This Week in Games - When Anime Mobile Games Die

2 weeks ago 8

Hello again! Well, um… pretty slow week for gaming news, huh? Let's see… Cyberpunk 2077 went gold and kicked off a bunch of talk about industry crunch again, which is a conversation we're still afraid to have as an industry… Masahiro Sakurai showed off more Alex and Steve gameplay for Super Smash Bros UltimateSony wants to make the X button confirm globally... oh! There's a teaser trailer for the Monster Hunter movie! Let's take a look at that!

… what the actual shit was that? Is there a Monster Hunter spinoff with guns and Jeeps I'm unaware of? Yeesh. I think the only reason this isn't causing more online hate is because Monster Hunter is still pretty niche in North America and Europe.

Oh yeah, there's a new date set for the Super Nintendo World themed area opening at Universal Studios Japan! I'm eager to see that whenever I'm actually, like, allowed to leave the country again.

There's this official video tearing down the internals of the PlayStation 5, as well, which is pretty cool if hardware dissection is your thing. It's kinda lost on me, though, I just want more game footage. Oh, and the Game Gear Micro is out in Japan and is absurdly tiny! Here's what it looks like next to a Dreamcast VMU, courtesy of Famitsu!

Yeah, uh, kinda sparse for content this week. There is a big upcoming game I have a preview on deck for, but that won't be able to go live for a couple more days. I suppose I could talk a bit about games I'm playing.

Like Hades! Man, Hades is great. Best roguelike I've played in years. Great characters (with lots of voiced dialogue), incredible art style, fast and frenetic combat, snarky humor, and a reward cycle that keeps you wanting to play more and more. Every time I boot it up, I expect to only do one attempt but wind up doing three or four. It's an absolute must-play if you enjoy action-RPGs. Even if the roguelike elements don't sound like they would appeal to you, you'll quickly come to understand that each death in Hades only means you're getting better and stronger.

Well, anyway, since I've got a column to fill, how about we talk about a subject that's been on my mind lately?

ANIME-LICENSED MOBILE GAMES: WHY THEY TEND TO DIE OFF

A few days ago, it was announced that the Black Clover: Phantom Knights mobile game would be ending service in December of this year, just a little over two years after is launched in Japan. An English version had only just launched this year, leaving international fans who picked up the game a few months ago reeling – it felt like things had only just started, and now the game's getting killed.

Of course, it's not the only anime-based mobile game casualty of 2020. Attack on Titan Tactics, Symphogear XD, and Magia Record all spring to mind. AoT Tactics was a complete global shutdown, while Symphogear and Magia Record's Japanese servers are still going. Symphogear XD was particularly bizarre: it lasted only a little over three months in English before shutdown was announced. That game barely had time to find an audience -- why would the plug get pulled so fast?

Let's talk about what the market for mobile games – particularly gacha games – looks like. We all know that mobile games can make tons and tons of money if they're really successful, and that they're generally cheaper to make than a typical console title. But there are lots of mobile games out there, and only a select few of the bunch become really, really successful. Most ongoing mobile games, even ones we'd look at and say “yeah, that's doing well” don't pull in the crazy numbers of Fate/Grand Order or Granblue Fantasy.

Since these titles operate on a games-as-a-service, there's a constant need for new investment: keeping the server up-to-date and online, commissioning new art, story scripts, and voice recordings, designing new gameplay features, enemies, and events, and so on. It might not seem like much at first, but all of this begins to add up, especially if you want production values on par with some of the flashier games on the market.

Statistics show that most players of these free-to-play titles either don't spend at all or spend relatively sparsely. The so-called “whales,” the big-time spenders willing to drop crazy coin for a chance at the perfect waifu, are what's keeping many of these games afloat -- and without a healthy population of whales, the costs of maintaining an ongoing mobile game don't add up. And the attention of whales can be very fleeting, particularly when it comes to licensed properties.

I check the “service ending” report page on Japanese industry website Social Game Info fairly often, and one thing I've noticed is that, as a whole, licensed anime mobile games simply don't tend to last very long. Sure, there are exceptions, but many of the longer-lived games tend to have evergreen, globally popular licenses attached: Dragon Ball, One Piece, Captain Tsubasa. The average shelf life for a game based on a breakout hit from the current anime season seems to be about one-and-a-half to two years. Hey, that's about how long Black Clover: Phantom Knights was around! Seems like it's fitting the pattern to a T.

Why the short shelf life? The explanation seems pretty simple: a mobile game releases at a time when a licensed property is hot and fresh in peoples’ minds. As time passes and the series ends or goes on hiatus, players lose interest in the property and, by extension, the game based on it, moving on to other things. Eventually, the cost to produce new content becomes unfeasible, so the game just chugs along for a bit until a shutdown announcement. If something happens to the series – say, it gets a new season after a few years of hiatus – then it's more lucrative to simply launch a brand-new game with the same license, profit off of a fresh wave of initial excitement then to keep a zombie game alive in the hopes that it might pick up again. Then you just repeat the same process, keeping that game going until the enthusiasm around the license is gone.

In the past year or so, though, that process seems to have sped up considerably – many mobile games are dying in a little over a year's time, sometimes even in just a few months, like Card Captor Sakura: Happiness Memories, which lasted a mere nine months. Free-to-play is a game service model that's been around for many years now, and predictive models have been developed to help companies determine what future engagement and spending patterns will be like. Companies can now make a very educated guess as to how profitable (or unprofitable) a game will be from mere months of player data, and if it looks bad, there's no hesitation to shut it down.

I'm sure those models were used when it came time to decide the fate of AoT Tactics, Symphogear XD, and Black Clover: Phantom Knights. Magia Record, however, is an odd case to me. Aniplex has a massive mobile hit in Fate/Grand Order, and the money they make from that game could very easily subsidy a lot of their less popular titles. While the Madoka Magica universe isn't nearly as popular as, say, Naruto, it has a strong fanbase – one that Aniplex would earn a lot of goodwill from by keeping happy. Shutting down the English version of Magia Record – which, might I remind you, had a direct tie-in anime that aired very recently – seems really short-sighted in terms of keeping their audience loyal and happy. Given that Aniplex wants to peddle expensive Blu-Ray collector's boxes and merchandise to that same group of fans for the foreseeable future, I feel like pissing off those loyal Magia Record players might come back to bite them in the ass in a bad way.

Anyway, I think the lesson we should take away here is: a lot of licensed anime mobile games are made to be inherently disposable after a while, and even the ones that the developers don't assume will die off in a couple of years are at risk of dying at a moment's notice if they don't get enough trust fund babies and Saudi princes dropping money. Keep this in mind, and you'll likely save yourself a lot of heartbreak in the future.

Okay then! We've come to the end of a very rambly This Week in Games. Do you play any anime-based mobile free-to-play titles? Have you ever experienced a beloved free-to-play game shutting its doors suddenly? Are you itching to hatewatch the Monster Hunter movie later this year? Sit down in our cozy little forums and share your tales of shuttered servers and lost jpeg collections. I'll see you next week for a hopefully more exciting This Week in Games!

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