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Postcard From Austin: Mobile Carriers Talk Gaming

The Austin Game Conference’s Mobile and Wireless Design track featured an end-of-day panel on Thursday related to carriers in the wireless space. Two representatives each...
The Austin Game Conference’s Mobile and Wireless Design track featured an end-of-day panel on Thursday related to carriers in the wireless space. Two representatives each from Sprint and Amp’d Mobile discussed the role of carriers, publishers, and developers, from their perspective. The audience, struggling at times to hear the speakers, directing them several times to speak closer to their mics, only filled the room about half way. Moderated by Eric Goldberg, managing director of Crossover Technologies, the panel consisted of Jason Ford, general manager of Wireless Games and Entertainment at Sprint; Nancy Beaton, general manager of music & personalization for Sprint; Dave Sypniewski, senior director of content, and Paul Nakayama, producer, both of Amp’d Mobile, a new carrier. Unfortunately, Tammy Robinson of Sprint's main rival Verizon Wireless was not able to make the panel as billed, leaving it a little more lopsided. Nonetheless, Goldberg opened by giving a general overview of where games fit into the mobile environment. The responsibility of marketing titles, he said, is placed squarely on the publiers. And in that respect, “It looks like a lot of other areas of entertainment media,” he said. Sypniewski, when asked about Amp’d Mobile’s strategy, said the company wants to focus on marketing content, later elaborating that the specific strategy of Amp’d will be to offer more advanced content and not specifically target amateur phone-game players or casual but uninitiated players. “Games are relevant in our lives,” said Sypniewski. He added that Amp’d’s target market is 15-35 year olds. “Amp’d will focus heavily on 3D games” in order to better reach that youthful audience. “Essentially our mindset on the games... is that we will do classic arcade games; we’ll also do 3D multiplayer games” as well as licensed console titles, new titles not recognized to date, and other games. “We look at best of breed as our approach,” he said, saying his company identifies the genres the wish to carry, then find the best games for the young market that fit within those genres. Though “just because we have a relationship with a large publisher doens’t mean we will take all their games,” he said. Amp’d plans to make more information public December 12, and Sypniewski said the only way right now to measure the strength of the budding company is to know that investors are putting their money into it--which he finished with a knowing and confident laugh. Jason Ford, Sypniewski’s alleged rival on this particular panel, could be more specific about practical concerns, since he is heading up the video game effort at one of the 'big two' North American carriers, and cautioned carriers against picking games based on name (or IP) alone, titles that don’t necessarily deliver on assumed promises. “Brands come with expectations,” said Ford to the approving nods of other speakers. When asked by the moderator whether Sprint’s top titles tended to be from licensed or original IP, and if the company’s plans include concentrating on broad or niche licenses, Ford answered like a politician, dancing around the question without directly (or indirectly) addressing it. Finally, speaking on developer relations, Paul Nakayama said that he’s seen Amp’d (in his short few days of working for the company) take “more of a cooperative approach.” He said Amp’d aims to keep open discussions with game developers and directly addressed attendees saying, “we’re willing to be with you. What can we do? What 3D engine do you prefer?” illustrating the company’s willingness to enable developers to make solid choices about the development of a title. “Three things become clear to me,” Sprint's Nancy Beaton said, finally jumping into the conversation, “[regarding] developers working with carriers. One is two different areas. We’re looking at different things to try and do, different opinions, different things to be excited about.” Second, “quality is the key. Customers need to purchase and stay on that game,” she said, annunciating and repeating the last few words for greater emphasis. “Stay on that game.” Customer satisfaction is key, she said, because it influences the customer’s propensity to purchase again and again. Beaton’s third point was to acknowledge and “applaud the fact that you’re going to focus on data.” “Clearly, our proposition is users and usage,” Beaton said. “If you are at all interested in playing a game, we want you to use it ... No matter whom you’re going to work with, quality is key. Nobody is going to take it if it’s not a quality game,” she said. Goldberg followed up by asking how one measures this quality to which Nancy responded that Sprint uses an “informal panel” of people at the company who play and review games from a “customer-like” perspective. She said too that you can judge the success of a game by looking at some rankings of popularity, specifically mentioning Game Lobby. Goldberg again: “How do you act on quality indicators?” Beaton suggests: “If no one is buying the game or if they buy and uninstall right away,” you know the game has not met its promise of quality. “If people purchase but never re-up, that’s a sign it’s not working." When asked if Sprint exposes that feedback to the publishers and developers directly, Beaton spoke clearly in the affirmative. “We do.” At times, the panel didn’t seem to address issues of game development so much as they addressed the phone carrier’s struggles to make sense of games. For example, panelists often couldn’t articulate some of the more universally accepted concepts that game developers--particularly designers--intuit, such as what makes a game fun, addictive, and sellable. But Nakayama finally hit the nail on the head, suggesting that carriers and publishers of mobile games need to leave those questions up to developers; and at the same time, developers need to understand how, why, and when phone-owners play games. “Innovation isn’t really innovation unless it’s intuitive and that’s what we want from developers.” [Gamasutra will continue to provide live coverage from the Austin Game Conference as the week progresses.]

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