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Editorial: So, You Want to Develop Games for Mobile?

As the mobile game market continues to expand, more and more first time developers think about entering the industry. William Kinnikin asks, "So, you want to develop games for mobile?" and takes a look at the "one major barrier between you and real success in the mobile platform": The carriers.

November 15, 2007

6 Min Read

Author: by William Kinnikin

TitleDon't. Sure, there are a lot of appealing aspects: an exploding market populated by a relatively non-discriminating consumer; a shorter, easier, cheaper development cycle; the possibility of establishing yourself as a major player on a burgeoning platform. Whether you're a large, well funded mobile division at a major player, or two guys in a garage, the lure is there. Unfortunately, there's one major barrier between you and real success in the mobile platform: the carriers.

Before we dive in, it should be said that the carriers are hardly the only stumbling block between a good developer and success on the mobile platform. First, you have probably the broadest definition of "platform" of any game developer in history. Here are some things that a console developer can rely on as being standardized when starting development: screen resolution, color depth, user interface, processor power, audio output, screen orientation, screen shape, available memory, and operating system. None of these is trivial, and while PC developers have to prepare for some degree of variation, no other platform is as ill defined as that of mobile games. Compatibility testing will either be a huge investment, or something you'll need to find a publisher for.

But none of that is insurmountable. What you can't get around are the carriers. The central fact on the table here is that in the U.S., the carriers have a fundamental desire to keep the marketing and distribution under tight control, which puts anyone bringing them content in a position of weakness. What's worse, the carriers have no real incentive to devote anything but cursory energy to the marketing and distribution of these games. They make money no matter what product is purchased, hold the means of distribution to ensure that there is no product available other than what they offer and are able to distribute it over some of the most poorly designed electronic commerce designed, often charging consumers for the privilege of browsing a catalog.

Ring tones give us an idea of how carriers are set up in the areas of marketing and distribution. At all times, ring tones are sold as known quantities. Songs the consumer is already familiar with are made available by name. As the available memory and quality of audio playback increased, the need for samples was all but negated. With ring tones, carriers are able to sell consumers something they are already familiar with thanks to the marketing efforts of the music industry. By selling an ancillary product, carriers are able to do little more than list the product by name and profit from a consumer who has already been reached by the original product in another context. In short, little to no consumer education is already needed. A consumer who is not already familiar with Big Bottom by Spinal Tap is unlikely to be won over by a cell phone ring tone.

The problem for you arises from the fact that carriers would be perfectly happy to apply these same methods of marketing and distribution to mobile games. The result is a market where games are sold almost entirely on the basis of a familiar name or a presence in a top sellers list of some variable, but invariably too short, length. A game's developer or publisher has no way of educating a consumer as to the nature or content of the game. Trials are not available. Even screen shots are a rarity. This leads to a market where only games with familiar titles or licensed tie-ins have a chance at success. Originality is not only not rewarded, but actively discouraged. The only hope a developer has is to tie a strong, original concept to some kind of outside license.

And supposing you DO tie your game concept to a strong, worthwhile license. You're placed in the same position as licensed developers since the days of E.T. on the Atari 2600. Your game will be placed on a timetable decided by your contacts with the licensor. You will be forced to report to people who usually (though this is changing) have little or no understanding of the market or technology at hand. All art assets and gameplay will have to be delivered ahead of time so that they can be looked over an authorized by the owners of the IP. Should you still manage to release an engaging piece of software when it's all over, get ready to split the profits, and be aware that any contract you sign will always favor the licensor over the licensee.

Still, it's not all doom and gloom. Outside the U.S. the tide is already shifting. Anyone familiar with a men's magazine from the U.K. knows that the pages are full of ads for direct downloads of backgrounds, movies, ring tones and, yes, even games. On TV in Spain ad breaks during both children's shows and prime time promote direct download mobile games, complete with over-enlarged aliased video of games in action. In Japan, games are sold in a variety of media via small boxes similar to bar codes that can be photographed by the cell phone's camera, and translated into the data needed to begin the direct download. If there's a theme here, it's clearly that direct download is the only functional method of mobile game distribution that seems to hold any hope for developers and publishers who want to escape the walled garden of U.S. carriers.

It's no surprise then that carriers are doing everything they can to slow or block direct download services as they arrive in the U.S., but it's a losing battle. It can only be a matter of time before consumer demand becomes strong enough that direct download services gain a serious foothold, after which the floodgates open, and it becomes much less about who is delivering than what is being delivered. Smaller, independent distributors will live and die based on return customers, which of course means the customers actually have to be satisfied. In theory, this leads to a system where consumers are educated before the purchase, which gives developers and publishers a chance to distinguish themselves from the field. Once these systems are in place the U.S. will finally start catching up with the rest of the world. So, if you want to develop mobile games, don't. Yet.

['William Kinnikin' is the pseudonym for an anonymous software tester at an equally anonymous casual games portal. Further information about 'William' is shrouded in mystery.]

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