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‘Competition’ in the mobile video game market

Over the last few years, mobile platforms have become something like a new frontier for game developers. This is great for some reasons, but not so great for others.  Among these not so great factors, we have things like an overabundance of (poor quality) games, a host of investors seeking only to capitalize on an expanding market, and largely as a result of that last one, we have skyrocketing user acquisition costs. This has led many to declare the current mobile video game market landscape as “competitive.”

In a certain sense, of course it’s competitive. When a market is as oversaturated as this one, and you’ve got puppies clawing tooth and nail to make it to the top of the litter, yeah, that’s competition. We, as game developers, are competing for an audience.

As obvious as that logic might seem, part of me disagrees with this idea that the video games market is one characterized by fierce competition. I would argue that any competition in the industry is entirely artificial. Let’s think about this for a second, on the most basic terms.

Defining competition

Wikipedia just told me that in economics, competition is ”the rivalry among sellers trying to achieve such goals as increasing profits, market share, and sales volume by varying the elements of the marketing mix: price, product, distribution, and promotion.

If we look at the mobile video game market through the eyes of an economist, then we see a market that is oversaturated with a surplus of products on the market, with all players fighting to capture users through a limited number of distribution and promotional resources. Competition, right?

Here’s the thing though – the economist is viewing games as products. Video games are, of course, products; developers make games, and then other people buy those games, just as they would any other product. But like other media, games are more than just products – they’re art (literally, the NEA says so). What’s cool about art is that humans have an endless appetite for it, so long as it is in some way stimulating.

Let me illustrate with an example: say you have an incredible picture of a cat on your wall. You’re out at the store and you see the most beautiful drawn image of a hat you have ever seen in your life. Do you think to yourself “well, I already have a picture of a cat, so as much as I like this image of this hat, I really don’t need it…”? NO! You fork over whatever amount of cash it takes to get the picture of a hat into your living room, and up on the wall next to (or perhaps above) your picture of a cat.

I would argue that video games (and movies, books, etc.) are exactly the same. As consumers of video games, we don’t ever say “no thanks, quite enough games, thank you.” Quite to the contrary – gamers are a ravenous breed that will play and play and play so long as the product is fun. Do you see Animal Crossing: New Leaf in the store and think, “no thank you, I don’t need it because I’ve already got Call of Duty: Black Ops?”

I think I’ve made my point pretty clear by now, but if not, what I’m trying to say is that video games, as products, carry independent use values. As long as a video game has some semblance of originality to it, it occupies its own space in the market and does not enter into direct competition with any other games (obviously the more original the game, the truer this will be).

I think what many describe as competition in the mobile video game market is really something more like competition for a spot in the video game marketplace; you can’t really compete if you don’t have a seat at the table. Or a more appropriate analogy might be an art gallery: ‘customers’ are more like spectators, who engage with the works that they find the most interesting. Much like buying a piece of art to take home and display at your home is an optional investment, investing money in a freemium game is entirely up to the user. The only obstacle between the ‘artist’ and the ‘spectator,’ is visibility. They can’t see your work if it isn’t up on the wall at the gallery. That coveted spot on the wall is what artists and game developers are competing for.

In terms of economics, that probably still qualifies as competition, but let’s not take this idea that the mobile video game market is “competitive” as our cue to protectively hoard our ideas and eye each other suspiciously. Let’s do the opposite of that: play games our peers are making, tell our own audiences and fan bases about them, and spread the love around.