In mobile gaming, industry observers have always assumed that more powerful smartphones will mean bigger, more complex games. And that certainly seems to be the case at times, with titles like PUBG Mobile and Arena of Valor thriving on today’s phones.
But a surprising exception is on the rise. Some mobile game developers are becoming expert at a form of absolute minimalism—games with very few features, attractive without being stunning, and definitely not taking advantage of the latest and greatest mobile hardware. These so-called hyper casual games are the opposite extreme of core games, so simple that they can be “explained in a screenshot”, as former Rovio vice president Eric Seufert puts it.
Super simple mobile games aren’t a new concept—they go all all the way back to the Nokia feature phones and one of the most famous mobile games of all time, Snake. What’s different today is that hyper casual is growing, with more games rising in the app store charts, and more of those turning into blockbusters with millions of players.
Tapping to the top
The modern trend may have started with Flappy Bird. Before that bird, we had Angry Birds, a decidedly more complex game; plus the likes of Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, and Puzzle & Dragons, feature-rich games that users had to spend quite some time on before totally getting immersed in the experience.
But it was Flappy Bird that let everyone know that bigger wasn’t necessarily better. Flappy Bird developer Dong Nguyen smashed the industry definitions of a casual hit, turning his game into an internet sensation, and earning around $50,000 a day from mobile ads during its peak.
Nearly five years later, hyper casual games occupy many spots on the top 10 free charts. And it’s not just established publishers who are turning up. Indie developers like Serkan Ozyilmaz are sharing the space with top publishers. Voodoo, an experienced hyper casual publisher that currently has more than 15 hyper casual titles in the top 100 charts, recently raised $200 million from Goldman Sachs. Meanwhile Zynga bought Turkish dev Gram Games in June 2018, possibly in anticipation of more growth in the genre.
A big part of what allows hyper casual to succeed today is about mobile ads. The bulk of Nguyen’s paycheck came from banner ads, a low-yield ad format in which a developer gets paid an average of $.001 per impression. Today, rewarded video ads are the format of choice; good rewarded video ad implementations earn many times more revenue than banners could from similar audience sizes. Using rewarded video ads, Nguyen could have been earning much more per day.
And he likely could have expected even more revenue today, because the smartphone audience itself has grown as well, from 1.3 billion in 2013 to 2.5 billion in 2018. Who wouldn’t want to make a million per day from a one-person project?
Of course, the popular hyper casual games of today also feel different from Flappy Bird. The prominence of rewarded video ads has helped make casual games better by incentivizing developers to make the ad experience fun for users—even if not all the ads are rewarded.
Interstitial ads and banner ads still appear in Voodoo’s Helix Jump, placed so as to not annoy players. Banner ads often take up only a small space at the bottom of the screen, where they can’t get in the way of delicately timed taps or swipes. Interstitials are usually served only after a player dies a particular number of times in a row, and never in the middle of gameplay, removing the risk of accidental clicks and increasingly disgruntled players.
With rewarded ads, the community’s overwhelmingly positive reaction to the ad format has made developers generous. Players exchange views for an extra life, increased daily rewards, for skipping levels, and even new content. In Stack Jump, players can use rewarded video ads to unlock new character skins. Ketchapp’s Knife Hit introduces a whole tier of knives that can only be unlocked using rewarded video ads.
Stack Jump / Via Voodoo
Although to say that hyper casuals are purely ad-based in regards to monetization is misleading. Some have a single paid option— a one-time fee to remove mobile ads. But developers are discovering that ad monetization is enough. Space Ape Games even decided to eliminate the option to remove the ads from their arcade shooter Fastlane. “A Fastlane player should want ads. TV shows have been designed around ad breaks for years and our game is too as it’s the business model we’ve chosen from the start,” writes Space Ape’s head of growth, Nicolas Boulay.
Knife Hit may give a hint of how hyper casual will develop in the future, mixing ad monetization with something more complex than the standard—a subscription option, unusual outside of core games like PUBG Mobile or Mobile Legends by Moonton. For a weekly fee of $4.99, players receive special knives, added experience, and more daily login rewards.
Design: Making hard stuff look easy
For games with no narratives and extremely simple in-game action, a surprising amount of thought goes into hyper casual titles. Unlike other mobile games that have the time and space to unpack gratification, hyper casuals have to deliver satisfaction very quickly.
These games need to be visually and aurally appealing. Bright colors and a sound effect for every tap the player makes are just some ways hyper casuals keep engagement high for short bursts of play. For games like Helix Jump, the physics of the ball, the realistic drag and squish, are all part of the fun.
Helix Jump / Via Voodoo
Controls have to be very precise—tap a fraction of a second too late and it’s game over. Flappy Bird once again provides a good example of the thought that goes into hyper casual gaming: Nguyen felt the 100 millisecond standard latency between a button press and respond, typical to console games, was too slow. So he put work in tuning that number down to 17 milliseconds—a change his millions of players likely never consciously noticed.
Gameplay: Making hard stuff feel fun
“Casual” has never meant “easy,” contrary to what outside observers might think. Hyper casuals are designed to be hard. Your progress resets to zero every time you die. Levels are often procedurally generated, so you can’t just memorize layouts to beat it. You can play for hours, and still die in the first round from a badly timed move.
At first glance, high difficulty goes against sense for mobile games that are just supposed to kill time. But Hugo Peyron, Voodoo’s publishing manager, thinks casual gamers like the crunch. “We found that making the game more difficult made the game ‘stickier’. My explanation is that people want a ‘snackable’ game. If something takes longer than 15 minutes, that’s going to dissuade them from coming back for another challenge,” he shared in a GameAnalytics interview.
High-end gaming will always hold a special place in the hearts of mobile game developers. Many remember growing up in a world where the best 3D graphics, the most gore, or most complex gameplay, was necessary to make blockbuster hits. And all of those things do still work—for some games. But hyper casual is proving that, like mobile phones themselves, not all good things come in grand packages. In 2018, it’s still early days for this hyper casual trend: Just like in Stack Jump, the only way to go is up.