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Mobile gaming gets big

Mobile gaming in 2006 is poised for a growth spurt in capacity, pricing and audience thanks to "3-G" phone service and a new generation of titles.

If 2005 was the year that mobile gaming went 3D and broadband, 2006 will be the year that mobile gaming gets big. Not in terms of the size of the cell phone screen, of course. But in terms of game capacity, pricing, audience and the size of at least one publisher entering the market.

Next month, the video game industry's 800-lb. gorilla -- Electronic Arts -- will most likely close on its $680-million purchase of Los Angeles-based Jamdat Mobile, the leading mobile games developer said to own about a 30% marketshare. The deal will propel EA way ahead of the competition in the fast-growing cell phone game space, and the combined companies are expected to publish more than 50 titles during their first year together.

While the move will not only make EA No. 1 in mobile gaming overnight as well as instantly bestow upon it all the relationships with phone carriers that traditionally take so long to build, industry insiders see another strategy motivating the giant publisher.

"I think what they're after is what we call cross-platform design -- the ability to integrate games across all the platforms," notes Mike Yuen, senior director of Qualcomm's Gaming Group in San Diego. "That doesn't mean just taking EA's 'Madden NFL 06' and making a mobile version of it. I think there's going to be a much deeper integration ... perhaps giving gamers the ability to transfer a player from 'Madden' on their PC or console to their cell phone, enabling them to do some drills to perhaps improve the player's skills and boost his scoring accuracy by, say, 3%, and then return the player to the PC or console game with better stats. I think that kind of cross-platform interaction is going to be key to videogaming's success in the near future."

Yuen also believes that EA's entry into mobile gaming "validates that industry and, in my opinion, serves as a wake-up call to other video game publishers who haven't really considered becoming mobile developers themselves. Instead of just selling other developers' titles, this almost forces them to consider taking that acquisition path."

EA chose not to comment for this story.

Meanwhile, at GameLoft, the seven-year-old mobile game developer and publisher founded by the Guillemot family (which began Paris-based publisher Ubisoft 13 years earlier), Eric Albert also sees consequences from EA's Jamdat deal.

"There's no question that it's going to be tougher for the smaller guys to make it in the mobile business now that some of the bigger players are starting to make their presence felt," says Albert, who heads up GameLoft's North American operations. "At the same time, I think there's still room for smaller developers to bring innovation to the industry. Not if all they have is another version of solitaire or another bowling game. But if it's really innovative, they will find a publisher to take their product to market."

Innovation in 2006 includes experiments with mobile games that are far heftier than the traditional small-file games that one typically sees on cell phone menus or "decks."

For instance, at year-end, EA came out with "Need For Speed Most Wanted," a mobile car racing game loosely based on the PC and console game of the same name. According to Qualcomm's Yuen, it's roughly 40 megs in size, "which is humongous for a cell phone game which is typically just a meg or two." Because the game can capitalize on the speed of one of the new 3-G ("third-generation") high-bandwidth networks, it downloads to the phone in bite-size chunks -- as you progress in your auto race, new tracks, cutscenes, and an MP3-quality soundtrack pour out of EA's servers. The result, says Yuen, "is a much richer experience than if a gamer can just downloaded a single one-meg game."

None of these larger 3-D games could exist without the high-speed 3-G networks that were launched last year and will become more popular this year, says Qualcomm's Yuen. That's because the 3-G-capable phones, or "handsets," are being priced for the mass-market -- as low as $49 today -- and game developers have learned they can charge more for the games, sometimes twice as much. Smaller 2-D games typically cost between $4.99 and $5.99, but 3-D games go for $8.99 to $12.99, and multiplayer 3-D games can levy an additional recurring monthly subscription fee.

For example, in June, GameLoft released "Asphalt Urban GT," a real-time, multiplayer racing title that enables a gamer with a cell phone to compete head-to-head against up to three other cell phone-wielding gamers anywhere in the country while six other AI-controlled cars go along for the ride. It sells for $9.99 plus a $2.99 per month subscription fee.

"The price points have been moving up but there's been little backlash from consumers," notes Yuen. "They don't seem to think $12.99 is too expensive for a mobile game, and that's the direct result of the kind of quality you get in a 3-D title playing over a high-speed network."

But if cell owners have developed a liking for hi-end mobile games, does that mean they are abandoning the casual games -- like poker and puzzles -- that have been the mainstay of the genre, especially in the older and female demographics?

Not at all, says Yuen.

"Despite advances in the technology, whether it's on the network side or in the actual handsets, casual games won't go away because that's the nature of the two to three billion people carrying phones. They're always going to love playing Texas Hold'em and Tetris. That's never going to change."

What is changing, however, is the growth in the number of young -- really young -- mobile gamers. According to MobileYouth, a London-based firm that tracks technology issues, more than seven million U.S. children between the ages of 10 and 14 had cell phones in 2004, a number that's expected to increase to 11 million this year. Parents simply find it convenient to be able to call their kids any time they want to ask where they are and what they're doing.

And quite often what they're doing is playing games. In fact, last year the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the organization which rates video games in the U.S., added a new rating, "E10+" -- for "Everyone 10 and Older" -- tailor-made for the cash-flush "tween" demographic.

The so-called "tween" audience -- adolescents between the ages of nine and 14 -- is the target demographic of Seattle-based Smashing Ideas, a company that, after nine years of creating over 900 online games for popular tween Web sites like everGirl and Nickelodeon, is preparing to move into mobile games.

Only instead of programming with popular software like Java which is supported by today's cell phones, Smashing Ideas' primary development platform will be "Flash Lite" which is not yet supported on handsets in the U.S.

"We are currently working on several mobile games, including one called 'Clearum,' that will debut in the U.S. once Flash Lite-enabled handsets launch in the market, hopefully in the second or third quarters of this year," notes Brian Burke, the company's managing director of corporate development. According to Burke, programming a game in Flash Lite takes one third the time of programming in Java and costs considerably less, a savings for the developer that could potentially be passed on to consumers.

The new Smashing Ideas games will all be designed for the tween demographic, an age group that Steve Jackson, the company's CEO, describes as an "always-connected audience."

"They are always on the go. And, to them, the cell phone is just another entertainment device, an extension of the experience they have on their TVs, their PCs, and their game consoles," he says. "There are over 73 million kids in the U.S. and, on average, they're spending multiple hours a day interacting with mobile devices, text messaging and listening to their MP3 players. Cell phones allow them to communicate with friends, to share high scores, to have fun. As multiplayer games start to penetrate the market more, tweens will be the demographic that will really thrive on that type of stuff. The tweens are the growth market -- a market we understand very well -- and we're making sure we're connecting with those people at an early stage."

While 2006 will see changes in terms of the mobile sector's audience and the hi-end games available, one thing that won't change from 2005 are the two highest hurdles that developers will face -- gaining access to the cell phone deck and porting games to an ever-growing number of handset models.

"Unlike the console market, where a developer can support the whole industry with 20 or so SKUs," explains GameLoft's Albert, "when you launch a title globally in the mobile space, depending on how many languages you intend to support, there can be as many as 1,500 or 2,000 SKUs. That's because right now there are around 300 handset types and, to do a worldwide launch, you're talking six or seven languages for each."

"The cost of porting is becoming prohibitive," observes Qualcomm's Yuen, "which is an issue developers really haven't come to grips with."

It's also an issue that separates the big players from the smaller ones, since only those with deep pockets can afford the average $1,200 per port when, say, 1,500 SKUs are involved.

There's also an increasing competition among developers for the cell phone carrier's attention since all the major carriers intend to decrease the number of games they plan to offer their customers while boosting the quality of those games.

"A few years ago, if you built a decent game and you went to a major carrier, you could probably get it into their catalog, but no longer," says Yuen. "The competition is becoming more and more intense. Which is why EA's acquisition of Jamdat -- with Jamdat's fantastic deck placement with the phone companies plus EA's tremendous brand -- is going to give EA a huge leg-up on everyone else."

Courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter

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Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.



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