Google Tries Hand at Apple’s New Game

Google is launching a subscription-based mobile game service, similar to a new offering by Apple.

Photo:

dado ruvic/Reuters

Sept. 24, 2019 7:00 am ET

In tech, no good idea goes uncopied. Sometimes even before it is clear if the idea was actually good. Google, owned by

Alphabet, is launching a subscription-based mobile game service this week. Known as Play Pass, the service allows users of Android devices to play games and access other apps free of advertising and in-app transactions for about $5 a month. It comes just days after

Apple

formally launched Arcade—a similar service at the same price. Arcade was previewed by Apple earlier this year as part of the company’s expanded slate of entertainment offerings.

Google and Apple together own the operating systems that power nearly every smartphone. But even the two most powerful companies in mobile tech face an uphill battle in getting smartphone gamers to pay upfront. The vast majority of top-grossing mobile games on both platforms are free to download and play, and generate revenue through in-game transactions. On the iPhone, only one paid game—Microsoft’s “Minecraft”—sits in the current ranking of 50 highest-grossing games, according to App Annie. In Google’s Play Store, none of the top-50-grossing games are paid apps. Even blockbuster franchises such as Nintendo’s Mario haven’t appealed as paid mobile games.

That pattern has been in place for years, thanks to the vast popularity of such games as “Candy Crush” and “Clash of Clans”—both of which launched in 2012. And even buying stuff within those games was hardly a mass-market activity. Before

Activision

acquired “Candy Crush” creator King Digital in 2015, monthly unique payers represented barely 2% of King’s monthly unique users. Mobile game maker

Zynga

showed a similar payer rate before it ceased reporting those metrics at the end of last year. Granted, Google’s Android is on 85% of the world’s smartphones, which means Play Pass could generate a sizable business by converting just a small portion of that enormous base. But despite its dominant share, Android’s app business hasn’t proven nearly as lucrative as Apple’s.

Ben Schachter

of Macquarie estimates that Google Play will generate about $8.7 billion in revenue next year—half of his projection for Apple’s App Store. Which means that when it comes to getting gamers to pay, Google has about twice the work ahead. Write to Dan Gallagher at dan.gallagher@wsj.com

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