-grossing games.
Yet where there’s money, there’s sure to be criticism – and often with good cause. Studies show that Candy Crush feeds a compulsion loop inside our minds whereby we feel compelled to continue playing for longer than we should. The game praises us with positive words, such as ‘sweet’ or ‘delicious’, whenever we score points, which feeds our craving for rewards. Besides, who doesn’t like delicious candy? All of this led to experts fearing high addiction levels among users.
Despite the controversy, the game continues to dominate the mobile-gaming market and with such a sweet and simple formula, it’s lucrative returns for its makers are hardly a surprise.
Roblox takes gaming to the next level. As well as hosting a wide range of in-house games, it serves as a game creation platform for players to design their own games with its in-built Roblox Studio engine. If you’re thinking that this sounds like the domain of experienced software engineers, think again. The majority of players are teenagers: in fact, half of all under 16s in the USA count themselves among them, so it’s very much a youth-led phenomenon.
Its stunning success last year was boosted by the onset of the pandemic, with lockdown leaving millions of bored kids seeking new things to do at home – the period of February to July 2020 saw its user base jump by an incredible 35%, for example.
Roblox’s heady position in the revenue charts is also down to its clever pricing system. Not only does it charge $5-10 for premium membership that allows developers to add extras to their creations, it also takes 50% of the proceeds when players put them up for sale. With a fifth of the 2-millon-plus developers on the site actively earning money for the start-up, the figures start to become head-spinning, especially when some of the top games bring in $2-3 million a year.
It seems many people have been taking this game’s theme tune literally by actually playing Pokémon Go every day, even four-and-a-half years after its release. The world-famous AR-based adventure, where players use a map based on physical landmarks to find Pokémon characters, broke several records when released in 2016: the fastest to reach the top of the Android chart and gross $100 million, to name just a couple.
It shows little signs of slowing down, either; rarely dropping outside of the top five Android games during the year and, with such a huge customer base, it was little surprise to see revenue figures pass the $1 billion mark over the first 10 months of 2020 alone.
While Pokémon Go also uses the Freemium model, it offers a slight twist on its in-game purchases – after depositing money, players receive Pokécoins to buy a range of gadgets to attract more Pokémon: the more they buy, the better they do. Makers Niantic cleverly adapted the game to the pandemic by introducing new features that allowed users to play at home – further increasing usage and, in turn, spending.
The result has been the most lucrative year on record for the game, surpassing even the incredible success of 2016.
Lords Mobile: Kingdom Wars
Lords Mobile has dominated the strategy games chart this year with its combination of role-playing, strategy and world-building features in its latest title, Kingdom Wars. This year’s version has offered more characters and skills than ever, and there are battle contests that offer bonuses for players and their team, as well as a few monsters thrown in for dramatic effect.
The game’s easy-on-the-eye graphics and catchy gameplay has brought it critical acclaim since the launch of its first title back in 2016. In its first year, it won the coveted Google Play award for ‘Best Competitive Game’ followed by an Android Excellence award in 2017.
Its success has been matched by its income, of course, hence its sky-high position in the charts. Players sometimes pay large amounts to upgrade their warriors, armies and weapons, with reports suggesting price tags of over $10,000 dollars for top characters like Dark Magister. The game’s competitive nature means that even moderate players might shell out more than they can afford. Add ad revenue to the mix and it's easy to see how makers IGG have earned hundreds of millions of dollars in income every year since its release.
2020 was a record year for sales figures in the online gaming world. The global pandemic was a huge contributory factor, but the Freemium models that many top games have in place has proved to still be an extremely effective sales strategy. Games bring out the competitive nature in many players, to the point that they’re willing to part with their money to get ahead. While it often invites controversy, it looks as if top developers will continue to follow this model for years to come.