Newzoo’s Deep Dive: IP-based mobile games, from movies, TV, books, and toys

IP-based mobile games

Games based on established franchises (IP-based games) are on the rise.

As we predicted in our Global Mobile Market Report, this rise is now especially apparent on the mobile—owing to the platform’s lower barriers to entry (compared to console and PC). There’s a reason why 2.7 million people play on mobile.

In this article, we’ll use data from our partner Apptopia to explore the growth of IP-based games across the mobile platform. The analysis is based on 230 entertainment IP-based games currently available on app stores—as well as our analysts’ insights into key drivers for top games globally and in local markets.

The Changing Mobile Landscape Is Making Publishers Pay More Attention to IP-Based Games

Mobile gaming, its audience, and the revenues it generates are undeniably huge. However, the removal of Apple’s Advertising Identifier (IDFA) is a sweeping change that will ripple throughout the mobile ecosystem.

IP-based mobile games will have a vital role to play in a post-IDFA mobile market, as publishers are increasingly looking to diversify the ways they organically acquire users.

At the same time, mobile’s impressive revenue and audience growth has caught the attention of big entertainment companies. This was amplified by the pandemic, which put many brands’ ad spend in flux.

Simply put, entertainment companies are keen to inject their IP into mobile games, and mobile games are keen to use it. But the top three IP game franchises globally might surprise you.

Revenues: Mobile’s Top Game Franchises Based on Film, TV, and Books

Between January 1, 2015 and March 15, 2021, the top three IP-based mobile game franchises worldwide by revenue were:

  • Journey to the West (famous Chinese literature dating back to the 16th century) with $5.4 billion in net revenues.
  • Marvel (a globally popular superhero franchise) with $2.2 billion.
  • And Onmyoji (originally a Japanese novel published in 1988) with $1.1 billion.

It is worth mentioning that despite having a popular anime and trading-card game, the Pokémon franchise originally started as a game, which is why we haven’t included it.

The overwhelming majority (99 percent) of Journey to the West’s mobile game revenues came from China. What’s more, around 90 percent of the franchise’s in-app purchases (IAP) revenues came from two MMORPGs from NetEase, Fantasy Westward Journey and Westward Journey.

Historically, the biggest Marvel title on mobile is Kabam’s Marvel Contest of Champions, a 3D fighting game first published in 2014. Lifetime revenue for Contest of Champions currently sits at around $1.3 billion, with the U.S. being its biggest market, accounting for 56 perecnt of all revenue.

Despite being based on Japanese literature, Onmyoji is most successful in China, where NetEase launched a turn-based mobile RPG named after the property in 2016. This Onmyoji game accounts for 95 perent of all revenues generated from the Onmyoji IP.

NetEase has since tried to recapture Onmyoji’s success for the Japanese market, but localization challenges stopped this from happening. The company subsequently launched three more Onmyoji (in 2017, 2019 and 2020), but none of them reached the same heights as NetEase’s original.

While the top IP franchises by revenues are diverse and trace their origins from different regions, downloads tell a completely different story.

Downloads: Mobile’s Top Game Franchises Based on Film, TV, Books, and Toys

In terms of downloads across the globe, top five IP-based mobile franchises worldwide (based on games that are still active on app stores) are:

  • Despicable Me
  • Marvel
  • Strawberry Shortcake
  • Transformers
  • And Disney.

It is important to note that for Disney, we have only included original Disney IP and not the extended Disney universe, including Marvel and Star Wars.

As you can see, Western franchises aimed at younger people typically get downloaded more, but these high numbers don’t always translate to revenues.

Speaking of revenues, there are some strong regional differences in the kinds of IP-based games players are willing to spend money on. We’ll zoom on the world’s two biggest games markets and their respective top IP-based game franchises. 

Why Are Marvel Mobile Games So Popular in the U.S.?

Marvel Contest of Champions generated lifetime revenues of over $700 million in the U.S., making it the market’s biggest IP-based mobile game. But what makes it such a success (beyond its recognizable brand name)?

A steady and consistent flow of content contributes to the game’s ongoing triumphs and recurring revenues. New characters and story elements keep the players engaged.

In 2017, new characters were released every two weeks. The Marvel IP is huge and features multiple characters, meaning Kabam has a practically endless pool of content to pull from. The game boasted 150 characters as of 2019.

Every time the developer releases a new event or character, the game promotes the additions with high-production YouTube trailers. These videos often feature high-profile YouTubers and influencers, bringing in diverse engagement from specific target audiences.

Marvel Strike Force, which was launched back in 2018, is a rising star in the U.S. mobile game market. The game eclipsed Marvel Contest of Champions in 2020 with $90.5 million IAP revenues, making Strike Force the market’s top-grossing Marvel mobile game in 2020.

Of 2020’s top 200 grossing iOS games in China, 37 were IP-based. Three Kingdoms is the most common by far, accounting for 12 of these games. Yet, games based on Journey to the West generated the most revenue in 2020 on iOS in China, with $639 million net revenues from IAPs.

As mentioned at the start of this article, this success is largely driven by NetEase’s six-year-old franchise Fantasy Westward Journey. The mobile MMORPG generated close to $4 billion lifetime net revenue from Chinese gamers on iOS alone, making it one of the most successful MMORPGs on mobile in China (and therefore the world).

Why Is Fantasy Westward Journey So Popular in China?

One key factor for Fantasy Westward Journey’s success is that its economy caters to multiple play styles, meaning all players—from the biggest spenders to non-payers—can enjoy the free-to-play title.

Social-focused gameplay design is another reason for Fantasy Westward Journey’s success. The game boasts robust systems for households, marriages, guilds, friends, avatars, and more, which resonate well with many players in the Chinese market.

Thirdly, competitive and personal-development-focused gameplay design makes Fantasy Westward Journey one of China’s most-played MMOs (one that retains fans).

The key takeaway here is that strong IP is a powerful way to boost a mobile game, but the core gameplay loop should also resonate with players and complement the IP.

IP-Based Mobile Games Are Here to Stay

In the East and West alike, we expect to see even more entertainment-based IP games coming to mobile. The reverse is also true: entertainment companies are utilizing game IP for film and TV. The Last of Us, Castlevania, Fallout, Dota 2, Borderlands, and AFK Arena are just a few examples of game IP coming to other mediums.

The biggest game and entertainment companies are already building giant IP powerhouses around gaming, movies, TV, and more. This is increasingly happening via in-house creation, but also via acquisitions and investments.

As we predicted in last year’s Global Mobile Market Report, companies signed an increasing number of IP licensing deals in 2021. And we expect that they’ll continue to do so amid the removal of the IDFA—as well as rising privacy concerns across mobile.

Publishers can lean on IP-based games to generate hype and attention for their mobile games, especially if there is something else going on within a franchise. Cross-promotion is vital.

When games are released in time with movies or other relevant IP launches, publishers can expect more organic traffic and therefore a larger number of downloads and engagement. This is something we saw with games like Marvel Contest of Champions and Jurassic World: The Game.

It’s also something we expect to see even more of, and if executed correctly, IP-based games—and IP injections into games (Marvel in Fortnite, for example)—can be a truly effective tool for license holders and game makers alike. 

This article has been written by Amsterdam-based games and esports data company Newzoo, detailing the state of IP-based mobile games, and their exponential rise across the board.