If 2004 seemed like an exciting year for mobile games, we'd not seen anything yet. 2005 saw the biggest deals, not to mention the build-up to what turned out to be the most incredible scam in computer games history.
Yes, despite ongoing Nokia's failure with the original N-Gage, seemingly from out of nowhere came Gizmondo. The dedicated mobile gaming device was originally going to be called Gametrac, but a trademark clash resulted in the new title. But technically, it was a neat piece of kit. It had a 2.8-inch colour screen with a 400Mhz ARM9 processor, dedicated 3D hardware in the shape of Nvidia's GoForce 3D 4500 graphics accelerator, a VGA camera and a GPS chip.
Unlike the N-Gage, it also had shoulder buttons and a screen that used the correct aspect ratio. Of course, if you want to be pedantic, you could argue it wasn't actually a phone, but it did have a slot for a SIM card and supported the likes of WAP, GPRS and SMS/MMS, so despite not having a number pad or voice capacity, it was near enough.
Officially launched in the UK on March 19th at the company's expensive Regent Street shop, celebrities such as Sting, Jamiroquai, Dannii Minogue, Verne Troyer, Busta Rhymes, Lennox Lewis and 2/5th of Girls Aloud were paid to turn up. The device itself cost £229 and prior to launch the company announced it had received over 560,000 pre-orders.
Another company making headlines in 2005 - this time for the right reasons - was JAMDAT Mobile. Fresh from raising $89 million when it had IPOed in October 2004, it started to splash its buying power with a $137 million deal to buy mobile developer Blue Lava Wireless. The 30-strong studio wasn't valuable in-and-of-itself: the exclusive 15-year worldwide license to develop mobile Tetris games that came with it was however.
And JAMDAT's success in the moneymarkets encouraged other publishers to speed up their plans. In May, Sorrent closed its fourth round of funding, raising $20 million to bring its total debt investment to $50 million. Then in June, it performed some corporate restructuring, losing its founder and namesake Scott Orr (S. ORR ENTertainment), becoming the more prosaic Glu Mobile.
US publisher Mforma went back to its investors, raising another $30 million in October, which took its to-date total to over $75 million. Digital Bridges renamed itself as the more gamer friendly I-play, and Kayak Interactive, the company set up by its ex-founder Kevin Bradshaw, merged with Swedish mobile tech outfit Synergenix. Finally, in May, internet content provider Realnetwork took the opportunity to extend its casual gaming division into the mobile space with the $15 million cash purchase of highly regarded Finnish developer Mr Goodliving.
There was also plenty more activity as the year drew on. After delaying Gizmondo's planned August launch in the US, manufacturer Tiger Telematics revealed a staggering six month loss of $210 million. Amazingly though, the entire company valued at around $1 billion in terms of its market capitalisation. The cracks became more apparent in October however, as its now infamous director Stefan Eriksson resigned over allegations about his past involvement in Swedish organised crime. [Don't worry, this isn't the last we've heard of Mr Eriksson.]
2005 ended with a proper bombshell though as EA swooped down and purchased JAMDAT for $680 million; at $27 per share this was a considerable mark up considering JAMDAT had floated a year earlier at $16 per share, but that was the cost for EA to seriously buy into the mobile games space. Having the biggest console licenses in the world simply hadn't worked when it came to mobile games. Now there's a lesson...
Some of the important games of the year were:
Midnight Pool: (Gameloft)
Midnight Pool wasn't the first mobile pool game, and although slickly done, it wasn't the best either. What Midnight Pool did that was significant was start a mobile-specific brand that has since spread to console. One of the few brand that has gone in that direction rather than the more tradition console-to-mobile route, what's even more surprising is that it's aimed at the core male audience.
As with the many follow on titles since, Midnight Pool mixed very casual gameplay with an overtly sexy visual style. Getting games to appear sexy has been attempted many times before - examples such as Acclaim's BMX XXX have demonstrated how incapable the industry generally when it comes to rising above a puerile lust over semi naked girls. Maybe it's not surprising it took a French publisher to do better.
Downtown Texas Hold 'Em: (Downtown Wireless)
This game was the start of the Texas Hold 'Em poker craze that, looking back, we all should have seen. It was developed by Downtown Wireless, a small US developer that was made up of a bunch of guys who had left JAMDAT in 2003. Luckily it was published just as the poker craze hit the US and the game hit the big time: it had a good name, looked okay and was heavily marketed. And as Victor Kiam used to say, 'I liked it so much I bought the company' - so it was that Downtown Wireless was bought by JAMDAT and those guys - albeit considerably richer - ended up back where they started.
Skipping Stone: (Gamevil)
Skipping Stone is almost the perfect one thumb game - all you have to do it press one button regularly to keep a stone skipping across the water. Developed by the mad chaps at Korean studio Gamevil, it was amazingly popular in Asia but took several years to make it over to Europe.
Still, after much hype, it was nothing like the success people expected. Maybe the bizarre graphics and Korean sensibilities scared people off. Anyhow, it was fun sitting in meetings with operators to hear them dismiss the game and then five minutes later try to get your demo phone back off them.
A Brief History of Mobile Games: Intro
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 1990s - Snake and WAP
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2000 - JAMDAT, Gameloft and WAP
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2001 - Vivazzi, Picofun and Riot-E
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2002 - Java, BREW and Space Invaders
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2003 - Colour phones and N-Gage
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2004 - JAMDAT, IOMO and EA Mobile
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2006 - 3D, iFone and Gizmondo
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2007/8 - New N-Gage and iPhone
After 12 years in the games industry, the last eight as head of production at I-play, Chris Wright finally escaped. He now runs his own consultancy focusing on casual games. He can be contacted at chris [at] gamesconsultancy.com. All opinions expressed are the author's own.