There was a time when online gambling was nothing more than web-based access to a real-world sports betting account, which you had to fund by sending cheques through the post. In a relatively short period of time since then, online gaming has expanded to include real-money games with accounts you can fund electronically in seconds, and an almost limitless array of play-for-fun titles besides.
Simply reaching a point where games could be offered online in virtual form – with the right quality and type of graphics and a reliable random number generator behind the scenes – was a major step change for the industry. The widespread uptake of suitable electronic banking methods, from debit and credit cards to e-wallet systems like PayPal, was another. Now the industry is in the midst of its next transformation, to incorporate mobile gaming across the board – so just where are we in that process?
In mobile technology, there are two issues to consider – firstly, the total potential capabilities of devices, and secondly, the real-terms limitations on this potential. In the case of online gaming, for instance, many existing bingo and casino interfaces at the advent of smartphones were programmed using Flash.
Apple guru Steve Jobs famously rejected the idea of Apple supporting Flash on iPods, iPads and iPhones, saying that as a third-party, proprietary technology, it did not allow for truly open development of websites and standalone apps for iOS users. He urged the uptake of alternatives, such as the open standard of HTML5; however, even where consumers were willing to embrace this change, it placed a clear development cost and delay on operators.
This may ultimately have been what delayed widespread mobile bingo and casino gaming, as several petitions – including one on the site Causes, with less than 1,000 signatures, two on Change.org with nine and 74 supporters, and one with the Bureau of Petitions that attracted 350 signatures – all seem to show that there has never been significant levels of demand within the iOS user base for Flash to be introduced.
Now, an increasing number of bingo sites offer mobile iPhone and iPad apps, suggesting that Jobs may have won the war with Adobe, but as yet relatively few have opted for HTML5 websites that would have the potential to work across all mobile devices without the need for platform-specific apps.
Comfy Bingo is currently leading the pack when it comes to mobile device support; while many others only work on the iOS operating system, Comfy’s HTML5 mobile site is designed for widespread functionality, across iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Nokia phones. It also supports the iPad tablet, and is likely to work on many other brands of tablet too.
One of the industry’s biggest brands, Gala Bingo, offers mobile gaming via dedicated iOS and Android apps, but neglects the less popular platforms. Gala’s site also includes a slightly old-fashioned link to a Wap-based casino – one of the very first mobile internet formats, which is all but obsolete in the present day.
A third major industry player, LadyLucks Bingo, says its mobile bingo will work on “iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android handsets, other tablet devices and hundreds of feature phones” and, like Gala, delivers the download link in response to messages sent to an SMS short code, which is slightly old-fashioned compared with simply redirecting mobile users from the main website automatically, or using a QR code to trigger the software download.
PaddyPower‘s entry into mobile bingo is perhaps the most ingenious; the site only supports Android and iOS devices, but tells its members to keep playing its regular games for chances to win handsets compatible with its mobile site. It’s one of the most direct associations between support for mobile bingo, and promotions on the main site, and a reasonably elegant solution to the question of which devices to develop an app for.
Finally, a mention for Dragonfish, who until now have not supported mobile bingo, despite operating a leviathan of a gaming network with upwards of 100 member sites at any one time. In January 2013, 888ladies became the first Dragonfish-powered website to launch a mobile app, aimed solely at iOS users, while it was widely reported that further Dragonfish sites will follow during the first half of the year.
As smartphones have increased their market penetration, so membership of mobile bingo sites and other mobile gaming sites has increased too.
In August 2011, industry analyst H2 Gambling Capital declared that “now is the time for mobile gambling“, estimating that 77% of those who gamble while on the move use their handset for betting, 16% for gaming and 7% for entering lotteries.
By 2015, however, the analyst forecasted that improved user interfaces, capable of rivalling the gaming experience on PCs and laptops, will see this balance tip towards lotteries and gaming, and away from betting.
“History has shown that the first movers making the most informed decisions ultimately gain the strongest foothold and the highest revenues,” the company added in its report, Gambling Goes Mobile.
In terms of numbers, the forecast predicted that gaming will, by 2015, account for very nearly two fifths of all mobile gambling, lotteries will rise to almost a one-tenth share, and betting will retain around a 50% stake in the industry as a whole.
By early 2012, social gaming was on the rise as more smartphone users opted for apps embedded into networks like Facebook, rather than standalone mobile bingo sites or platform-specific titles from their phone’s App Store.
We’ll look at social gaming in more detail below, but in particular, a January 2012 infographic from Prism Casino revealed that Buffalo Studios’ Bingo Blitz, with 2.8 million active monthly users, was among the ten Facebook applications with the highest overall user satisfaction scores.
Many of the reasons why people choose to participate in social gaming align closely with the motivations behind playing real-world and online bingo, too, from a desire for social interaction, to mental stimulation, and simply the need for stress relief.
So, if bingo and social networks align so closely with one another, just how great could the potential be for developers to tap into the parallel desires of the pair’s combined user base?
According to Prism Casino’s infographic, 53% of smartphone owners play at least one social game every day, a figure that rises to 66% among tablet owners; within the US, 43% do so simply for fun and excitement, while 57% are more competitive and play to win.
In all, the total US social gaming audience amounts to over 100 million people, 14% of whom spend over an hour a day playing, with 54% male – a departure from the typically female-dominated bingo audience – and an average age of 39 years.
In terms of social network, Facebook leads by far with a 61% share of the social gaming market, Google+ is in second place at 17%, MySpace is close behind on 15% and – in January 2012, at least – a reported 7% of social gamers were still playing titles hosted on Bebo.
Between 2010 and 2012, the infographic claims the number of people worldwide participating in social gaming rose by 71%, to hit a total of more than half a billion individuals. That’s a potential 300 million people playing on Facebook, of whom nearly 45 million play for over an hour every day.
Again we see casino-related games rank highly in terms of popularity; Prism Casino say 13.24 million active users each month play casino games on social networks, more than role-playing games (2.5 million) and ‘hidden object’ games, which have an audience of about ten million.
Ultimately, online gambling and its mobile equivalents are about making money, but on social networks that does not necessarily mean that the people playing the games must fund their accounts; instead, regulations in some countries of the world allow games to be operated without the need for a deposit, but with the possibility to win prizes.
This kind of structure might feasibly be supported by advertising revenues alone: the advertisers pay the app operator to display their promotional messages, the operator shows these ads to the players, the players click on the ads and purchase from the advertiser, and the cycle of cash flow is completed, with the potential for all involved to emerge from the process feeling that they have profited in some way.
Returning briefly to the Prism Casino infographic, it claims that by 2013, $6 billion – almost £4 billion at current exchange rates – was spent worldwide on purchases of ‘virtual goods’, including virtual currencies for use in social games, and on power-ups and bonuses for all kinds of social title, not just casinos or bingo.
Brands including MTV and McDonald’s have all offered branded virtual goods or launched social games of their own, demonstrating that this is an area where some of the world’s longest-surviving and most innovative brands are not afraid to tread.
And perhaps most tellingly of all, many social gamers actually prefer to get product updates via social games, once again completing the loop – this time the cycle of intention, rather than profit – for the mutual benefit of all involved. It is when all parties perceive themselves to profit from the process, regardless of any cash outlay, that a system is most likely to succeed and acquire substantial market share in the long term.
A Bright Horizon?
The question remains of whether mobile bingo, now it has the potential for widespread market penetration on HTML5 sites, platform-specific apps and social networks, can prove to be a force for good.
Clearly the business itself is not altruistic, and operators are driven by the desire to make money, whether directly through player deposits, or through advertising and other promotional activities.
As long as this continues to serve the interests of the player – delivering fresh product information to interested social gamers, and creating sizeable cash winners without enticing the vulnerable into problem gambling – then there is no continuing cause for concern.
However, the more remote the player, the harder it can be to determine who is vulnerable, and a portable handset or tablet is perhaps one of the most remote methods of gambling imaginable.
As such, new regulation is still likely to be introduced to govern access to mobile gambling and the responsibilities of operators, unless a particularly effective system of self-regulation can be established with near-total penetration of the industry worldwide.
Education of players will remain important for some time, in order to raise awareness of the risks of leaving a mobile device logged in to a cash-funded account – particularly where real-world bank or credit card accounts are visible, or where a child could unwittingly make a deposit while believing they were simply playing with a toy.
And representation of vulnerable groups like those with a tendency towards compulsive gambling should help to take action if it becomes apparent that social games are enticing more people into wagering funds they cannot afford; this is likely to be an industry-wide learning curve over the coming years, but with a proactive response to any early warning signs, the public interest can be served without unnecessary casualties.
So, what can we say about the state of the mobile bingo market at present? Based on everything we have seen above, it seems reasonable to suggest that:
- open standards like HTML5 have made platform-independent mobile bingo sites a reality;
- uptake by big bingo brands has helped to establish mobile bingo as a viable activity;
- more smartphone and tablet users are willing to gamble on the go, with gaming a growing market;
- social gaming in particular is bringing more casual players into casino-related titles;
- virtual currencies are a multi-billion-dollar global industry in 2013;
- where the vulnerable are protected, mobile gaming can benefit players, operators and brands.
Together, these points make social gaming, mobile gaming, and mobile bingo in particular compelling propositions for all involved in the industry – and are likely to see player numbers continue to rise substantially in the years to come.