We've made it. We're almost up to date with the current state of affairs for mobile games. In many ways, the past two years have been pretty dramatic, but when it comes to the corporate side, the industry that was born during the internet boom years and survived the backlash against WAP and 3G has finally starting to grow up and, dare I say it, become boring.
As with the more traditional games companies, the mobile industry has now split into two groups - major publishers who rule operators' decks and have access to the biggest licences and the small, agile publishers who survive by fulfilling niche audiences, whether in terms of the type of games they make or their geographical location. Companies that sit in between will evolve or die: it's the survival of the fittest.
2007 saw some of these mid-range publishers go. Despite having spent $41 million on developers IOMO and Elkware in late 2004, Infospace decided it had had enough and pulled out of the game space. UK developer FinBlade was formed out of the ashes of IOMO.
I-play, the oldest independent mobile game publisher, was acquired by casual gaming giant Oberon. Glu Mobile, become the second US mobile publisher to IPO, raising $84 million from its NASDAQ listing in March 2007. It also bought specialist UK publisher Superscape for $36 million.
Finally, more recently, the other big US publisher that hadn't managed to IPO before market conditions changed, Hands-On Mobile, decided to restructure, selling its Korean operations to EA, and spinning out its European group as an independent company called Connect 2 Media, so it could focus on North American sales.
But as some things disappear, new things arise and the cycle of life saw Nokia returning with a new version of N-Gage. This time it wasn't about a piece of hardware but about a software platform that would eventually come pre-loaded in the majority of its phones.
This potential hundreds of millions of units install base, plus a strong firstparty release schedule from Nokia and a mobile version of Xbox Live provides, according to Nokia, was the solution everyone in the mobile games industry had been looking for. The next-generation N-Gage launched in April 2008, but despite some excellent games such as Reset Generation, Metal Gear Solid Mobile and ONE, it hasn't ignite consumer interest in the way that Nokia expected. Still, people aren't making fun of it either, so maybe that's progress.
Instead, the biggest shake-up for mobile gaming came from an external source. For years people had complained that the problem with the industry was it was dominated by massive companies didn't have any interest in changing the status quo. Operators control their decks and funnel users through a horrible interface while keeping them in a walled garden in which access to content is heavily controlled. Similarly, handset manufactures suck up to operators, making sure everything is done to keep them happy. And publishers suck up to operators to ensure their games have the best placing on the decks.
What was needed was a rebel - a company that could shake up the whole system just like Amazon and Google had done with the internet.
Finally in 2007 it happened, although the strange thing was it wasn't a new startup run by a couple of geeks out of a garage in San Jose. Instead it was an established billion dollar company, albeit it one that decades before had been created by a couple of geeks out of a garage in San Jose.
Yes, on January 9th, the touchscreen iPhone was announced, launching five months later in the US to mass consumer hysteria. There was no denying it was a lovely piece of technology and it isn't even a bad phone, but what was truly innovative for the mobile games industry came with the launch of the App Store in July 2008. Suddenly, here was a platform that enabled consumers to buy games as easily as they had bought MP3s via iTunes. It also enabled developers to sell their games directly to consumers without having to deal with publishers and operators.
Now the iPhone isn't perfect and plenty of improvements could be made to the App Store, but they are a million miles better than what went before and have changed the face of mobile games forever.
So as 2008 comes to an end, so does this brief history of mobile games. By necessity, it's been a somewhat subjective overview of what happened, but I hope it was informative and entertaining. The idea that mobile games can be fun has been proved but only now are we seeing devices that give users what they want. Looking back it all seems so obvious, yet certainly in 1998, no one thought it would take this long.
Wonder what's going to happen next?
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: 2005 - Gizmondo, Tetris and Glu
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2006 - 3D, iFone and Gizmondo
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.