After enjoying an unprecedented boom during two years of pandemic-enforced lockdown, the mobile gaming industry is having a tough 2022. In the US, consumer spending on mobile games fell by almost 10 per cent in the first half of the year, according to a recent report by app researcher Sensor Tower.
I was intrigued to learn from the report that a game I’d never heard of was one of the few actually growing at the moment. Clawee is not from one of the top mobile games studios like Supercell or King. It does not have stunning graphics or familiar characters. Yet it generated $16.5mn in revenues from US players in the first half of the year, Sensor Tower estimates, making it the top mobile title in the “arcade” genre.
I quickly discovered that Clawee is really a genre all of its own. There are countless retro-style “arcade” games that invoke nostalgia for the coin-op machines of the 1970s and 1980s. But Clawee brings an actual real-life arcade to your phone.
The game’s developer, Israel-based Gigantic, operates a warehouse full of hundreds of claw-grabber machines, each with a mechanical arm reaching down into jumbles of cuddly toys, keyrings and other prizes. These are wired up to high-speed internet connections that enable users to remote-control the claws. A live video feed shows you what, if anything, you manage to pull out. If you win, Clawee will even deliver the physical item to your home. If you don’t want to play yourself, you can watch other people do so, as if you were in the arcade.
Is this a joyous return to end-of-the-pier play? Or a sign of the end times for innovation? Curious about the game’s appeal, I tried it out. On my second attempt, I won a cuddly “lucky cat” keyring. What luck! Or not. A couple of friends also won their first Clawee prize suspiciously easily, which is not a sensation anyone who has played the fiendishly difficult grabber games in an arcade is likely to recognise.
Despite the promise of “free shipping”, claiming my prize meant paying a weekly £3.49 to “ship as many prizes as you wish”, or joining the Clawee Club for £7.99 a month for a pile of the virtual coins needed to play and the chance to win “exclusive prizes”. Gigantic insists Clawee is not gambling, arguing there is skill involved in the two button pushes allowed on each grabbing attempt. Sensor Tower estimates players have spent almost $100mn in the app globally to date.
Investors seem to believe in its long-term potential: Gigantic raised $7mn in venture funding this summer, while Clawee’s creators argue they have invented a new genre of “connected reality” games that merges bits and atoms. “It closes the gap between reality and virtual reality,” Gigantic’s chief executive, Ron Brightman, told Israeli business publication Calcalist.
The complexity of building this kind of system is not in doubt. Making a mechanical arm move immediately when you tap a touchscreen thousands of miles away, thousands of times a day, is not trivial. But after the most frenetic decade of tech investment in history, with hundreds of billions of dollars thrown at start-ups worldwide, it is hard not to look at Clawee and wonder, is that all there is?
Many of the most lucrative “free-to-play” mobile games borrow their business model from Japanese “gacha” machines that dispense capsules with toys inside. Apps have become creative in nudging players to buy “loot boxes” containing mystery items to aid progress through the game. Critics say these are barely distinguishable from gambling. An app that combines digital loot boxes with real-world gacha machines is as inevitable as it is, well, depressing.
Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s global tech correspondent
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