“There’s serious money to be made in occupying idle thumbs with addictive little games”
says BBC correspondent Dave Lee,
Who, in June 2017 was in attendance at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, known as E3, in Los Angeles. E3 does not necessarily have a single focus. From the latest incarnation of Nintendo’s Super Mario to independent developers showcasing their passion projects, such as a game in which one tries to cross the Mexico-US border as an illegal immigrant, as long as it’s some form of electronic entertainment, all are welcome.
The expo was initially for developers and other industry types exclusively but, over the last years, it’s been opened to the public. This year, some 15,000 tickets were sold, with top-shelf tickets costing an eye-watering 250 dollars. From its origins as amateurs dabbling to a niche market, the electronic entertainment industry has blossomed and matured to some 90 billion dollars of game apps in 2016. Approximately half of that profit comes from cell phone apps. With so many games charging a dollar for a new outfit or 50 cents for a power upgrade and whatnot, the old adage of little piles making big piles is abundantly clear.
Apps are themselves relative newcomers to the gaming industry when compared with some of the industry behemoths like PlayStation, owned by Sony Interactive, or industry standard bearer Nintendo, who started life in 1899 as a manufacturer of playing cards. But, despite being around for less than a decade, their popularity has soared.
According to advertising and mobile analytics company Flurry, the average smartphone has 41 apps installed on it. The same company claims that some 45 billion apps are downloaded every year, with 30 billion going to iPhones and 15 to Android. Their popularity also shows no sign of diminishing, with Apple adding 20,000 apps to the Apple Store every month.
Of the most commonly downloaded apps of all time, it’s not a major surprise that the majority of those are websites whose format has been modified for a smartphone. Google Chrome, Facebook, YouTube, and Gmail are among the top five downloaded for Android. When the internet became available on cell phones, with the first iPhone generally considered the start of the smartphone revolution, it became quickly apparent that the manner in which people consumed the internet would have to be modified. It was companies like Facebook and YouTube that were large and wealthy enough to develop free apps that lead the way in app development.
Once these larger companies made their usually free apps available and smartphone use became widespread — ubiquitous in many areas — the app went from being a novelty to being a necessity. Companies that weren’t directly related to digital endeavors began to develop their own free apps in an effort to get traffic to their websites.
Tourism was an industry that embraced apps in the same way it embraced the internet a decade before. Brick-and-mortar travel agents seemingly vanished overnight when flight booking moved online in a big way. Today, online travel agent app Hopper informs users when to buy the cheapest fares in addition to what those fares are. Media outlets such as TIME, Buzzfeed, and the New York Times have named the American-Canadian app as one of the best travel apps available.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in start-up-friendly Berlin, the digitalization of the tourism industry continues. Museums and other physical attractions were, for a long time, one of the last hold-outs to going online, as people would still need to physically visit a place to buy their tickets. GetYourGuide has been changing that in recent years by virtue of allowing tourists to buy tickets to various destinations online, usually at some discount or with the virtue of being able to get directly inside without lining up upon arrival.
These sorts of comparison and time-saving apps are almost certainly not unique to the travel industry. For online gamblers, apps of this ilk can be crucial. The UK-based betting odds comparison service provider Oddschecker has become one the most successful sites in the sector since their launch in 1999. Needless to say, when they launched their app in 2014, they were able to consolidate their online presence.
In many ways, online gaming stands on the fulcrum between newer and older apps. The older apps like GetYourGuide and Hopper sought to bring services that were already catered to on the web and accessible via traditional browsers into people’s smartphones. The same can be said of Facebook or Gmail, the functions of those sites not always being compatible with touchscreen devices. The concept behind such apps has always been to move websites from desktop and laptop browsers to the cell phone.
For Oddschecker and others that focused more on entertainment, it was about creating an entirely new sub-category of digitally accessed service. Or to put it another way, apps started shifting from trying to make something that was smartphone-compatible to something that was especial for smartphones.
It was at this phase in development that the electronic entertainment industry capitalized on the change in people’s internet consumption and screen time, in general. With over three billion and counting downloads, the Angry Birds app is one of the most successful game apps of all time. So successful has the game been that it was turned into a feature-length film by Columbia pictures and even an amusement park.
Although it was first launched in 2009, not too long after the first iPhone and about a year before the first iPad, its popularity skyrocketed when people began seeing smartphones in a conceptually distinct way of playing. They were seen as extensions of a pre-existing world of laptop and desktop internet, in the same way that email was initially considered an alternative or supplement to “snail mail.” But as the internet took on a life removed from the real world when people saw its potential en masse, so too do apps break free from traditional online media.
Another factor contributing to the financial success of the gaming app industry is the freemium pricing model. By making the base game available free of charge, anyone can use it. One simply has to pay for additional features such as advanced levels, equipment, or characters, depending on the game.
Any new technology takes some time to come into its own, with developments like the bicycle and the car seen initially as little more than novel follies. Once their potential is recognized, however, they have the ability to change the world — or barring the world, the world’s markets. At just about eight years old, we may not have yet discovered the best possible use of the app format but it is nevertheless clear that bringing in some 45 billion dollars annually there are a lot fewer idle thumbs than there once were.