After experiencing an unprecedented boom during two years of pandemic lockdown, the mobile gaming industry is facing a difficult 2022. In the US, consumer spending on mobile games fell nearly 10 percent in the first half of the year, according to a recent report from 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 that’s really growing right now. clawee is not from one of the best mobile game studios like Supercell or King. It doesn’t have stunning graphics or familiar characters. Still, it generated $16.5 million in revenue from US players in the first half of the year, Sensor Tower estimates, making it the best mobile title in the “arcade” genre.
I quickly discovered that clawee is really a genre in itself. There are countless retro-style “arcade” games that evoke nostalgia for the coin-operated machines of the 70s and 80s. clawee brings a real lifelike arcade to your phone.
The game’s developer, Israel-based Gigantic, operates a warehouse filled with hundreds of claw grippers, each with a mechanical arm that extends into a jumble of stuffed toys, key rings, and other prizes. These are connected to high-speed internet connections that allow users to control the claws remotely. A live video feed shows you what you can possibly get out of it. 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 play as if you were in the arcade.
Is this a joyous return to the end of the pier? Or a sign of the end times for innovation? Curious about the appeal of the game, I tried it out. On my second attempt, I won a cuddly “lucky cat” key ring. What luck! Or not. Some friends also won their first clawee price suspiciously easy, which isn’t a thrill anyone who’s played the devilishly difficult grabber games in an arcade is likely to recognize.
Despite the promise of “free shipping”, claiming my prize meant paying £3.49 weekly to “send as many prizes as you like”, or join the Clawee Club for £7.99 a month for a stack of virtual coins needed to play and the chance to win “exclusive prizes”. Gigantic insists clawee is not gambling, arguing that there is skill involved in the twice you press the button on each grab attempt. Sensor Tower estimates that players worldwide have spent nearly $100 million on the app so far.
Investors seem to believe in the long-term potential: Gigantic raised $7 million in venture capital this summer, while claweeThe creators claim that they have invented a new genre of ‘connected reality’ games in which bits and atoms are merged. “It closes the gap between reality and virtual reality,” Gigantic CEO Ron Brightman told Israeli business publication Calcalist.
The complexity of building these types of systems is beyond question. Making a mechanical arm move instantly when you tap a touchscreen thousands of miles away, thousands of times a day, isn’t trivial. But after the most hectic decade of technology investment in history, with hundreds of billions of dollars thrown into startups worldwide, it’s hard not to 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 gotten creative in encouraging players to buy ‘loot boxes’ of mysterious items to further the game’s progress. Critics say these are hardly 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 technology correspondent
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to be the first to read our latest stories