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GDC 2005 Report: Global Mobile Games: New Business Models, Hit Games, and Mobile People from Around the Planet

In his roundtable, Dave Collier moderates this discussion regarding the international mobile games market and how to move mobile games toward mass audiences.

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David Collier

Attendees to David Collier's Friday roundtable on global mobile gaming found a detour, as environmental noise forced the discussion into the hallway. There, a dozen or so professionals from around the world pulled their chairs in a tight circle around Collier's noteboard; going clockwise, each introduced his or herself, explaining his or her interest in mobile gaming. On his paper, Collier drew an equilateral triangle; the top pointed toward the word "Carrier;" the right, "Tech," and the left, "Content." He took notes on every speaker's monologue, placing a reference to each speaker's primary reason for being there near to one of the points.

Next to "Content," for instance, Collier wrote "Types" and "Innovation," while above the "Carrier" point he wrote "Alt Channels" and "Sales/Scope/Stats." The discussion then began, flowing for nearly an hour as a free train of thought. The main topics were the state of mobile gaming in Korea, the problems with multiplayer mobile games, and the way the practical environment tends to shape creative decisions.

The International Angle

One attendee, from Korea, noted that the market there is technologically behind just about everywhere except the US; that R9 handsets have only just been introduced: "We're still not really in the 3D era yet." He described a general lack of creativity; almost every game in Korea is an RPG. Current developers try to create new types of games by crossing Japanese-style RPGs with other genres: RPG plus sports, or RPG plus action. He has seen little that really pushes the technology at hand, though he figures this will change on its own when the baseline of hardware is more advanced.


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Yoshinoya

Another trend he noted, that Collier explained further, is the "tycoon" genre: a type of action-simulation that we see little of in the West, though some might be familiar with Japanese releases like Success's Yoshinoya the video game, or Bally Midway's precursor, Tapper. To get around the poor user interfaces of current handsets, a lot of Korean games use only one or two buttons. Part of the appeal of "tycoon" games is that their simplicity makes them easy to play no matter the button setup.

A Japanese developer commented that companies like 3G are having trouble selling their newest models of phones, as the market is already saturated and people who don't use data downloads don't "get" why they might need upgraded phones. "It helps them talk faster?" Collier offered.

K.I.S.S.

This led the group to discuss simplicity and the mass market. As Collier put it, for a mobile game to sell to its full potential, it must be "desperately simple;" developers who have grown up on videogames tend to forget that not everyone wants to steer a spaceship around and blast things, or jump from platform to platform. To an extent, mobile games, need to stand out to people who would never, under normal circumstances, think of playing a videogame. A Finnish developer agreed, saying in a sense he was lucky; "one advantage we have, being Finns, is there are only five million Finns." Therefore, he was forced to look to a wider market.

What, then, of the nature of mobile games? Current rumbling in the design community suggests that mobile games have yet to find their real application, and most games for the platform are just ports of established console or handheld ideas; they aren't really based on the intrinsic character of the mobile platform. Taking in mind the control problems, the group began to discuss new ways the platform provided to interface with a game. Perhaps the camera could be used to sense rotation, so the user could swing the phone like a golf club. Some phones have rotation, stroke, and squeeze sensors that could be put to use.

Someone then observed that a game that requires a camera would have trouble getting "live;" not all phones have cameras. The only way to get carriers to support a game is if you design it for the lowest common denominator, technologically. Bringing carriers into the conversation set off a chorus of groans. Someone noted that carriers do not, really, understand content, and wondered whether not going straight to a carrier - rather, developing for a publisher that was in a position to negotiate with carriers - would give developers more freedom to push the envelope; to develop less "safe" games.

Mobile Multiplayer

Collier observed how strange it was that multiplayer games made up such a small percentage of mobile software, considering the nature of the hardware. There are no real communities; nearly all games work on a per-download basis. Someone replied with certainty that multiplayer games will make up a big part of the next generation; it's not that multiplayer will be "the Next Big Thing"; rather, it's just a natural, and inevitable, step. The Korean developer asked about the upper limit for multiplayer games. The answer depends on what he considers a multiplayer game. Something like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? allows millions of users to participate, through voting. Others might allow thousands, through post data. A MMORPG, like EverQuest or World of WarCraft, would be impossible at present due to how much data needs to be sent. Someone suggested a scheme to limit the data stream by using GPS information to only interact with players in close range. Even then, however, latency would be an issue.

The entire mobile billing structure also needs an overhaul before multiplayer games become feasible. To some degree, it is senseless to make a game like this now, as the data fee from all of the communication with the server, or with other users, will be bigger than the game's download price. The group mused on the idea that new business models can inspire new types of games.


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Tapper

Collier spoke of a poker game he developed once; since he knew players would be uninterested in waiting their turn and paying for all of the wasted packets in-between, he stripped the game model down to two players. In Korea, a new flat-rate model just came through; some new game types have cropped up that allow competition with ghost data and whatnot, although no really big uses have come about yet.

In Japan, however, KDDI established a flat rate two years ago. In the time since, the Japanese developer observed, few of the successful games have been what you might describe as a "core" gaming experience. Console-styled games are better for one-time downloads, as their audience is too small to support a multiplayer service. It seems that multiplayer games need to be casual, or no one will play them. To show what people are interested in, he mentioned that the most popular category of download is music; ringtones make up three times as many downloads as games for KDDI (though he did not specify whether this was in bytes or transfer numbers).

Conclusion

In this way, the circle ended where it began: only the most casual of games will sell widely enough to make money; only the lowest common denominator of games, technologically, will sell widely enough to get money (and perhaps even get carried, under the current system). Until the baseline of hardware is more advanced, few games will really take advantage of the platform; yet users see little reason to upgrade to more advanced hardware, since in the end it's just a telephone. Until something comes out of left field and changes the market, progress will be slow.

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