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What's Old Is New Again: Subscriptions and IP Are Big in Emerging Mobile Game Markets

Feature phone subscriptions and IP

It’s out with the new, in with the old in emerging mobile game markets.

Feature phones, for example, may seem like relics of the prehistoric era, but they’re a reality for millions of users in emerging markets such as India and Latin America. And, while the rate of smartphone penetration threatens to make the hardware extinct, some habits of feature-phone-era users will persist.

Users in emerging markets have no computing experience and no prior expectations or knowledge about mobile games. Devs looking to reach them should think back to the early days of mobile and keep every part of the process—from game discovery to gameplay—simple.

Manish Agarwal is CEO of India-based Nazara Games, which offers subscription services to low-end users in 45 other countries, has identified subscriptions and IP as the two most important tactics to employ when trying to reach mobile gamers in emerging markets.

Amazon Underground logo black

Image via Amazon

Subscriptions still matter

Subscription services offering all-you-can-eat access to games were destroyed, in many countries, by the advent of the Apple App Store and Google Play. But now they’re actually doing well in emerging countries where brand new infrastructure and payment options are drawing new users. “What we’ve seen is that these consumers still need curation,” Agarwal says. “It can look a lot like Netflix.”

Agarwal is definitely onto something: subscription services are making a comeback. Amazon Underground, for instance, is reportedly earning decent revenue for some developers, while some services like KDDI Smart Pass in Japan have millions of users.

Developers targeting low-end device users can make money by putting their games on these subscription services, which pay flat rates based on usage. But Agarwal advises that games must be simple. “Don’t create complicated games, don’t create games you’d like to play yourself,” he says. “That, to me, has been the most important decision, because in game publishing you get carried away with your own biases.”

Users in developing markets, at least for now, lack the hardware and bandwidth to play games popular in markets like the U.S. and China.

Chhota Bheem Jungle Run mobile game

Image via Nazara Games

The importance of IPs for emerging users

Overall the profile of emerging market users, whether they’re on a subscription service or an open market like Google Play, is a bias toward the easy and familiar. That’s where recognizable IPs come in. “The consumer will download, among multiple choices, the game they’re familiar with,” Agarwal says.

In India, Nazara is doing well with games based on Chhota Bheem, a popular children’s animated series. Nazara’s four titles using the IP have over 10 million downloads, and 600k daily active users. Nazara is planning more deals to pay for outside IPs, too. “Some publishers would say no to that,” he says. But given the market state, you should leverage IPs to create a network faster, rather than doing it all yourself.”

While lessons learned in one emerging country won’t always transfer well to others—broader tactics such as utilizing familiar IPs and reaching users on subscription services may help some emerging market developers of today become forces to reckon with in the future.