Like a hero in an open-world game environment, mobile gaming seems forever at a crossroads.
On one hand, business keeps booming. Pokemon Go, HQ Trivia, Candy Crush Saga, Angry Birds, Fortnite for mobile — the list of genuine cultural phenomena, even if only for a time, that have sprung forth from Google Play for Android and Apple’s App Store grows unabated. And global mobile gaming revenue will climb to a staggering $68.5 billion this year. That’s vastly greater than console gaming revenue, which is projected to hit $47.9 billion.
On the other hand, some gamers and developers have lamented for years the industry’s evolution toward so-called “freemium” — games that are free to download and play, but littered with rhythm-killing ads and prompts for in-app purchases, or microtransactions, sometimes cynically built into the gameplay architecture via delays and timers — unless, of course, you pay up.
That divide is even more apparent now, with both Google and Apple recently unveiling monthly subscription platforms in which in-app purchases are either disabled or nonexistent. Whether or not that model, effectively the Netflixization of mobile gaming, sticks is anyone’s guess. What’s certain is that, between AAA dynamos and innovative indies, games designed for your phone or tablet are bigger than ever.
Here are 21 mobile game companies you should know.
Table of Contents
Top Mobile Game Companies to Know
- EA Mobile
- GLU Mobile
- Jam City
- Machine Zone
Location: Redwood City, Calif.
What it does: Triple-A powerhouse Electronic Arts is famous for its lucrative line of sports games, developed by the studio’s EA Sports division, plus eternal classics like The Sims and Need for Speed. Studio-within-a-studio EA Mobile downsizes those titles for your pocket while also developing standalone offerings for iOS and Android. In addition, it’s home to mobile innovator PopCap Games, which unleashed the tile-match megahit Bejeweled series and the much-loved Plants Vs. Zombies.
Location: San Francisco
What it does: This long-running, high-profile studio has an impossibly varied gameography, with sporting simulation series like Deer Hunter on one end and a laudably self-aware blockbuster Kim Kardashian vehicle on the other.
Location: Culver City, Calif
What it does: Even before teaming up with The Mouse, Jam City had already spun Hollywood IP into mobile-gaming gold, with a popular Family Guy franchise and Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, which reportedly cleared $150 million in revenue. And in January, Jam City — which is also behind unkillable hits Panda Pop and Cookie Jam — raised $145 million in funding (from JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America Merrill Lynch), further solidifying its stature for years to come.
Location: Palo Alto, Calif.
What it does: This 2008 Y Combinator alum and purveyor of massively multiplayer online mobile games made its name on Game of War: Fire Age and Mobile Strike, two blockbusters that have since receded in gaming consciousness and app store rankings. But after some high-profile pitch-person missteps (including one Super Bowl ad with Kate Upton and one with Arnold Schwarzenegger) and extra-gaming tangents (IoT, blockchain cryptocurrency), MZ seemed to regain some footing with 2017’s Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire and the recent WWI 3D strategy offering World War Rising. “We are now able to develop games exponentially faster than we could in the past, and so that poises Machine Zone for very healthy growth for the future,” CEO Kristen Dumont told Forbes last year.
Location: San Francisco
What it does: In an intriguing rewrite of the standard gaming-success script, N3TWORK followed up its name-making hit (the RPG-meets-tile-matcher Legendary: Game of Heroes) not with another title, but with a brand-new business component. The studio took what it learned about getting users onboard to launch its Scale Platform, which shares proven app-based production, marketing and tracking methods with third parties that sign on.
Location: San Francisco
What it does: With apologies to prescient sci-fi scribe Vernor Vinge, no one has done more to popularize augmented reality than Niantic, the mobile developers behind 2016’s biggest cultural sensation/thinkpiece generator Pokemon Go — not to mention PG’s spiritual and technological forerunner, Ingress, and its follow-up Harry Potter: Wizard Unite. Even years after its debut, PG continues to attract several million active users. Likewise, Wizards also inspires mass meetups and hunts, further synonymizing the developer’s name with get-outside geolocation gaming.
Location: Redmond, Wash.
What it does: After the apocalypse, only cockroaches and Mario will remain. The flagship character of the most famous video gaming company is surviving and thriving nearly four decades after the plumber formerly known as Jumpman debuted. As of this writing, Nintendo’s Mario Kart Tour and Super Mario Run were both in the top 50 free-to-play games. The former was also among the top 20 grossers, despite being free — a fact not lost on critics of the series’ micro-transactional emphasis. But freemium or no, mobile Nintendo still plays with power.
Location: San Francisco
What it does: Pocket Gems came into its own in 2012, three years after its founding, by steering hard into a narratively and visually lavish new lane. Its subsequent breakout titles Episode and War Dragons — built with proprietary tech, dubbed Mantis Engine, that enables 3D graphics and real-time, synchronous multiplayer functionality — were enough to attract the attention (plus $150 million in funding) from the world’s largest gaming company, China-based Tencent. It has since followed up with the robot fighter saga Wild Beyond.
Location: San Mateo, Calif.
What it does: One of the fastest-surging companies in mobile gaming publishes and develops no titles. It’s not even new. The company — which provides a huge, social-network-like platform where developers upload kids’ games and users play them — launched more than a decade ago, but it has only recently reached stratospheric heights. (Roblox announced in August that it has a staggering 100 million unique monthly users.) Like many massively successful platforms that host outside content creators, it has been embroiled in serious controversy due to some user behavior. Effective moderation as its base expands remains a key issue.
Location: Culver City, Calif.
What it does: The powerhouse behind high-grossing, casual freemium games like Yahtzee with Buddies and Wheel of Fortune Free Play has put together another recent winning streak: it racked up $100 million in under a year with its latest blockbuster, Star Trek: Fleet Command, propelling Scopely to $1 billion in revenue; acquired Digit Game Studios, the Irish outfit with which it collaborated on that hit; and expanded its physical footprint in Barcelona and Japan, with more offices coming soon in its home state.
Location: San Francisco, Calif.
What it does: Zynga established its social gaming empire long ago with Facebook 1.0 hits like FarmVille and Zynga Poker. It has since leveled up with a jaw-dropping 33 acquisitions, including erstwhile sensations OMGPOP (the minds behind Draw Something) and Newtoy (Words with Friends). It’s most recent pickups, from last year, were Finnish upstart Small Giant Games (Empires & Puzzles) and Istanbul-based Gram Games (1010!). Meanwhile, its tried-and-true version of Solitaire is a continuous draw, currently topping the App Store’s Casino category.
Location: Los Angeles
What it does: Just as its parent company, Annapurna Pictures, has established a rep for producing stylish, critically lauded films, its game-publisher subsidiary has quickly become a hub for acclaimed, visually inventive indie games, including several that are also available on mobile. Notables include the stunning, narrative-driven mobile-only Florence, developed by Monument Valley designer Ken Wong; Jason Roberts’ gorgeous solo effort Gorogoa, which mimics hand-painted visual art; and 2018 SXSW Mobile Game of the Year Donut County.
What it does: Releases by this rising puzzler boutique include a word-jumble game that riffs on the much-memed idea that our brains can read misspelled words as long as the first and last letters are crrocet (see?) and — its most downloaded offering — a typically visually sophisticated take on the ball-drop game (think Plinko but with cute UI). It’s also been granted Apple’s imprimatur: The handsomely animated Patterned puzzle, available through Arcade, was designed alongside more than a dozen designers from around the globe.
Location: St. Louis, Mo.
What it does: This Midwestern indie, founded and led by three brothers, traffics in eye-catching color and narrative quirk. Thin characters that shoot animals out of monocles and evil sea monsters named Pete. A follow-up to 2016’s commercial and critical breakthrough Crashlands with Levelhead, it’s now available in early access through Steam.
What it does: Before graduating to the console world (Below for Xbox One, the much-loved Super Time Force), Capybara — sometimes stylized as just Capy — cut its teeth on mobile, most notably with the adventure hit Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. It returns to its pocket roots with this year’s Grindstone, an Apple Arcade exclusive puzzler that’s already racking up accolades as one of the platform’s best menu options. Co-founder Nathan Vella recently departed the studio, but leaves it seemingly well-positioned to carry on the quality.
Location: Austin, Texas
What it does: Like Hollywood, risk-averse AAA gaming studios tend to opt for the safer route of proven intellectual property over original concepts. But what if a game’s narrative and characters could be both original and audience-approved? That’s the clever tack Cerberus Interactive takes with its debut mobile offering, Atlas Empires, an AR- and location-based adventure game. It maintained creative control by developing the game in-house, but thousands of crowdfunders who collectively ponied up $1.75 million to greenlight production also offer direct feedback on certain key game features.
What it does: Launched in 2017, this Fox subsidiary still has only a handful of titles to its name, the most prominent being Marvel Strike Force. It just unveiled Storybook, a novel-like game with four distinct tales, including an X-Files story and a Titanic story. Such IP access doesn’t hurt FoxNext’s position, but Disney’s reported desire to offload the mobile-gaming studio could affect long-term moves. Meanwhile, mobile adaptations of Avatar and Aliens remain in the works.
Location: Saskatoon, Sask.
What it does: The picture of portfolio diversification as both developer and publisher (notably as a porter of games to Android), Noodlecake has created a carousel of popular golf games, including the Flappy Golf and Super Stickman Golf franchises and, most recently, Golf Blitz. It has also published several efforts from high-profile indies, including Zach Gage (Pocket-Run Pool, Really Bad Chess), Snowman (both Altos), Cyan (realMyst, Riven: The Sequel to Myst) and Rocketcat Games (Death Road to Canada, Super Quickhook). Its multi-million-dollar acquisition by China-based zplay in 2017 doesn’t seem to have muddied its mission.
Location: Los Angeles
What it does: Spearheaded by leading indie game developer Asher Vollmer, Sirvo is home to what’s hailed as one of the most elegantly designed, addictive (but actually winnable, it seems) puzzle games ever to go viral: Threes!. Since then, Vollmer — an alum of USC’s prestigious game-design school — has released an AR-driven design app that lets users move virtual furniture across real interiors and a name-your-own-price sim with throwback graphics for desktop play. But the long-awaited mobile follow-up, a fantasy adventure called Guildlings, is expected to arrive imminently.
What it does: This collab-happy indie pacesetter avoided the pitfalls of sequelitis with 2018’s Alto’s Odyssey, building upon the elegant storybook minimalism of 2015’s justly praised breakout, Alto’s Adventure. It followed up with this year’s equally lush-looking (especially for a skateboarding game) Skate City, made in partnership with Norwegian studio Agens and available through Apple Arcade.
What it does: Perhaps the foremost auteur in indie mobile game development, Zach Gage (who also moonlights as a prolific conceptual artists) was once described by the New York Times as “the artisanal free-range heirloom-turkey breeder to Zynga’s factory farm.” But his delightful creations, including the word-puzzle hit SpellTower — essentially a mashup of Boggle and Tetris and a conceptual forerunner to Puzzlejuice — exhibit nary a strand of holier-than-thou DNA, just addictive gameplay and unfussy design.