Companion apps: A look into the past, present, and future

By Katherine O'Harrow
Monday, June 29, 2015 / 3 min read

Fallout_1

This year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) brought in 50,000 attendees to the Los Angeles Conference Center for the first time in a decade, and featured a wide range of exciting game previews for consoles, PCs, and mobile devices. One of the biggest announcements for both the gaming and mobile gaming communities was that of Fallout Shelter, an iOS companion app for the highly anticipated game Fallout 4, which will be available on PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4 in November of this year. While companion apps – mobile apps that are connected thematically or strategically to a console game – are nothing new, Fallout Shelter has made headlines by pushing mobile giant King’s Candy Crush Saga out of the number three spot on the top-grossing app chartFallout_Quote

This success will likely encourage other game publishers to follow suit and develop their own mobile companion apps, which will continue this year’s trend of strengthening the relationship between mobile and console gaming. Taking a look back into the origin of companion apps and games, it’s clear to see that there has been a fair amount of experimentation to varying levels of success. To get a clear look at what may be in store for the future of companion apps and what effects it will have on the mobile gaming industry as a whole, it’s useful to take a brief look at their history.

2003: Companion apps with a cross-promotional function

When Nintendo released their Gamecube console in 2001, it supported a cable-link feature that wasn’t fully utilized until around 2003. Players were able to connect their portable Gameboy Advance systems to their Gamecube to play minigames, “upload” data from a sister game, or participate in other innovative gameplay. While smartphones had not yet been embraced by the majority of the population, the handheld Gameboy Advance served as a stand-in. This connectivity needed a literal wire, but it can be safely assumed that this type of game inspired later iterations of the companion app which would become entirely wireless with the inevitable smartphone takeover.

2009: Companion apps as a fan service

Many consider Champions Companion to be the first real companion app that fully utilized iOS. Connected to the game Champions Online, Champions Companion (released in 2009) started to shape the trend into what it is today. Players were able to “view the in-game news, view your friends list and friend activity streams, and even send and receive in-game emails”. The same year, WoW Armory set the stage for other “armory” type companion apps – essentially a database for information weapons, characters, etc. – to become popular. However, in 2011 World of Warcraft, removed its companion Facebook app in favor of of a web API, which prompted fans to take matters into their own hands and start production of user-generated companion apps.

2013: Companion apps as a marketing vehicle

With the release of Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar Games also released not one but two separate companion apps. This was a milestone as it showcased the variety of possibilities within the genre. The first app, iFruit, was comprised of a custom car maker and a mini game, while the second app was a game guide.

2015: Companion apps as revenue generators

Today, the business model of creating companion apps as a way to market the core title seems to be more prevalent than past trends. Fallout Shelter has remained in the top spot for adoptions which has proven that it has served its purpose as a marketing tool, but the fact that it was also able to oust Candy Crush from its number three spot on the top-grossing charts hints that this game has become something much more. Some estimate that, in order to have made it to the number three spot on the top-grossing charts, Fallout Shelter brought in approximately one million dollars in daily revenue. The power of a big name IP is obvious when it comes to initial downloads by fans, but smart monetization mechanics are essential to becoming a top-grossing app.

Especially in scenarios when a developer’s target demographic is console or PC gamers, opt-in ad formats are a natural way monetize their companion app without fear of scaring their players away. While in-app purchases (IAPs) are already implemented in Fallout Shelter, it will be interesting to see if rewarded ad content will be integrated now that the game has staying power as a stand alone title. While it may sound counter-intuitive to include ads in an app that was originally designed as a marketing tool itself, there are strong indicators that some ad formats can actually strengthen the engagement that players have with a game. For example, a recent study conducted by Fyber in partnership with a major game publisher, shows that rewarded apps increase both the likelihood that a player will make an in-app purchase, and the likelihood that they will remain active in the game. No companion apps currently use this mechanic, but it would be a solid prediction that this may be the case in the future, as it has proven to work for top mobile game publishers.