CTIA conference Mobile Entertainment Live brought together members of the mobile phone industry's burgeoning media markets in San Francisco. With Quincy Jones as the featured speaker, the event offered many views on the marketplaces now opening up on people's palms around the world. With billions of mobile devices used every day around the world, the event's participants sought to glimpse the future of mobile media, gaming, and music.
Quincy Jones' Q&A before lunch was the most popular event of the show, despite it being relatively unrelated to the topic of entertainment on mobile phones. In that discussion, Jones called the mobile phone "the greatest weapon of rebellion ever invented." For kids, rock and rap music are all about rebellion, he said, and teen-aged machinations are much more potent today due to the inherent generational understanding of mobile phones and computers. Jones warned that the music industry has a major problem on its hands, and criticized the RIAA's practice of suing its customers.
But when it comes to mobile games, sea changes are somewhat less impending. Simon Protheroe, IT director of new media at Eidos, said that game sales on mobile devices have been flat due to numerous technical flaws in mobile ecosystems.
"There were bad games, bad operators, bad publishers..." said Protheroe, describing the mobile marketplace of years past. "In the entire value chain you just need one piece of that chain to under-preform and you've disappointed the customer. I don't think quality control was really there," said Protheroe.
As an example, he stated that one of mobile carriers in the UK had recently offered, for the first time, an unlimited data access rate. Previous to this, he said, a 5 pound game might cost an additional 3 pounds in network fees to download. This recent change in billing practices, he said, is indicative of the industry is changing to make games easier to sell. He said that these changes, however, are coming slowly.
When asked how best to bring existing IP to the mobile platform, Protheroe explained the Eidos philosophy, which he said has been formulating since the company jumped into the mobile space in 2003.
"What we've done, sometimes less successfully than we'd like, is to identify what it is that makes that game specific. So, what is it about Tomb Raider that makes it Tomb Raider, beyond the lead character? You take away the graphics, the controller, and everything. [You figure out] what is the fundamental piece of gameplay, and then develop that from scratch in a game that's specifically for mobile. We've got games that play in a very different way from the console version. As an example, we took the core puzzle elements from Tomb Raider Legends and made them come across in mobile," said Protheroe. "What we're starting to do is, instead of standalone games, we make it an augmented part of the experience. You're playing the same game, but interacting in a different way."
While Eidos seeks to leverage its existing content into the mobile space, Nokia is still searching for a way to hook N-Gage into consumer brains. Dr. Mark Ollila, director of technology and strategy for Nokia, and the head of Nokia Games Publishing, shared the stage with Protheroe during Mobile Entertainment Live. He's been busy for the last two years preparing Nokia for a relaunching of the N-Gage platform, and after his talk he gave us some details on the newly reimagined gaming platform.
"The original N-Gage we came out with we did sell 3 million devices. We've taken a lot of learning from that to build new N-Gage strategy. N-Gage is now an end-to-end platform, and it is a software platform. You write one SKU and it works across all these devices. We've announced the reference device for N-Gage is the N73, with full range of N-Gage compatible devices coming [before Christmas]," said Ollila.
This time around, N-Gage games will be distributed digitally across the Internet. A key factor to pushing the sales of forthcoming N-Gage games from the likes of Electronic Arts, Gameloft, and Nokia's own internal publishing and development concerns, is the ability to try games before buying them. Pre-loading demo versions of software onto N-Gage devices, he said, will differentiate the platform from all of the other mobile gaming services and devices.
Ollila will be spending the rest of the year preparing and launching the N-Gage platform world-wide. He said that game development companies hoping to bring their properties to the N-Gage platform can now approach Nokia directly to discuss development and publishing deals. He estimated that development time frames from conception to developement completion and platform approval would take between 9 and 12 months. He also stated that his company is constantly evolving its platform and strategies, and that Nokia's current games develop environment is 100 percent C/C++ based. He also stated that his company offers an abstraction layer that hides most of the vagaries of the Symbian operating system which his company's phones use.
Nokia's global aspirations may be coming at just the right time. With Asian mobile subscriptions sky-rocketing, that market seems ripe for game developers who've grown weary of the constant bugbear of Chinese and Indian software piracy.
Salil Bhargava is CEO of Jump Games. His company builds mobile games based on existing intellectual property, such as 7up's Fido character. In India, said Bhargava, videogame piracy is at around 90 percent, and thus the $1 games his company offers are one of the few ways to make money legitimately on games in the country.
He said that India's mobile market is bringing 10 million new customers online each month. To take advantage of this, his company is tying itself to Bollywood stars for cross-promotions with India's largest media industry. And with numbers like that, it would seem that these exploding markets are bound to create many new fortunes on the backs of games with more graphical connection to 1987 than to 2007.