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What does Honor of Kings and Fortnite's success on mobile mean for conventional wisdom?


Welcome to the latest in our series of Pocket Gamer columns. We're taking the best games writers in the industry and giving them a platform. Veteran journalist Jon Jordan is here each week examining the trends shaping your mobile games scene. This week he’s considering why we (ahem he) didn’t expect the success of PC games on mobile.

They say travel expands the mind, and certainly my peripatetic May - San Francisco, Malmo, London - has got me thinking.

Not for the first time, it's become clear just how powerful the mobile game market has become at confounding conventional wisdom.

Not that conventional wisdom doesn't have its place. Conventional wisdom is usually correct. That's why you bet on the favourite in The Derby.

But what's significant about how mobile games confound conventional wisdom is that it's not a question of betting on the second or third favourite horse to win. It's like betting on the race to be cancelled or a giraffe to win.

It's what Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularised as Black Swan events.

You got it wrong, again


Three recent games in two genres demonstrate this: Honor of Kings (aka Arena of Valor), and PUBG Mobile/Fortnite.

Hilariously for my status as an industry expert, prior to the release of Honor of Kings, I'd spent a couple of years trying to popularise the term "Curse of Mobile MOBA".



Given the number of companies that had tried and failed to translate the success of PC MOBAs such as League of Legends onto mobile, this wasn't as stupid as it now seems.

Interestingly, all of these developers had also - sensibly in my opinion - chosen to make their mobile MOBAs quicker, smaller experiences, typically running a 3v3 mode for a 15 minute duration and with simpler touchscreen-oriented UI.

And what happened?

Tencent essentially photocopied League of Legends' design, bringing the full MOBA experience to mobile devices, and then pushed the game through its immense mobile distribution channels (QQ and Weixin/WeChat).

The result was a game that continues to be the top grossing title in China - $3 billion of revenue and counting - and has become such a cultural phenomenon it's been blamed for people losing their sight and children failing their education. Indeed, the government forced Tencent to limit play time for minors.

And yet Honor of Kings' success hasn't entirely negated the value of conventional wisdom. When Tencent released the westernised version of the game - renamed Arena of Valor - it flopped.

Conventional wisdom was correct, but only when it came to markets lacking Tencent's overwhelming distribution muscle.

Battle royale's the king

The success of battle royale games has also been embarrassing for us so-called experts.

On one level, the success of early battle royale games such as NetEase's Knives Out and Rules of Survival could have been put down to curiosity with a genre that was exploding but only available on high-end PCs.

The performance of Tencent's official PUBG Mobile shows something more profound is occurring, however.

Given critics are suggesting the mobile version of the game is better - certainly more accessible to play - than the original PC version, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised PUBG Mobile is now being played by 10 million players daily.



Similarly, the mobile version of Fortnite's battle royale mode is the top grossing iPhone game in the US, and in the top five in most western countries. And unlike PUBG Mobile, Fortnite is the same version of the game as running on PC and consoles. There's been very little work done to make it mobile-friendly.

Here, the case for conventional wisdom is more difficult to make. Clearly, other battle royale games on mobile haven't been as successful. The two winners have been games from experienced mobile developers who also have the strongest brands.

To that extent, we have to confess that conventional wisdom is always vulnerable before a global ecosystem that enables billions of people to immediately download the content they want.

What's next?

So what should I learn from these examples?

That thoughtful predictions are a waste of time? To throw conventional wisdom out with the baby and the bath water?

No. In both these cases, it's clear the global accessibility of mobile games (and apps) combined with incredible virality and marketing will trump all. But very few games will combine these features and not all of them will be genre-defining successes like Honor of Kings, PUBG Mobile and Fortnite.

By their very nature Black Swan events are extremely rare.

Still, for us industry experts, a little humility wouldn't go amiss, especially when you write articles asking Where is mobile gaming's PUBG?

(The clue is in the title.)

If this column has given you food for thought, share your comments below and bookmark Jon Jordan's page for more of the same next Monday. Remember to also check out words of wisdom and mirth from experienced games journalists Susan Arendt and Harry Slater each week.


Reviewer photo
Jon Jordan 29 May 2018

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