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Mobile Q&A: Namco's Scott Rubin On Pac-Man Fever

In the second of a series of Q&As with Japanese-headquartered game publishers making the plunge into the U.S. mobile game biz, we had a chance to talk to Scott Rubin, VP ...
In the second of a series of Q&As with Japanese-headquartered game publishers making the plunge into the U.S. mobile game biz, we had a chance to talk to Scott Rubin, VP of Sales and Marketing for Namco Networks, regarding the company's history and plans. Rubin discussed both the formation of Namco Networks in North America and the popularity of Namco's classic titles, such as Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga and Dig Dug, on cellphone, answering the same questions as Capcom's Midori Yuasa, the first in this mobile Q&A series. GS: Can you tell me a bit about your company’s history in mobile and why you decided to enter the mobile arena? SR: Namco Networks, which originally operated as a division of Namco America, has been involved in mobile gaming from the inception of the technology. Namco recognized the potential for mobile games and sought to be a leading provider of fun, high-quality entertainment for cell phone owners. Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man were some of the first games available on Java phones. On January 1, 2006, Namco Bandai established Namco Networks America Inc., a mobile-focused subsidiary. Namco Bandai recognized the success Namco America had accomplished and the company’s potential for further growth in the industry. GS: How does the U.S. market differ from Japan and other Asian markets? What are some of the difficulties in entering the market? SR: In Japan, for a small monthly fee, consumers can access a catalog or channel that contains about 20 games, which typically rotates on a monthly basis. These games tend to be simple and easy to play. In America, games are typically sold ala carte and have longer playability. Additionally, in Japan, each publisher distributes content directly to the consumer, whereas in the U.S., the content is primarily sold through the carriers. When we entered the market, consumer awareness surrounding mobile games was one of the greatest obstacles. While consumer awareness is still a challenge, publishers entering the mobile game industry today find themselves in a highly competitive and consolidating market, which makes it very difficult to compete at the level necessary to be profitable and successful. GS: Where do you see the mobile gaming industry in five years? SR: Today, less than 5 percent of cell phone users are aware that games can be downloaded. During the next 5 years, consumer awareness of mobile games will increase dramatically. Consumers will become aware that games are available on their phones, and will understand how to download games. Additionally, the wireless networks will be faster. Today, Namco is a leader in using cutting edge technology, such as the head-to-head multiplayer technology used in Pool Pro Online. As network speeds improve, Namco could possible offer a game like Pac-Man with one player as Pac-Man and four players playing as ghosts, or Tekken, where you could fight other players in real-time across the country. GS: What do you feel are your strongest mobile titles for ’06? What do you feel are your most powerful franchises? SR: Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga and Dig Dug have been and will continue to be some of our top titles. While we continue to put out popular new titles, such as Time Crisis and Ridge Racer, people still continue to love these classic titles. Not only do they have nostalgic appeal, but they are also perfect for mobile phones. For example, Pac-Man on the cell is very easy to control because the game only requires up-down-left-right to play. When people see Pac-Man listed on a carrier’s deck, they know exactly what they will be getting. For example, if they download a top sports title, they may be disappointed because it may not look and play as they imagined. We are dedicated to making sure this element of ‘false advertising’ doesn’t happen with Namco’s games. If you download Pac-Man or Galaga it looks and plays just like the originals. GS: Are you planning on any new IP for the Western audience specifically or are you relying on your existing franchises or pick up more Western licenses? SR: We have been highly successful with our pre-existing IP; however, we have also been very successful launching original titles as well. Pool Pro Online, a multi-player pool game that lets players compete against others head-to-head in real-time, has been especially successful. During the next 6 to 12 months, Namco Networks will be launching several titles not based on Namco franchises but based on IPs that also have mass market appeal including Snoopy and the Red Baron, Dilbert Cubicle Chaos, and Scene It? Movie Edition. GS: What are your thoughts on recent mobile mergers and acquisitions? SR: The consolidation that the mobile industry is currently experiencing is typical in emerging technology markets. In the past, many companies and investors saw the opportunities present in the mobile game industry, leading to an influx of companies (both startups and established game publishers). We feel that the present consolidation trend will be a positive force, eventually driving up the quality expectations of mobile games. GS: Is there a viable hardcore market for mobile? SR: Hardcore gamers play mobile games for the same reason casual gamers play: they are looking for five minutes of fun on the go. Because of this, hardcore gamers are looking for the same content as casual gamers, fun games that have a quick learning curve. While this is why Namco Networks believes that casual games will continue to dominate the industry, we are also creating games that are traditionally popular with hardcore gamers, such as Time Crisis and Ridge Racer. GS: As a percentage, how much of your overall production is geared towards mobile development? SR: I’m not sure of the percentage, but we are one of the only traditional game publishers that develops games for not only mobile (Java and BREW), but for almost all wireless platforms— such as Windows Mobile, Palm O/S, smart phones—and we are always exploring new platforms. GS: What are you looking forward to in mobile gaming within the next year? SR: We are looking forward to the increased use of networked components and features in mobile games. Namco is currently cutting edge in its utilization of networked features such as head-to-head networked-play in Pool Pro Online, micropayments which allows the unlocking of the dual fighter mode in Galaga, and use of community functions like Sprint’s Game Lobby. In addition, we are rolling out the ability for games to download continuously updating content, for example, new levels. We believe that by fully utilizing the network capabilities of the mobile platform, we can extend the playability of our already fun, mass market games.

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