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Soapbox: Has Mobile Game Innovation Ended Already?

In the latest Gamasutra-exclusive Soapbox column, Greg Costikyan discusses why mobile gaming isn't the emerging hotbed of innovation he hoped, suggesting that "the mobile games industry is basically the same as the conventional industry, writ small", and offering some possible solutions.

Greg Costikyan, Blogger

November 16, 2004

8 Min Read

I got interested in mobile games five years ago, when cell phones capable of supporting games first started to appear. The technology was then primitive, but would clearly improve over time, and I was dissatisfied with the increasing difficulty of getting any kind of innovative game published in the conventional games industry. The conventional industry's conservatism is understandable; as budgets continue to rise, publishers are less and less willing to take risks, and therefore go with the tried and true.

In mobile games, budgets are lower, if only because the capabilities of the device don't allow huge games. If you're limited to 64k, there's a limit to how much you can spend on a game, even if you try. So at least in principle, it's easier to take a chance on something new. Moreover, or so I believed five years ago, the different nature of the device implied that very different game styles were likely to be popular. Mobile phones are much more limited in media display capabilities than consoles and PCs--but they are networked by nature. In addition, they are social devices, used primarily to keep in touch with others--and games are by nature social. Prior to the digital revolution, most games involved two or more players, and were enjoyed as much as a means of socializing with others as for the appeal of the gameplay they offered. Digital games have been warped by the inherently single-user nature of the devices on which they are played, a constraint only now being relaxed by the Internet, but a constraint under which mobile games never had to operate.

Thus, as I saw it, mobile devices offered the opportunity to create a whole new category of media-poor but communication-rich games, quite unlike anything seen before. And nobody yet knew what was going to work, so we had the freedom to try new things. Of course, five years ago, nobody knew how to make money with mobile games, either.

Today, we have at least learned how to make money. The combination of interpreted languages (BREW and J2ME) along with a downloadable billing model implemented through the mobile operators has spurred dramatic growth; the analysts are talking about $1b revenues worldwide in 2004 for mobile games, and more than $100m in the US alone.

Illustration by Erin Mehlos

Unfortunately, the opportunities that drew me to mobile games have been stillborn. Virtually all of the mobile games offered today are arcade game retreads, or inferior implementations of game styles that work better on other devices. No new game styles have proven popular; the mobile games industry is basically the same as the conventional industry, writ small.

There are several reasons for this failure, but the main one is the very business model that has allowed monetary success for the field. Almost 100% of the mobile games sold in the US, and 70+% in Europe, are purchased by customers looking at a mobile operator's game deck. They scroll down a list of names, select one that looks appealing, and download it to their phone, for which they are charged, typically, $3 to $5. It's simple, it works, and it's gotten us where we are today.

Unfortunately, this means there is essentially zero opportunity for marketing. The only real basis on which a consumer can base a buy decision is one line of text on the operator's deck--typically listing the game's name and its publisher. As a result, people gravitate to brands, because a brand name is familiar, comfortable, and gives the consumer at least some sense of what he's buying. There are no or few ads, review media largely ignore mobile games, and consumers have no other basis on which to make a decision.

As a result, the mobile game industry is even more brand-dominated than the conventional industry--and it is virtually impossible to succeed with an innovative, original title. And that's a shame, because successful innovation creates whole new markets and categories of gamers--as, say, The Sims shows.

Business models have other implications, too; networked, multiplayer mobile games are far less popular and successful than single-player ones, even though they are played on networked, social devices. Why? This is because, as a consumer, you're faced with airtime or data transfer charges when playing multiplayer games. Unlike the download charge, these charges are not predictable--you never know quite how much you've spent playing until the phone bill arrives, and insecurity about the cost of play (and indeed, an understanding of the high cost of airtime minutes or data) breeds a high level of consumer reluctance to engage in networked play. While many operators are now moving to an "all you can eat" model, whereby a (substantial) increase to your monthly fee allows you unlimited data usage, few consumers are going to sign up for such an offer solely to play multiplayer mobile games, and no other application has persuaded large numbers of consumers of the importance or utility of doing so. So this "social" device largely supports “anti-social” games...

At the same time, mobile games are moving rapidly up the cost and media-capability curves--just as console and PC games did before them, but at a far more rapid rate. In 2000, mobile games involved text and small black and white graphics; today, the typical game looks a lot like a NES title, and high end phones such as the Nokia Series 60 can run games that look a lot like PS One games (albeit on a much smaller screen). Already, larger mobile game publishers are devoting substantial resources to building in-house 3D engines, and six figure budgets are increasingly the norm. And as in the conventional industry, increasing development costs by nature leads to decreasing willingness to experiment with innovation.

In short, if nothing changes, we have already lost the opportunity to create something novel and interesting in mobile games, and will be stuck, for all time to come, with a grindingly dull appendage to the conventional games industry, based almost entirely on licensed crap. The margins of mobile game developers and publishers will inevitably be ground down, as operators realize the lock they have on the distribution channel, and as brand owners realize that brands determine success, and both demand an increasing share of revenues. True, for some years to come, revenues will soar as the public becomes more aware of mobile games and market penetration increases--rising tides raise all boats, and the fact that mobile game developers and publishers are stuck in lousy places on the value chain will be masked by the overall market rise. But eventually, well, we're screwed.

Is there any hope of breaking out of this bind? Perhaps.

Possibly, publishers can find ways to reach consumers with information about games, or market to them in other channels, breaking out of the operator's tiny screen. Possibly new technologies on handsets, like Bluetooth and the ability to beam games to your friends, will enable viral distribution of games (a concept Kevin Bradshaw calls "superdistribution”). And it's at least a positive sign that some operators are now allowing their customers to browse reviews from Wireless Gaming Review before buying.

In other words, perhaps the problem can be attacked from a marketing and distribution angle.

Possibly the operators will realize that widespread adoption of data services (beyond messaging) by consumers requires a friendlier business model, and consumer reluctance to using networked games (and other services) will evaporate. So perhaps the problem can be attacked from a business model angle.

And possibly the spread of new technologies on handsets, like presence-detection, the ability for devices to send data to each other without the need for a server to route that data, WiFi integration, location-based services, mobile social networking applications, and so on, will open up opportunities for new game styles. In other words, possibly the problem can be attacked from a technological angle. Indeed, this possibility is why I took my current job.

Mobile gaming is growing fast, and many people are going to make quite a lot of money in the next few years; in a way, that's part of the problem, because at least the people who focus on money are not going to see what's wrong. For those of us who hoped that the emergence of a whole new platform for games would foster the kind of excitement and innovation we saw in the early years of computer gaming, however, the evolution of mobile games has, so far, been depressing. We need to work hard to break this mold, before the industry congeals within it.


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About the Author(s)

Greg Costikyan


Greg Costikyan has designed more than 30 commercially published board, role playing, computer, online, social, and mobile games, including five Origins Awards winners (ludography at www.costik.com/ludograf.html); is an inductee into the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame; and is the recipient of the GDC Maverick Award for his tireless promotion of independent games. At present, he is a freelance game designer, and also runs Play This Thing!, a review site for indie games. He is also the author of numerous articles on games, game design, game industry business issues, and of four published science fiction novels.

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