Joel Julkunen is the Head of Analytics at GameRefinery by Vungle, which provides feature-level analytics, market insights, and benchmarks for the mobile gaming industry. He leads GameRefinery’s analytics department and has a significant role in developing the algorithms and statistical models used in the company. Julkunen has been playing games ever since he could hold a NES 8-bit controller, and now with over 500 mobile games played and analyzed, he has a pretty good idea about the “do’s and don’ts” as well as trends of today’s mobile game market.
Following a recent GameRefinery's report on casino games, showing it is the second biggest earner on the US app stores, the expert argues there is a lot of variety in the genre, casino games and apps are constantly innovating and exciting to play. He also notes and explains the competition against real people in real-time, and the US ban on casino websites.
We recently undertook a deep-dive analysis of the mobile ‘Casino’ genre in the US. We found that casino games generated an incredible 17.2% of all iOS mobile gaming revenues in the US App Store in Q4 2020. This makes the genre the second-biggest revenue generator on mobile in the US after ‘Match3’ puzzle games. The top-performing titles were:
But why have casino games experienced such rapid growth? The conclusions we can draw from our findings are:
1. There is a lot of variety in the genre
The sheer amount of high-revenue generating apps across the three main casino game subgenres (‘Bingo,’ ‘Slots,’ ‘Poker/Cards’) is impressive. Casino games follow a proven formula in terms of core gameplay to help fans of the genre feel at home. Yet each app offers something unique to differentiate from one another, with some of the deeper nuances of each game similar to what we see in Match3 games that also have to compete with other games with very similar gameplay functions.
Slots is a highly competitive subgenre, for instance, with the top five titles extremely close in terms of revenue generated.
Image 1: Highest ranking slots games
The slots subgenre is the most prominent in the casino category, with slots games responsible for 80% of the category’s revenue. Poker/cards and the bingo subgenres are a bit different - each subgenre has one stand-out game that earns more revenue than its competitors.
While the top five slots games are pretty even when it comes to the amount of revenue each title generates, there is typically one title in the poker/cards and bingo subgenres that make at least one-third or even half of all subgenre revenue.
2. Casino games and apps are constantly innovating
To ensure that they’re retaining player interest, the top revenue-generating casino games constantly innovate and introduce new mechanics.
We found that the top games across the casino category all have key features and USPs that expand on the original casino concept and make it better. They can include guild mechanics, ‘piggy-bank’ mechanics, and more. A lot of these features, though similar, are customized to be unique to each game to enhance the gameplay experience.
Image 2: Slotomonia
The most successful games also provide diverse gameplay systems, such as giving players the possibility of gathering treasure and other collectibles. Slotomania, for example, has a sticker book mechanic, where players can win in-game currency by filling up pages with the related collectibles.
Slotomania also has a ‘guild’ system called ‘Clans,’ as does Huuuge casino Slots Vegas 777. The latter boasts Billionaire League Clubs, enabling players to meet others and join forces to create a customizable group (Club) to compete against other clubs and earn rewards.
3. Casino games are simply exciting to play
Using a proprietary player motivation model, we’re able to assess what makes players want to engage with casino games and apps and what keeps them coming back for more.
Our modeling suggests that the average player is motivated by exciting and thrilling gameplay experiences. Players will chase the high brought by mega wins, which is the main reason behind the ‘excitement & thrill’ motivation, just like in real casinos. Rolling the slots in the hope of a mega win exploding onto your screen with all its fanfare and adrenaline rush can be rewarding enough to keep playing the game. Players also enjoy the experience of collecting bonuses such as treasure. That unique combination means that people could simply be flocking to casino games because they’re fun to play.
Image 3: Casino games player motivations
Casino games’ competitive aspect also plays a significant motivational role in players’ minds – especially in the poker/cards subgenre. People want to take on others at traditional card-based games and prove that they’re the better player.
It’s no wonder the most popular casino apps and games are the ones that have best understood these motivations and have tweaked the experience, and introduced mechanics that offer players innovative ways to play.
4. Competing against real people in real-time
We pooled together some of the key features that the most successful 20% of casino games utilize at a much higher rate than other casino games to find which mechanics are the most successful at setting the best games apart from the rest.
The most popular mechanics we found across the most successful titles are live events by far and away. Recurring live events are the most popular feature of all, with non-recurring live events coming a close second.
Image 4: Popular features in casino games
Casino games’ appeal doesn’t just lie in being fun to play or an upgraded version of a classic game with shiny new game mechanics. A huge draw is players being able to take on others in real-time without worrying about losing any real money hanging over their heads.
Paired with our motivational data (that shows competing against other players is a big part of why people play), mechanics that allow people to pick up and play against others in real-time is a vital feature of the most successful casino games and apps.
5. The US ban on casino websites
Perhaps one of the most straightforward reasons for mobile casino games’ success in the US is that for some, it could be a substitute for online gambling. As you’re likely aware, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 makes it illegal to operate or own an online gambling website anywhere in the United States. App-based casino games, though, tap into the same motivational drivers as the real casino slots. Still, the ability to cash out actual money is not there, making it legally possible to operate.
These factors, combined with the video-game-like nature of current casino games on iOS, have seen the vertical become a revenue tour-de-force, with many developers and publishers evolving the genre to new heights.
The top-performing casino apps and games have many common themes and mechanics tailored to fit each subgenre. The most successful games have got the balance just right, enhancing the game’s authentic experience and elevating it with more modern game mechanics.
The technical aspects have also been cleverly complemented by inherent motivations that draw people to traditional casinos in the first place; the desire to compete against others and win big, albeit in a much safer and more controlled manner.
One thing’s for sure; mobile casino games shouldn’t be overlooked and are evolving alongside traditional mobile video game experiences to capture a market that thrives on competition. It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on the subgenres and their evolution in the future and if they continue to adopt features from other mobile game genres.
You can find the data and insight for this article in GameRefinery’s recently released Casino Snapshot Report – March 2021.