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Develop 2008: Future of mobile games debate

Develop 2008: Future of mobile games debate
The second session at the Develop Mobile conference today was a debate, with a panel of luminaries discussing some of the issues around the mobile games industry.

Alex Caccia from Ideaworks3D (pictured) kicked off, saying one of the big issues is that compared to other games platforms, "the sheer complexity is horrendous – like being in a shopping mall and then walking into a jungle".

This means technical hurdles – fragmentation and suchlike - "until those are addressed in a meaningful way, the dollars aren't going to be invested in content as we would like". He also stressed how young the mobile games industry is – it's a potentially massive market, but it will take time to get there.

Next up, Patrick Mork from Glu - "I'm an optimist" - who pointed out that Europe is particularly tough, thanks to the sheer number of languages and operators, but also cultural differences – a big branded game might be huge in some countries and a flop in others.

Mork agreed it'll take some time though – a theme that's already emerging.

Next up was Paul Marshall from Player X, who highlighted the new ways consumers can discover games – the iPhone App Store being one example – but also flexible billing systems where people can pay less to try a game for a short time, then pay for the full thing if they like it.

Aki Jarvilehto from Nokia was also on the panel, following his keynote speech. He was asked about the quality point he made earlier. "It's near impossible to start as a new developer and create a new IP in Xbox 360 or other consoles," he said. "In mobile,we are creating new IP all the time, although with smaller budgets."

He compares mobile to the early days of PC gaming, where it would often take five or six games for a franchise to pick up steam. Of course, it's arguable that mobile developers don't have that kind of space to develop their own IPs.

Mork again, highlighting a couple of misconceptions in the marketplace. "One is that small developers or even large publishers can't come out with something that's unbranded and be successful," he said, citing Glu's Brain Genius as an example.

"It's been in the ELSPA Top 10 for the past 15 months or so. We are getting there, but developers need to be very mindful about what do consumers want? Keep the consumer front and centre of what it is you're doing when you create a game."

Caccia was nodding throughout those last sentences. "Mobile games are technology looking for a customer," he said. "You have this wave after wave of higher power CPUs, better screens and so forth. It's the biggest hardware platform on earth, as everyone goes on about.

"But the interesting thing is how rapid the turnover is – new technology is introduced into the market way ahead of consumers' expectations, and you can get carried away with that, and lose sight of what consumers actually want."

Jarvilehto says Nokia is looking into concepts "where we use the same assets for Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation online". So it's about coming up with game concepts, and then looking at what channels you can use it for.

Hang on: Nokia is looking at making Xbox Live Arcade games? That's VERY interesting, and not something the company has announced before, as far as I'm aware.

Moderator John Ozimek picks Patrick Mork up on Brain Genius – is it genuinely new IP? Mork laughs. But the point is, is there any genuinely new IP in the mobile market – are publishers today comfortable with taking big gambles on creating something new?

"The answer to that is yes," says Mork. "Publishers need to balance short-term profitability with the need to invest in things that are ahead of the curve, whether that be N-Gage and other new platforms, or new IP. Will we dedicate 50 per cent of our portfolio to new IP? No, because clearly the financial risk is too great. But we do believe there is space in the market for those kind of own-IP titles."

Marshall says Player X has also seen success with its own-IP mobile games, including Hollywood Hospital. He admits it's not groundbreaking, being a mix of familiar genres, but he says it went down extremely well.

"We do see a few great IP games that buck the trend and work outside of a licence," he says. "They can definitely work, but you have to get the right balance, and target it to the right people. It's no good saying I've got this great idea to target hardcore gamers playing on their phones, but the fact is they're not a lot. You have to target the audience that's out there."

Caccia chipped in, referring back to the cost and complexity of getting mobile games to market - "if you're spending a dollar developing a game and then two or three dollars in getting it to market, that's going to hold back investment," he says.

Aki chimes in, suggesting developers should think 'what kind of game do I want to create?' and THEN look at what platforms to release it on, rather than starting by thinking 'I'm going to make a game for this particular platform'.

"People were excited by the Wii and its chance to make brand new gaming concepts," he says. "For the love of God, we have that and so much more on our platform!"

Ozimek poses a question, saying that one former mobile operator games manager has told him there's no passion for games any more. It's just a battle for market share.

Should operators butt out though? Marshall says not, but suggests that having more methods of discovery will help the operators open up. They're always going to be the "big high street store" who bring in a lot of customers.

Mork agreed. "Mobile games are essentially an impulse purchase. Why shouldn't I be able to go into Covent Garden tube and buy a game from a Bluetooth kiosk for my journey home?"

Caccia thinks carriers are facing a stark challenge though - "unless they sort out the mechanism to buy games and other content, they're going to be sidelined. They'll just end up shifting bits."

He points out that operators are anxiously defending their turf - they need to make money from games and other data - so that's helping them to improve the discovery and purchasing experience. Or it should be, anyway.

An iPhone question. 30 per cent of the apps downloaded on day one of the App Store launch were games. What did the panel think about that - how to generate that kind of interest and ease of access to games?

Marshall: "The iPhone is primarily designed to be an internet beast. The whole discovery method, the way you use it, the way you interface with games, has been designed from the very start to simply be a method of delivering something the consumer can enjoy to use."

He thinks it'll drag all of the handset manufacturers to come up with something as easy to use as the iPhone and App Store.

Caccia says Apple has got the basics right. "What's exciting is if you get discovery right and have a decent SDK, and the ability for the consumer to buy easily, the consumer reacts."

He also points out that Silicon Valley VCs are pouring money into companies only developing for iPhone. So the economics stack up for developers just targeting a limited range of devices (like one).

"Apple came in late and didn't have as many legacy problems, and they've done it very well, but the optimist in me says if other key players who are very close to doing it, do it, then the market could explode."

Mork says Apple has made the technology seamless and easy to use - "classic Apple". The technology itself isn't revolutionary - Nokia and Sony Ericsson have better handsets technically - "but they have a knack for making things easy".

Aki chipped in at this point, pointing out that the N95's processor is twice as fast as the iPhone's, but that it's easier for developers to take advantage of the iPhone's. "It sets a benchmark for us - we need to be better than that," he says. "We're moving fast in that direction, as fast as we can."

A question - can't publishers shake operators by the ears and say 'you're doing it all wrong - here's what you need to do...'? "Not in those words," laughs Mork, pointing out that the games managers' powers are often limited, with games teams shrinking by the year in terms of headcount.

Marshall also had views, explaining Player X's plans to launch a new channel called 100% with a Tier 1 UK operator, offering flexible billing - trials, subscriptions and so on - and is looking to offer it through other operators too.

Caccia chimes in, pointing out that operators are partly responsible for handset fragmentation - because they don't want one single handset maker to dominate their range.

Stuart is a freelance journalist and blogger who's been getting paid to write stuff since 1998. In that time, he's focused on topics ranging from Sega's Dreamcast console to robots. That's what you call versatility. (Or a short attention span.)

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