How Mobile Games Like Fortnite Survive On Selling Visuals

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For games like Fortnite, looks are everything; the only in-app purchases in the game are cosmetic items. Yet Fortnite Mobile still earned $92 million within three months of release, crushing the common wisdom that cosmetics don’t work in mobile — but pay-to-win does. Is a change taking place in mobile gaming, or is Fortnite an anomaly?

While there aren’t many mobile games comparable to Fortnite or Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds yet, growing evidence suggests mobile players are open to cosmetic item sales. Pixonic’s online multiplayer shooter War Robots has introduced cosmetic sales to their lineup of in-app purchases, for instance, with custom paint jobs for robots. Even super casual developers like Ketchapp are selling cosmetic items in their small, simple games.

Sometimes it’s the audience: the mobile demographic is broader than it used to be. And in some cases, it’s the implementation, including trends like rewarded ads that distribute cosmetic items.

Why pretty but useless still sells

In Fortnite, players can pay to customize loading screens, outfits, gliders, backpacks — and none of those purchases have any effect on the game. Paint jobs in War Robots do nothing except make robots look cooler.

In the absence of items that augment strength, cosmetic items becomes a way to signal skill. In Fortnite, using a default avatar earns you the moniker “No Skin” and signals your ineptitude, even though there is no direct correlation between skill and, for instance, that unicorn floater strapped to your character’s back.

Aside from skill, cosmetic items are a symbol of status for the right kind of player. “It’s almost like younger players are treating Fortnite skins like action figures. It has really become a part of the culture to have the latest skin, the latest fashion,” says SuperData analyst Carter Rogers.

The catch is that a game selling cosmetics needs to have a wide variety to interest players. War Robots’ developer reported that skins only began selling well after the game had more than 32 options. A large community is also vital — both to have enough enough potential buyers, and enough people for those buyers to show off to.

Ads work well for cosmetics in casual games

Beyond competitive and multiplayer games, cosmetics are also gaining traction in very casual games.

The trend of casual games succeeding with cosmetic items may have started in Crossy Road. The Frogger-like hit had hundreds of characters, most of which didn’t change the gameplay in any way. But players still spent huge amounts of time collecting coins and watching ads to collect new characters. It was good, simple fun — and an indicator of how successful casual games would become a few years later.

Today, Ketchapp shows cosmetic items in its super casual (and super popular) game Knife Hit, where the only goal is to throw knives between narrow spaces. Like Crossy Road, it’s a single player experience, and the knives have no effect on gameplay. But players are still keen to collect ‘em all, through gameplay and “paying” by watching rewarded ads. There’s a whole tier of knives that players can only acquire by watching a certain number of ads.

Rewarded ads and cosmetic items go well together because players can watch any number of ads — and earn any number of rewards — without unbalancing the game. And what’s being proven today in mobile is that players no longer demand huge mechanical benefits in the game; just as in PC or console games, they also value content for the status, prestige, or simple satisfaction of collecting it. The age of pay-to-win may not be over, but for the first time, it has serious competition.