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Mobile games see coronoavirus surge as Chinese citizens stay home

Amid bleak warnings and reports of industry disruption, another statistic emerging from China over the last month brings some humanity to the situation. Millions are turning to games while they must stay home to avoid the coronavirus, officially named Covid-19, which continues to sweep through China.

Mobile gaming dominates in China, and China’s App Store has the number to prove it. Between January 11 and February 9, 2020, there were 45% more first-time installs of games compared to the same period last year, according to analyst group Sensor Tower.

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People aren’t just downloading games only to forget about them after. Spending is up 23%, with Game for Change (China’s version of PUBG Mobile)Honor of Kings, and Brain Out among the top performers. Players are likely spending more time with those games, giving them time to become invested enough to spend more money than they otherwise would on microtransactions.

It’s not just games seeing an uptick. Education and business apps are on the rise as people in China stay home from work and school. Katie Williams, mobile insights strategist for Sensor Tower, says the data implies parents are using apps to mitigate the learning time their children are missing.

Chinese workers, however, are expected to do as much work as possible, as the government instructed professionals to work from home. Remote working apps – with DingTalk, Tencent Conference, and WeChat Work leading the charge – saw large bumps over the last month.

Conversely, travel app usage is down. Sensor Tower reported a “significant decline” of 36% year over year, which it attributed to the travel restrictions put in place in response to the coronavirus.

All of this comes with the caveat that app usage and spending do rise over Chinese New Year celebrations, which fell on Saturday, January 25, this year. However, Williams said the comparison over the same period last year, and the weight of the figures, mark a change even when factoring in the New Year.

Chinese citizens are slowly returning to work, but reports note that the situation is far from over. It remains to be seen how long the coronavirus effect on gaming and apps will last, and what the broader implications will be.

Despite the positive turn for gaming and apps, coronavirus has negatively impacted business across the globe. The massive Mobile World Conference in Barcelona was canceled, companies relying on production and material in China have few options, and even some gaming companies face delays and product shortages.

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Nintendo’s mobile games are more influential than you might think
Alear and Marth open a door in Fire Emblem Engage.

Nintendo’s mobile games don’t get enough credit. While Nintendo had some undeniable hits like Pokémon Go and Fire Emblem Heroes, many consider the rest of its mobile efforts fairly underwhelming and even somewhat disappointing for a video game company of Nintendo’s stature. While nothing ever quite reached the high bar Pokémon Go set in 2016, Nintendo’s mobile games are a bit more influential than they get credit for.
Over the past few years, games like Pokémon: Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe have built upon their mobile counterparts. Then, during the September 13 Nintendo Direct, Fire Emblem Engage’s announcement and main gimmick cemented that Nintendo isn’t just viewing mobile games as a mostly failed side experiment. While they might not be the most successful games out there, their DNA is creeping into the Nintendo Switch’s bestselling titles.
Mediocre mobile returns
Nintendo’s mobile gaming efforts kicked off in the mid-2010s. Niantic created the AR game Pokemon Go, which quickly became a smashing success in 2016. In the six years since, the game has generated around 678 million installs and $6 billion in player spending, according to data from Sensor Tower.
While working with Niantic proved fruitful for The Pokemon Company, Nintendo partnered with DeNA for most of its initial mobile games. Unfortunately, none of these quite reached the heights analysts and Nintendo expected. Super Mario Run was a smash hit at launch but failed to sustain much interest and consistent revenue, so it’s considered a disappointment by Nintendo.
Meanwhile, other games like Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, Mario Kart Tour, Dr. Mario World, and Dragalia Lost launched, and while they’ve still made lots of money for Nintendo, most haven't matched the success of the most popular mobile titles. The biggest exception to this is Fire Emblem Heroes, a gacha game where players can summon classic Fire Emblem characters. It’s had over $1 billion in player spending alone as of June 2022 and is Nintendo’s “flagship title on the [mobile} platform,” according to Sensor Tower.
More recently, Nintendo tried to recapture the success of Pokemon Go with Niantic’s Pikmin Bloom, although that game has reportedly disappointed as well. Overall, it’s understandable why some people are surprised to see only a couple of surefire mobile hits from a company with the pedigree of Nintendo and consider it a side venture that never realized its full potential. If you look closely at the console games in these series that Nintendo put out since, though, it isn’t ignoring everything learned while making mobile games.
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Nintendo has the masterful ability to find the strongest elements of an idea, draw those out, and then expand upon them to create something uniquely memorable. We’ve seen it do this time and time again with subsequent entries of its flagship series, but it’s a mindset it has applied to its mobile games upon closer inspection.
As far back as 2018, Pokemon: Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee recognized the charm of not needing to battle a Pokemon to capture it, and incorporated that into a traditional RPG experience. More recently, items and mechanics like gardening and cooking from Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp made their way into Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe was able to revive its live service offerings by repurposing the best tracks and assets from Mario Kart Tour.
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The legacy of Nintendo’s mobile games could also be felt in the September 13 Nintendo Direct. The showcase’s first announcement was Fire Emblem Engage, which is turn-based strategy game where the main gimmick is being able to summon classic Fire Emblem characters with a ring. While it doesn’t look like Fire Emblem Engage goes full gacha, it’s clear that Nintendo recognized how people liked collecting and using classic Fire Emblem characters in a new adventure, so the developers drew and expanded upon that idea for Fire Emblem Engage.
Before the announcement of Pikmin 4, Shigeru Miyamoto also took a lot of time to highlight Pikmin Bloom. While we don’t know much about Pikmin 4’s gameplay, Nintendo could find some aspects of that game’s exploratory experience, weekly challenges, or something I’m not even thinking of to freshen up the next mainline game. The same could even happen with Super Mario Run the next time Nintendo decides to make a 2D Mario game.
While watching Fire Emblem Engage’s reveal during the latest Nintendo Direct, it became clear that Nintendo’s mobile games have quietly become influential forces in the company's console games. Nintendo has slowly plucked the best ideas out of them and brought them into Switch games without extra monetization. While the future is cloudy for Nintendo's seemingly stalled mobile push, I hope the company can still find a place for its games on mobile, using the platform as a space to experiment with its beloved series.

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During today's Ubisoft Forward stream, Ubisoft announced that it has partnered up with Netflix to bring several projects over to the streaming platform. Valiant Hearts 2, Mighty Quest 2, and an Assassin's Creed mobile game will be coming exclusively to Netflix. Plus, there's a live-action Assassin's Creed show coming to Netflix as well.

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According to a South China Morning Post report, The Pokémon Company, which is releasing Pokémon Scarlet and Violet in November, filed an order to the Shenzen Intermediate People's Court for the companies to stop the development and sale of Pocket Monster Reissue on mobile storefronts in mainland China, including those run by Tencent, Huawei, and Xiaomi. It is also asking for 500 million yuan ($72.5 million) in damages that have resulted from the game's unauthorized operation.

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