Minecraft builds an optimistic future for mobile gaming

by Phil Owen

I realized last week that I incorrectly use the term "core gamer" within the context of mobile gaming. As we all know, home gaming and mobile gaming are drastically different beasts. Home gaming is, in general, geared toward keeping you occupied for hours at a time, while the majority of mobile gaming is geared toward keeping you occupied for mere minutes at a time.

I don't point out the difference here in an attempt to disparage the artistic merits of mobile games. I do it because that difference is there, and it is indisputable. When we talk about killer apps within the mobile sphere, we think mostly of Angry Birds, Draw Something, Words with Friends, Temple Run, Bejeweled, Fruit Ninja, Cut the Rope, World of Goo, Ski Safari, and so on. These are all what the traditionally core gamers would call "casual" titles, and they are correct in doing so. While they may call them that as a slight, I do so simply because it is the correct term. I like those games.

But when you understand that those are the games that are made with the largest mobile gaming audience in mind, you realize that a mobile core gamer is a casual player not looking for a particularly in-depth experience. So stuff like Modern Combat and The Dark Knight Rises are not core games, and that fact is reflected in their sales numbers. Modern Combat 4, released only a few weeks ago, held the no. 48 spot on the Top Paid games chart on Google Play this past week. Meanwhile, the no. 1 game is the word puzzles called Ruzzle, which was released the day after.

Minecraft bridges casual and core

There is evidence that either traditional core gamers are starting to gravitate more to the mobile world or that mobile core gamers are starting to become traditional core gamers. That evidence is the success of Minecraft: Pocket Edition. Minecraft, a game where players build custom block-worlds out of materials found in the environment, started out as a freewheeling PC game for the extremely core set that managed to be wildly successful despite a lack of marketing. So in 2011, developers Mojang ported the game to Android, followed by an iOS release, and we learned on New Year's Day that nearly six million copies of Pocket Edition had been sold to date across Android and iOS. Mojang does not provide a breakdown of mobile numbers, and so I don't know how many of those came on Android, but Google Play says one million+. However, they do provide a running counter on how many PC/Mac copies they have sold, which as of today approaches 9 million. The next sales tier that Google declares is five million+, so it's somewhere in there.

Minecraft is also currently holding the no. 2 spot on the top paid Google Play chart, and the free demo version has been downloaded at least ten million times by Google's count. This game is without a doubt insanely popular for a very intensive mobile experience. By comparison, the timeless blockbuster port of Grand Theft Auto 3 is only on the 500,000+ sales tier, and no Modern Combat game -- that's considered the premiere mobile shooting experience, by the way -- has exceeded 100,000+.

Check out this trailer for Minecraft:

I don't quite know what to make of Minecraft's huge success. We knew it had mass appeal considering it made big waves on computers for a long time before it ever made it to phones, but excelling in the mobile sphere is a completely different animal, especially considering the Pocket Edition is a massively scaled down version of the game compared to its home counterpart. Because of that last fact, I'm not sure it's fair to assume that its mobile sales are entirely the world of folks who already bought it on their computers.

If I had to venture a guess as to what this means, I would say it is a slowly growing acceptance of more involved mobile experiences, ones that empower players to be the sole creator or their gaming experience. Judging by Modern Combat 4's numbers, I'd say we aren't to the point where most people are ready to jump all over high profile games that are niche. It has to be encouraging for mobile developer to discover that the ceiling for these types of games could be much higher than they previously thought.

Now folks like EA and Gameloft -- the guys with the money -- have to step up. The key will probably be marketing and building games that instill more creative control on the simplest of scales. Though Minecraft had little of the former, at least in the traditional sense, it did have a grass roots word-of-mouth movement behind it, which is typical among the most successful mobile games. When the big players can start to demonstrate that, hey, these games can also be for the mobile core, a whole new world might open up.

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