Postcard from GDC 2005: GDC Mobile - Tales from the Multiplayer Frontier

Developers from the edge of the multiplayer mobile gaming world gathered to talk about what went right, what went wrong, and who is to blame for the current state of mobile game technology. Carriers, developers, and research professors all had many things to say about how to push further into the frontier.

Jason Ford, General Manager of Games at Sprint, started off the session with apologies. He apologized that the session was starting ten minutes late, which is par for the course at Game Developer Conference. He apologized that as a carrier representative, his presence may keep the developers in the panel from saying what's really on their mind. Later, he apologized when members of the audience SMSed the wrong person in an impromptu game of cat and mouse at his behest.

On the panel were a handful of mobile developers and middleware providers: Brent Brookler, president of Mobliss; Robert Boehm, Partner Manager of middleware provider Exit Games; Gary Ban, CEO of Summus; Thomas Landspurg, CTO of In-Fusio; and Wietse Bloemzaad of Ex Machina. As they were introducing themselves, Jason asked that they give their wishes for the industry; all agreed in feeling that carriers were the bottleneck that limited developers, and that billing systems need to be more transparent to users.

Early in the panel, Ford offered that in a recent survey, only 3% of people polled were interested in multiplayer mobile gaming. With those numbers, is it really worth it to develop these games? Gary Ban offered up the numbers that he has seen with Texas Hold'em: with $175,000 in development costs, "we've made that up ten-fold in less than eight months." Boehm thinks that as long as the game experience is good, even hardcore gamers will move to this new platform.

While Ford seemed very aware of the contempt that carriers are held in, the few attacks on carriers were surprisingly mild. Brent Brookler complimented, "I think things are moving along pretty well in the US." Europe, however, is a different story; Bloemzaad believes that "the tendency in Europe is not to pioneer in this field. they're somewhat better these days, asking questions, but they're still scared of [this new technology]." The panelists agreed that carriers should be willing to take risks on technology and infrastructure.

Brent Brookler, president of Mobliss

At this point, Ford let the audience know that an acquaintance of his thought it was really funny to continually SMS through the panel. He asked the audience to SMS him a 'u suk' at his number. Many people did so, and all present had a laugh in the middle of this serious panel.

The panelists then rolled into the subject of pricing models. "Giving users a transparent pricing model is essential to more experimentation [and innovation]," said Boehm. Landspurg recalled his encounter with a game that created an equivalent $1000 charge on his phone, because of the residual data transfer.

At this point, Ford apologized to the audience that the number he gave out for the mass SMS attack was the wrong one.

Audience questions brought about some interesting feedback. Julian Bleecker, a research professor from the Interactive Media Division at the University of Southern California, attacked the panel for not addressing the most important mobile game issues. "You've presented no real innovation in mobile gaming. can you suggest some sort of innovation that uses these things as uniquely mobile devices?" The panel slowly agreed that there weren't any innovative ideas presented here. Bloemzaad says there are some possibilities like "seeing each others progress. predictions of real-time. near real-time. It is quite tricky to do really innovative stuff." Boehm offered the possibility of 3D as the next driving force in mobile development. In Landspurg's eyes, standardization needs to happen before real innovation comes along in the mobile sector.

Brandon Sheffield of Game Developer Magazine asked about the possibility of MMO development in the US and European markets with current infrastructure; responses to this spilled over into the post-session where Asian and Western developers were split in the possibilities of mobile MMO.

Justin Hall, reporting for The Feature, followed up these questions with a comment that "the most innovate thing I've seen is.the 'u suk' game." He, like Bleecker before him, also wondered what development is going on in utilizing the uniquely mobile social components at their disposal. "How can I game my buddy list?" he asked. When Landspurg responded that games do use buddy lists, Hall noted that the two are very different things. Justin ended by noting that "my environment matters, my buddy list matters, my life is flashing with play."

In these matters too, the control is with the carrier. At the end of the panel, Robert Boehm and Harold Behnke (CEO of Exit Games) spoke again about how some of the uniquely mobile affordances just can't be used in games of this generation because of the limits imposed by the carrier. It's not the limits of that camera phone APIs; it's the "potential of user misuse"; that keeps the carriers from allowing such things in games. The same thing happens with chat in games. Even on the frontier of mobile multiplayer game development, pre-fabricated text sequences are the way.


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