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GDC Mobile: The Future of Mobile Gaming and its Enemies

Last week at GDC Mobile, EA Mobile Senior VP Mitch Lasky delivered his take on the future of mobile gaming including what is needed for the industry's continued success and what obstacles stand in the way of this growing market.

eric-jon waugh, Blogger

March 31, 2006

7 Min Read

EA Mobile Senior VP (and former Jamdat CEO) Mitch Lasky kicked off his keynote at the GDC Mobile segment of Game Developers Conference 2006 with an extended spiel about his history with Jamdat Mobile, the changing fabric of the industry, and what he sees as the biggest obstacles (and avenues) to future growth and maturation.

According to Lasky, one of the biggest forces for change has been his own company, Jamdat -- and in its current form, as the mobile division of Electronic Arts, Lasky sees it as perhaps the most important force for future change.

Lasky explained how Jamdat went, as he put it, from a value of zero to $684,000,000 in six years. When they began, they were a team of six people; previous to the EA merger two months back, Jamdat was already the biggest mobile publisher. To contrast, the amount EA paid for Jamdat is five times greater than Maxis fetched, making it the biggest EA transaction to date. "One day you're the giant killer," Lasky quipped; "the next day, you get to be the giant."

What Makes Jamdat Special

Of course with this kind of growth, it is only natural for other developers to go public in search of similar success. Lasky suggested the search was ultimately futile, as at the time Jamdat went public it was "fundamentally different": not only did they have six years of experience as an industry leader; they also had nine consecutive quarters of GAAP profitability. Beyond that, Jamdat was the first pre-play IPO on NASDAQ.

Beyond that, in picking up Jamdat, EA also acquired Jamdat's distribution network and -- most significantly, to Lasky's mind -- seventeen more years of Tetris. At some point before the EA deal, Jamdat surveyed various people for their favorite games ever; the chart they came up with was divided into roughly similar wedges for Scrabble, Doom, Tetris, Poker, Super Mario Bros., Pac-Man, and "other". The first four categories together added up to about two-thirds of the chart -- and those represent what Jamdat had to offer to EA. The deal was about more than Jamdat's existing properties, however; now, with the increased overhead, "we are doubling our already-aggressive R&D spending."

So, as Lasky would have it, Jamdat simply offered more for the money than any other mobile publisher could hope to. Why, though, did Jamdat sell itself to EA? Because, as Lasky explained, it was necessary for the industry. A company with the kind of combined distribution that Jamdat and EA could provide was the solution needed to "take this business to the next level" -- and previous to the merger, none existed.

Lasky compared the situation (favorably) to the old Hollywood studio system, where one monolithic entity was responsible for everything: content creation, publishing, distribution, and marketing. To his mind, for mobile games to grow they need a powerhouse of that kind to force its way into the future and dictate the laws of the land.

Now that EA Mobile has been forged, and has approximately two billion dollars of free cash to work with, Lasky sees little room for medium-sized mobile publishers. "It may be too late for mid-sized publishers who don't own hits." Other publishers who are just starting out are almost sure to fail, as before now it was already hard enough to compete against Jamdat. Now the market is more competitive, more complicated, and much more expensive.

Lasky does offer some words of encouragement to small developers, however, citing them as the creative force needed to keep the industry healthy. "Small developers with innovative, original products are going to be increasingly valuable. If I were an investor", Lasky beamed, "this is what I'd be excited about -- the ability to innovate."

Torching the Carriers

Tailing up his spiel, Lasky gave out a list of the enemies that we all must rise up against for the mobile game market to grow. What these basically boil down to are the carriers: "Carriers will not grow their games business by squeezing publishers", Lasky said. "We're not the ringtone business – we actually make stuff." Lasky cites a "lack of competitive messages on the carrier level" for the stagnation of content delivery.

According to Jamdat studies, users cite both buying songs from iTunes and recording a movie off cable as far less of a headache than downloading a game – and yet those same users cite downloading a ringtone as far less irritating than either of those tasks. Lasky attributes these annoyances to the lack of innovation in the distribution channel at the same rate that mobile content has evolved.

Another big problem, to Lasky's mind, is that there are just too many games out there – and too many of them are "bad". Apparently, the ideal number of games to make available for download ranges around 150-200; the explanation he provides for this is that about 150 games account for 97% of all download revenue, and that the top 200 games on any carrier account for 93% of that carrier's revenue from game downloads. By the logic he proposed, any more games than that on a given carrier (and all of the three biggest carriers – Verizon, Cingular, and Sprint – have at least 150 more) will mean wasted time and effort. As he put it, people still have to do QA on those games.

"Too much choice," Lasky explained, "is bad." He proposed that the more games were made available, the less money a carrier will actually make, just from the clutter it all creates. He proposed that if the mobile industry continues without some kind of filtering process so only the cream of the crop will be made available, there is the danger of an "Atari 2600 episode", where users will turn away in droves.

Reach Out and Touch Someone

The final problem Lasky illustrated was an almost complete lack of connected games – which seems odd, considering that connectivity should be one of the primary draws to developing a mobile game. Lasky cited an online mobile game that Jamdat developed three years ago that he described as still "state of the art" – a situation that he finds kind of pathetic.

So it is that inertia is the true enemy of progress. Likewise, Lasky insisted, through heavier regulation comes competition, which is the only way that mobile games will have a future.



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