Aug 5, 2013 · 5 minutes

Earlier today, I wrote a post poking fun at the push by messaging apps to make stickers – effectively, glorified emoticons – a key piece of their monetization strategies. Stickers, easy to make, easy to sell, and inane of use, are now everywhere, from Line to Path to Facebook. Stickers, I said, are the future of mobile chat apps.

I kind of lied. Stickers will continue to feature prominently in those apps, but the reality is that all the key players – WeChat, Facebook, Line, KakaoTalk, Tango, Kik – are pinning their futures on a larger, more lucrative hope: mobile gaming.

China’s WeChat, which is owned by Tencent, one of the world’s top-five Internet companies by market cap, today unveiled its gaming “platform” in an update that lets users share scores and challenge friends inside the app. Like South Korea’s KakaoTalk and Japan’s Line, WeChat – or at least its Chinese version, called Weixin – now acts as a sign-in and distribution service, adding a social layer to existing mobile games.

To play games on those “platforms,” however, users still have to download them from Google Play, or the App Store, even as the messaging apps take a cut off revenue from each download, additional to the 30 percent cut taken by Apple and Google. Effectively, these apps are publishers that help developers reach new players and therefore increase monetization options. Some apps cost money to download, but many are free-to-play and make money from in-app purchases, a strategy pioneered in Asia and later adopted by Zynga in the US.

This is the same approach that Facebook is taking with its mobile games publishing program, which it announced last week. While these programs help developers target specific users and tap into potential userbases that number in the hundreds of millions, they are not, strictly speaking, “platforms.” They’re more like distribution networks with a deeply integrated social experience, courtesy of whatever social network or chat app they happen to be hooking into.

The early signs are that this is an effective approach – and a potential windfall in the making. In the course of its first year, for instance, KakaoTalk has driven 400 million mobile game downloads from 30 million users. Six of the top 10 games on the platform were created by small- or medium-sized  developers, which is the same group that Facebook is targeting. And Kakao takes a little cream off the top of every purchase. In June, Tango launched a similar platform with Gameloft as a partner. (Side note: Tencent, owner of WeChat, owns a stake in Kakao and seems to be adopting the Korean company’s moves in the role of fast-follower.)

While the likes of Kakao, Line, and Tango have an early-mover advantage over Facebook in mobile chat, Facebook will still be a formidable contender as gaming distribution fragments beyond just the App Store and Google Play. Facebook now has more than 800 million mobile users, and last week, it recently disclosed that mobile ad revenue, at about $650 million in Q2, now accounts for about 41 percent of all its advertising revenue, which in turn accounts for 88 percent of the company’s total revenue. If it can successfully apply even a fraction of that force to its mobile games publishing program – still a big “if,” especially considering Facebook’s history with platforms – then indie game developers are in for a boost.

But there is another element to this battle for mobile gaming supremacy, and that is to be found in Kik, which, without much fanfare, has launched an HTML5 platform that does behave like an actual platform and brings gaming into the real-time messaging experience. Last week, Zynga quietly launched a game on Kik’s platform, believed to be its first game built for any of the mobile chat apps. (Ironically, Kik’s platform bears some resemblance to Facebook’s much-anticipated, but never actually realized, Project Spartan, which was to be an HTML5 platform for app distribution.) In Kik, games can be shared and played from within the messaging experience, negating the need to download an app to your phone, as required by all the other messengers.

“What’s important for a game studio looking forward on mobile is to be able to produce content that’s very portable and flexible,” says Vincent Obermeier, president of New York-based game-development company TreSensa, an early partner for Kik’s platform. “HTML5 game content is just that.”

By building in HTML5, the likes of TreSensa, Zynga, and other mobile game developers can break out of the borders of the App Store and Google Play, to which they have until now been beholden. As gaming platforms and publishing networks fragment – as evidenced by all the players mentioned above, along with the likes of Yandex, Windows Phone, and Firefox OS – that ubiquity of distribution will become only more important, and challenging. The big remaining question for HTML5 games on mobile, however, is whether or not they can match the fluid usability experience found in native apps. (There’s a lot of argument, and not much agreement, on that question.)

For now, too, those HTML5 developers are confined to Kik’s relatively small userbase, which the company says is somewhere in the region of 60 million people. Facebook and WeChat’s hundreds of millions of users are all tied up in native apps. In fact, Facebook has said that betting big on HTML5 was its biggest mistake in mobile.

Regardless of how much distribution power messaging apps like Kik, WeChat, and even Facebook can eventually claim, however, game developers will ultimately be faced with a similar problem to they have today – it will still be hard to get noticed. By focusing on indies, Facebook and KakaoTalk can help developers get around the problem of gaming giants such as Supercell, EA, and Zynga dominating the app store charts and therefore claiming the necessary momentum to drive organic downloads. But for each new “platform,” there will still be the same clamour for visibility.

“Discoverability,” it seems, will remain an eternal problem.

[Image by Photo Giddy]