What TikTok’s push into gaming means for app publishers

By John Koetsier May 31, 2022

We seem to oscillate between cycles of expansion and contraction in what we think an app is, pulled by the demands of growth, the limitations of handheld devices, and the opportunities that blossom when apps successfully transition into platforms. Which is interesting to consider as we think about what TikTok’s long-developing but still nascent pushing into gaming means for app publishers.

And, of course, when we think about what an app is, and what a game is.

A decade ago, an app wanted to be simple. Plain. Brutally direct. Developers would compete with each other to remove every last potentially non-essential feature. Still to this day if you want to post your photos to Instagram in anything other than one at a time, you’ll need to download a separate app — Layout from Instagram — in order to format multiple photos in a pattern and satisfy your thirst for likes.

Then as screens got bigger and WeChat showed how to become a hardwareless platform, features started coming back and apps started getting bigger again.

Just look at Facebook

Today while Meta (the company) is working hard on inventing the future of digital existence while also just coincidentally owning the platform it runs on, Facebook (the app) is:

  • Videos/movies (must beat YouTube)
  • Reels (gotta win back those young-uns from TikTok)
  • Audio chat rooms
  • Video hang-out rooms
  • Streaming (Twitch, where is Twitch?)
  • Group discussions
  • Live video
  • Stories
  • Marketplace (Craigslist? eBay? What are these things?)
  • Pages (Geocities for brands, or is that too harsh?)
  • Neighborhoods
  • Shop (hello, Amazon)
  • Events (what, Eventbrite did you say?)
  • Dating (match that, Match)
  • Games (sorta)
  • Payments (PayPal/Venmo lite)

Essentially, everybody wants to be WeChat, baby! 

With instant messaging as the initial foundation and successive layers of social networking, gaming, payments, shopping, third-party services and more being added over the decade of its existence, WeChat makes not just $17-20 billion on its own social services, but likely billions more in tiny increments via small slices of the $400 billion transacted annually over its platform. Plus, of course, whatever amounts 900 million people using WeChat Pay send over the service.

Platform > App.

And then you’ve got TikTok

TikTok is hot off literally the most profitable quarter in mobile app history with $840 million of revenue in Q1. (OK, let’s not make Amazon choke on its Blonde Vanilla Latte #6 Starbucks in a sudden fit of laughter: this counts in-app purchases only, and it’s a very small fraction of the merchandise volume that continually gushes through the Amazon mobile app in even a seriously bad quarter.)

That number will hit $1 billion quarterly very soon: perhaps this very quarter.

And it’s built on the backs of 1.6 billion monthly active global users, a very respectable and still fast-growing fraction of the global population, who spend 20 hours a month in the app. (Except when, like me, they occasionally drown in guilt over the massive time suck TikTok has become when blog posts MUST BE WRITTEN and tearfully delete it, only to re-download a few weeks later when the guilt wears off and we are fresh with new resolve to not let this one app own our lives. This time, at least.)

TikTok is gearing up for gaming, but it’s not your daddy’s games TikTok is looking at.

Not your games either.

The kinds of games TikTok is looking to smush into dance/cat/crash/sports video clips aren’t just games for the sake of games (which would be lame, and accessible elsewhere, and a copy-paste waste of time, and likely a losing endeavor). Rather, they seem to be games that are entwined with the core loop of the TikTok app itself in unique and interesting ways.

One type looks to be a game to play while engaged in a livestream.

Which is a complete stroke of genius.

Livestreams can be cool, but only really if you’re unbelievably passionate about Random Influencer #9 who is streaming her cat playing with an octopus in Second Life. Sure, you hang around for a minute or two, but eventually, the siren call of the thumb scroll is too loud to ignore, and you’re on to the next hit of dopamine. Sayonara, octopus.

But if you could:

  • play a game related to the livestream …
  • maybe with the other watchers of the livestream …
  • that even potentially engages with the creator who is hosting the livestream

 … that could be seriously cool. Kinda fun. Engaging. Sticky. And something that hooks you into the content and the community around that creator to keep you there in the livestream … while also providing part of the fun and interest and enjoyment and escape that you’re currently seeking in your 10-minute break from life.

TechCrunch says that could be with screensharing, live feedback that streams to the entire audience, and other interesting features. Other gamelike options include virtual gifting/softcore gambling in something like a 50/50 draw, perhaps where a creator gets 50% of the proceeds and a winner from the audience gets 50%. 

(After platform fees, of course.)

None of that is fully baked, announced, and released, but all of it sounds innovative and inspiring: at least in terms of creating new mashups of media for entertainment and commerce.

The big smush (AKA converged experiences)

And all of it is entirely on point with what we’re seeing elsewhere: converged experiences in shared spaces with multiple uses. Fortnite, famously, for games, with social media of a sort, fun, concerts, movies, and who knows what else.

Meta’s own Horizon Worlds, a Roblox-slash-Mindcraft for adults, fits the bill with options to play, build, create, explore, share, and more. And yep, the concerts and movies and workouts are there, plus Workroom, remote work collaboration that surprisingly doesn’t suck.

(And all of this, of course, is just part of what Meta Quest does.)

It’s all getting kinda … dare we say … metaversy.

Which is of course the directional flow of many apps today and means that not only are they adding different types of experiences but also in many cases adding platform-esque features that they hope to grow. Very few, however, have the cojones to take the next step in connecting divergent experiences from different publishers via access points that would anticipate a still-emerging but true multi-publisher multi-tenant multi-owner open metaverse. 

And, in fact, the technological framework to do so doesn’t really exist yet, unless you consider it to be the internet itself. (Which is not a weak argument, by the way.)

Back to TikTok: what does this mean?

TikTok is growing beyond a niche, but it’s doing so in measured ways that build on its existing user experience and brand promise.

That is inevitably competitive to not just the 800-pound-gorillas of mobile, because almost all of them are attention merchants packaging audiences for advertisers, but also social startups, games publishers, and other verticals. Time spent in one mobile ecosystem cannot be spent in another: there really isn’t a mobile equivalent of the second-screen experience that long-form traditional and smart TV has spawned.

TikTok is winning already, and it wants more.

It wants active time, not just passive time. It wants bigger pots of money for creators that attract more creators who attract more consumers. It wants more payment flow that can be tapped for platform shares that drive gross merchandising volume, so to speak, as well as in-app revenue.

As it does so and reinvents part of what it is, TikTok could also play a large role in game discovery. Think mini-games during livestreams that mirror full games that you can get via a tap. Think livestreams of those games that perhaps you can play along with your favorite gamer?

The virtual sky is the limit.

Smart app publishers will see opportunities in what one of the world’s largest social entertainment apps is building for growing their own impact. Others might see inspiration for unique directions they take their own gaming and social platforms.

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