December last year was one of the most profitable months for the App Store. Within just a few weeks, the store witnessed the arrival of several hits such as Gorogoa, Inside, Arena of Valor, Sid Meier’s Civilization 6, Life Is Strange, Reigns: Her Majesty, and Fez.

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Reigns: Her Majesty, one of the hit games released in December 2017

A year before that, right before Christmas 2016, Nintendo released Super Mario Run, which joined the likes of Bully: Anniversary Edition or The Walking Dead: Season Three as the big games of this period. While some of these games are just ports of popular titles on consoles, they are still new releases for the mobile platform.

This December has been a big one as well. A pattern is clear here: The major hits usually come to mobile, both iOS and Android, towards the end of the year.

So what makes the year-end period, especially December, so appealing for mobile game makers?

REVENUE AND EXPOSURE

The Google Play Store and the App Store are not actual, physical stores, so they don’t need to display products on the shelves when a big holiday is coming to attract gift shoppers. So why are highly-anticipated games often launched in the holiday season? Why not just release them in, say, the spring or the summer?

It’s all about the connection between money and visibility. The week from Christmas to New Year brings gigantic revenue for Apple dues to the fact that many people give App Store and iTunes gift cards as presents.

According to Apple, in 2017 spending on App Store skyrocketed to $890 million in the week between December 24 and 31, and there was another $300 million on January 1, 2018 alone. People who are given a new iPhone or iPad as a gift in the holidays might also want to get some new apps to try out on their new hardware.

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The App Store sees increased visits during the holidays because many people get new phones as presents

And what games are most likely to catch their eyes when they open the App Store? The newest and biggest ones, of course. That is the reason many developers release their games in the weeks before Christmas.

Ryan Holowaty, COO of mobile game studio Noodlecake, explains that exposure is the greatest advantage. He says that the App Stores see a substantial increase in term of numbers of visits during the holidays, since people either want to get some apps for their new devices, or they have a lot of credits and thus are more likely to buy games that they normally wouldn’t.

Not only that, the CPI (cost-per-impression) rate also rise significantly in December, meaning free games that use ads to make money can be more profitable in this period as well.  It’s true that this only lasts for a short time, but the extra income is attractive enough for developers to jump into the holiday rush.

Another factor is that the App Store stops receiving new submissions and updates for a short time, usually from December 23 to 27, as a holiday break for Apple’s employees. Thus, the highlighted apps cannot be changed during those days, meaning if a game manages to get into the highlighted list, its competitors cannot knock it off until the Store opens again.  As a result, game developers ferociously compete to secure a spot in that top list for one of their big titles.

LOST IN THE FLOOD

With the stakes being so high, titans in the industry do not hesitate to invest tons of money and effort into advertising their games in this time span. This leads to games with large (or potentially large) audiences having a huge resource advantage in the competition for store placement and recognition. On the other hand, it is not a great time for lesser-known games to jump into the fray. Thus, it is understandable that many indie games or other casual titles actually want to avoid launching in December so as not to get run over by the giants out there.

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The featured spots are dominated by the big names

Additionally, Google and Apple also get a share of every game purchase, so it will benefit them more to feature games that players are more likely to buy. With that being the case, smaller games practically don’t stand a chance in the battle for one of the highly valuable featured spots.

BIG GAMES RELEASED THIS DECEMBER

So far, Brawl Stars from Supercell is the most successful title of this month. This company has released only a limited number of games, but every one of them was very popular. This particular title is a free 3v3 arena battle with the potential of becoming an eSport. It was in soft-launch for over a year before the developer deemed it fit for release. The final product has some significant differences compared to the soft-launch version, such as a portal display instead of horizontal, and a completely revamped control and progression system.

 
Brawl Stars Trailer

Despite Brawl Stars’ popularity this month, lead developer Frank Keienburg claims that the timing of its release has nothing to do with the holidays. The team just launch the game when they think it is ready. Still, the fact that Brawl Stars makes its debut in December is most definitely not going to hurt.

Meanwhile, Electronic Arts also published Command & Conquer: Rivals on both iOS and Android on December 4. This mobile exclusive brings a streamlined Clash Royale-like experience to the classic RTS series.  It is described as “honoring the legacy” of the old games on PC, while still “accounting for the limitations” of the mobile platform.

 
Command & Conquer: Rivals Reveal Trailer

Highly-praised adventure game Gone Home arrived on mobile last week as well. Even though its PC version is still great, this indie title is best enjoyed the same way as a good book: holing up somewhere cozy and savoring the story. Thus, being able to have it on mobile certainly enhance the experience. After all, you can’t take your PC to bed and curl up in a blanket with it as you could with a smartphone.

Other titles worth mentioning this month are island-building simulator Tropico and indie puzzler 7 Billion Humans. The brand-new Tony Hawk’s Skate Jam was also a much-hyped title before its launch, but feedbacks to its official release a couple of weeks ago don’t seem to be too possitive. Japan is also getting into the holiday action with entries like Romancing SaGa Re: Universe and Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, both scheduled to launch before the new year.

Releasing during the holiday is not always the best idea for a mobile game, but it’s also potentially a chance to already-famous names to gain some extra recognition.