Battle for your pockets

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It’s the mobile phone’s turn to have a technological growth-spurt. Cameras, sat-navs, web browsers – you can even call and text your friends if you have time. But perhaps most intriguing are the developments in gaming: it’s been a while since countless millions sat huddled over Snake on their Nokia 5110s. Could this ultra-personal, omnipresent device become games developers’ Holy Grail?

“Niche?” – Scott Foe, who heads up Nokia Game Publishing’s production offices in San Francisco, is incredulous at my suggestion that the mobile games market is still small. “It is without argument now that mobile devices are personal computers – the most personal computers available, and they’re available everywhere.”

Scott’s ten-year trail though the handheld games industry has included massively multiplayer N-Gage title Pocket Kingdom: Own The World during his stint at Sega, and Nokia’s recent cross-platform hit Reset Generation. “The battle for the living room was nothing compared to the coming war for the pocket,” is his rousing cry, and such a cracking way to kick off a feature that we raided it for the title too.

So without further ado, what is it that makes that multi-talented device that we can no longer live without so unique in the gaming space? Could the presence of features like a camera, touch-screen, microphone, GPS, accelerometer (the thing that knows when you tilt your phone), web access and all your social contacts in one place make for an entirely different gaming experience, that has yet to be tapped fully?

“Great question: I don’t think anybody’s asked me that before,” muses Scott. “I think it comes down to the fact that mobile phones are more personal than any other computing device. Having location-based services and so on is nice, but that personal nature makes mobile gaming special. I for one can’t wait to see games take full advantage of that.”

From a development point of view, three undisputed heavyweights dominate the mobile games market: EA Mobile, Glu and Gameloft. In a relatively fledgling market that’s still fighting for consumer attention, this is largely down to their wealth of development and marketing resources, links to big brands and franchises, and strong relationships with distribution networks.

But bridging the gap is a challenge even for the big guns. “We have tons of games that would be bought and enjoyed by many, many more people if only they knew how to get them,” argues Chris Gibbs, who heads up EA Mobile’s European Studios. “Discovery is still the biggest problem: how you find out that you can play games on your device, how you find the games that suit you, and how you actually buy them.”

But as Scott has already emphasised, mobiles are literally everywhere: it’s like an ocean of potential consumers just out of reach. And with the mobile industry still taking vast technological leaps at the rate the Internet was a decade ago, it’s surely only a matter of time before mindsets change.

“I always have my phone, wallet and keys in my pocket,” reflects Chris White, Glu’s Head of Studios for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, echoing that pocket-patting ritual familiar to many men as they tick off their mental checklist before leaving the house. “But I don’t necessarily carry my DS everywhere I go. There’s a definite market for mobile games,” he concludes, fortunately for his platform-exclusive employers.

So what will spark the revolution that propels these portable treats into the mainstream? According to Patrick Mork, Marketing Director at Glu, the release of a specific phenomenon like the iPhone has the potential to galvanise the entire developing community.

“The iPhone has revolutionised content discovery, purchase and usage,” he argues. “By linking it to iTunes, Apple have created a platform that makes content discovery and purchase easy. They provide content directly to consumers in a way that completely bypasses mobile operators.”

“That release really shook things up,” agrees Howard Tomlinson, Director of Game Development at Astraware, a considerably smaller outfit than Glu. Based in Keele University’s Science Park, they’re perhaps best known for adapting PopCap’s classic puzzler Bejewelled to a Smartphone audience – a market-savvy move that scooped the developer a Golden Joystick Award in 2008.

“iPhone opened up access to developers and publishers who’ve struggled to reach customers directly,” Howard goes on. “I don’t see either devices or individual games making the biggest difference to the industry, but rather the improved and slicker ways for users to browse and receive the content, and to pay for it seamlessly.”

Apple’s Application Store is matched for impact only by Nokia’s new N-Gage platform, which has evolved from the much-maligned piece of taco-shaped hardware of the same name – which targeted the handheld games market, but was unceremoniously blown out of hostile waters by the Game Boy Advance, and later the PSP and DS – into an innovative handset-agnostic distribution system.

“The N-Gage platform is a good step in the right direction,” argues EA’s Chris Gibbs. “Everyone knows how to use the iPhone Store. It’s so simple: browse, click and buy. N-Gage allows you to do this across all handsets, which should prompt a significant increase in mobile gaming.”

The cautionary tale of the original N-Gage device also holds a valuable lesson. Mobile phones challenging dedicated gaming devices head-on may not be the answer – partly because of the functional limitations, but mostly because of the way people choose to play on them.

“Mobile games are aimed at filling the ‘downtime’ in people’s lives, especially when they’re out and about,” asserts Chris, cementing an obvious difference with console games, which vie for people’s attention during their valuable leisure time, rather than while they’re otherwise at a loss for something to do with their hands. “This forces game design in a unique direction where consoles and other traditional platforms don’t usually go.”

“Great mobile games are the ones that make the most out of the limitations, not the ones that are made as compromises because there’s not enough computing power,” agrees Jef Valadares, Creative Director of EA Mobile. “But I do believe that mobile is destined to play a more relevant role in the lives of hardcore gamers, by offering ways to move their console game forward while away from their living room. The real trick will be linking the console and the mobile so they are extensions of each other.”

Howard agrees, predicting that mobiles could transcend their status as yet another self-contained platform. “You can take different-sized windows on your play experience,” he proposes. “For a football game, you could play on your console, manage your team on your PC and play fantasy league on your mobile, receiving updates as you go. All part of the same game world, but different views suited to the device you’re using at the time.”

Creative solutions are often born from tight constraints that force lateral thinking, and this is certainly true in the mobile space. “It’s a misconception that technical constraints get in the way of innovation: nine times out of ten the reverse is true,” confirms Chris Gibbs. “Handset differences have pushed developers into making the most of single button presses, display-agnostic interfaces and communication without reliance on audio.”

“High-end features like GPS, motion-sensors and cameras inspire cool game ideas that aren’t yet commercially viable, having a small user-base of suitable phones,” he goes on, but adds that “this is a rapidly moving target, and every six months using these features in gaming gets closer to reality.”

Howard at Astraware is quick to point out that if a developer feels restricted by the mobile platform, they’re probably trying to cram too much in at the expense of the user experience. “Many popular franchises have been let down by this, but then anyone buying from the title alone won’t know what to expect,” he reasons. “The challenge isn’t how much you can load in, but choosing what’s best to keep. This is a very frustrating experience for a designer coming from the console world.”

Chris White at Glu hails the ever-addictive Tetris as a triumph of gameplay over techno-wizardry – a game that rivals EA have successfully reinvigorated on mobile. “Many designers enjoy the challenge of tailoring a game to new hardware,” he asserts. “It forces developers to be imaginative to ensure the game is engaging across touch-screen, a traditional keypad, or even with an accelerometer. Some of our recent titles – like Get Cookin’ – support all three mechanisms, although not necessarily at the same time!”

As Patrick is keen to point out, this was one of the first games to take advantage of the accelerometer on Sony Ericsson’s gaming-focussed handset, the F305. Although of course where that particular brand is concerned, all speculation concerns their much-anticipated PSP phone, about which the press were excited and frustrated in equal measure in August ’08 with reports that it would hit the market by Christmas – just not necessarily this Christmas.

Patrick returns to the case at hand: “Not only was Get Cookin’ a fun game where you learned recipes, flipped pizzas and grilled burgers, but you actually flipped your phone and moved it from side-to-side in the process,” he enthuses. “No other mobile platform has leveraged this kind of functionality so far, and with Bluetooth and GPS we’ll see other innovations very shortly.”

But besides a few notable platform-specific successes, mobile games have largely comprised reversions of existing franchises – partly owing to the fact that consumers have to-date based purchasing decisions on little more than a title. Free demo downloads are a key feature of the N-Gage platform, and one solution to coax wary users into experimenting with unknown brands.

Flying the flag for the smaller studios, Howard concedes that although the Glus and EAs of this world will likely skim off the lion’s share of a burgeoning market, things will also level out at the bottom. “Far from being locked out, smaller players find it easier to get the tools, start developing, and actually reach customers,” he insists. “Indie developers can hit all kinds of game genres, and can class a game successful at much lower revenues than would even be a footnote on a large company’s balance sheet.”

Clearly a burger-flipping, handset-twirling extravaganza and a 2D gem-swapping puzzler have little in common beyond the size of the screen, but taking the limitations into account, are there common factors that can contribute to a mobile game’s success?

“There are some common factors,” acknowledges Patrick. “The game has to be attractive, well-presented and easy to get into. Controls need to be intuitive and not overly complex. And games should be designed so they can be played in short bursts of five to ten minutes, while not being so short that the value of the purchase is questioned.”

Another major difference between mobile and any more advanced platform is the length of the development cycle. Chatting to Jef Valadares at the Golden Joystick Awards, it becomes clear that one of the most rewarding elements for him is the variety. EA Mobile’s team will work on around four titles per year, while a console team could be dedicated to one game cycle for years at a time.

Chris White outlines the team behind Glu’s recent title Transformers G1: Awakening. “We had a producer, who essentially project managed the game, working closely with Hasbro; a designer, responsible for creating levels, scripting and design documentation; a 2D pixel artist, responsible for in-game artwork; a 3D artist, responsible for character modelling and animation; two programmers, and a dedicated QA tester, responsible for play testing throughout the duration of the project,” he reels off.

“On average, the first version of a game will take about six months to develop, depending on its complexity,” Chris goes on. “But this doesn’t include the porting phase, where the game is converted to the hundreds of handsets available worldwide. Deploying a mobile game is a complex business, requiring knowledge of unique devices available in each territory.”

Another reason why global impact requires global investment, and Howard advocates specialisation on particular platforms for smaller-scale outfits such as Astraware. This policy is illustrated clearly by their website, tellingly split into categories by platform – iPhone, Palm OS, Blackberry – rather than by gaming genre.

“For us, team sizes depend on the size of a project, how many platforms, and whether it’s a license or an original game,” explains Howard. Astraware games take between six months and a year to develop on average, including artwork, development and in-house quality testing. “Costs of $100k are a reasonable estimate – yes, I work in dollars,” he chuckles. “For the console industry you’re looking at one to two orders of magnitude bigger.”

Clearly it’s not all about the development process however: as all the interviewees have agreed, it’s getting the games into the hands of players that’s the toughest hurdle at the moment. Buy-in from handset manufacturers and service providers can prove crucial.

Many networks are waking up to games as a potentially lucrative way to up their ‘revenue per user’ index, and Patrick highlights recent Glu-Vodafone collaborative triumph Brain Genius as an example of best practice. But Howard laments that gaming execs at carriers often come from console backgrounds: “They want the ‘bigger, brighter, shinier’ approach, whereas the average user wants games that are easier, more fun, and aren’t a complete let down.”

But if, as Glu, EA and Astraware agree, distribution is the next big hurdle to leap, perhaps carriers will necessarily be cut from the loop altogether. To conclude, as we began, with Nokia’s Scott Foe: “N-Gage aims to eliminate not only handset fragmentation, but carrier fragmentation – in short, to eliminate the incremental costs of mobile game development.”

“I hope Nokia will continue to create original content too, otherwise I’m out of a job. Have you seen Reset Generation, the highest-production-value, most critically-acclaimed mobile title ever created?” he asks, seasoning his question with Silicon Valley modesty. “When you know recipes like that, you don’t close the restaurant. You keep cooking.”

© Nick Carson 2008. First published in Issue 10 of 4Talent magazine

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