When going through the year’s archive for a wrap-up article, one headline from February that felt like Groundhog’s Day was about the Nordics’ dominance on the Top Grossing iPhone charts. There the Nordic titans King and Supercell were leading with Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, followed by premium app Minecraft Pocket Edition going up and down as presumably more and more middle schoolers got iPhones as presents.
A year later we could copy paste the same article and play it off as a new one, with King and Supercell dominating with their main apps, trailing in the top 10 with their secondary titles, and Minecraft playing catchup. The Nordic countries have been extremely successful at maintaining their position on the app store charts, almost to a downright boring degree from a tech writer’s perspective. There’s no horse race for the leading poll here, just a general curiosity who will fill up the rest of the charts.
Yesterday expanding the emphasis from the top 10 grossing to the top 15 iPhone charts (to include more local companies and not the Kardashians) Stockholm and Helsinki built 9 of the 15 top grossing apps including three titles by Supercell, three titles by King, Spotify, Mojang, and a Helsinki-based team behind SimCity Buildit. Analyst Terro Kuittinen paints it even clearer for the iPad charts:
Stunning day – 7 out of Top 10 US iPad apps with biggest revenue were made by firms based in Helsinki or Stockholm http://t.co/xqr6RcCQiy
— Tero Kuittinen (@teroterotero) January 5, 2015
As an example of how well their positions have been maintained, look at King’s Candy Crush Saga’s chart from launch in November of 2012 until today using data from App Annie.
Zooming in by letting the game establish itself two months, you see how little variations there are in its position – a drop to #5 in Top Grossing is about as low as Candy Crush will go. Clash of Clans’s chart might as well be the same after being launched August of 2012, two and a half years ago.
Can game companies innovate?
What’s different this year is the rise of sister titles. Supercell’s Boom Beach is clearly a tweaked version of Clash of Clans while King’s Candy Crush Soda Saga adds a splash of soda to the mix in their new contender.
The “let’s compare everything to Nokia” narrative is getting tired up north but the dominant players have been sticking really close to what they know despite their massive budget, sort of like Nokia’s un-risky and incremental innovations that led to eventual panic when the iPhone came around.
In 2013 (last available numbers) Supercell posted $892 million in revenue, meanwhile King raised $326 million at their IPO. With a fraction of that set aside for a testing and R&D budget I should hope these companies would find out a way to make my phone shoot lasers or experiment with new forms of engaging and profitable gameplay. While there will always be a market for puzzle games and war games, you would hope Candy Crush and Clash of Clans should feel as old and outdated Solitaire and Minesweeper ten years after they launched. Instead it seems like there’s no reason they’ll leave the top of the charts or stop iterating on the same idea. If it’s not broken, why fix it?
Clearly it’s difficult for any company to climb the charts with a new title, which makes Supercell’s Summer of 2012 one-two punch of Hay Day and Clash of Clans seems all the more remarkable – they’re not the same game with different skin but managed to hit the charts hard just the same. Watching Supercell this 2015 it will be interesting to see if Supercell releases any truly fresh titles, or if they only provides a new title update to Hay Day, or a new resource class to Boom Beach. With Softbank buying 51% of Supercell for sharing the same 300 year company vision, hopefully we’ll see the groundwork laid for something bigger.
Looking towards Stockholm you can’t fault King for not throwing enough shots up at the goal in the puzzle genre – mix together any sugar sweet noun like bubble or puppy, throw in a cute verb like waddle or flip end it in Saga, and King has probably made that game in their 190+ title collection started in 2003. If the game has enough traction behind it, you’ll also see King pump enough money into user acquisition to see it also appear on the top grossing charts – like with Pet Rescue Saga around the time of their IPO, Bubble Witch Saga, and now Farm Heroes Saga (another puzzle game, not a Hay Day competitor).
These secondary games are motivating in-app purchases as well – in King’s Q3 conference call early November CEO Riccardo Zacconi pointed out their non-Candy Crush Saga gross bookings were $264 million, or 49% of their gross total bookings that period. But with Candy Crush Soda Saga looking like the new #2 for King you have to ask yourself, can they just keep doing Candy Crush forever?
Innovation is still dangerous
It wasn’t too long ago that Rovio was Finland’s sweetheart in the gaming scene with Angry Birds hitting the critical mass to essentially come pre-installed on every new handset, mentioned on TV, and collaborate with brands as giant as Star Wars.
Rovio took a good stab at differentiating their titles away from Angry Birds’ slingshot, such as with Amazing Alex, Bad Piggies, or racing game Angry Birds Go. While they’ve been pushing the “We’re an entertainment company” line for a long time, Rovio seems to now only be in the entertainment business with highest game title, Angry Birds, at position #164 on the top grossing list. Merchandizing is only carrying the company so far as well – this December Rovio laid off 110 employees as it hired a new CEO.
While once Rovio was the king of the charts, what the Espoo-based company missed was how to turn their premium priced games into profitable Free to Play games as the market shifted, without the desperate cash grab mechanics and the in-content advertising found in Angry Birds Go that turned off many users. A similar outside shock, like what F2P did to Rovio could also hit today’s chart toppers.
While Stockholm and Helsinki should be proud of how well they’re holding onto the App Store market, we should also keep in mind how both complacency and bad bets can kill companies. Will King, Supercell, or an outsider find the happy medium in 2015?