Last month's announcement
that the Open Mobile Alliance
was working to create standards for mobile game development was met with optimism from some, but skepticism from others.
Thus far, the companies who have joined the initiative include Nokia, Samsung, SK Telecom, Square-Enix, Symbian, Tao Group, and Texas Instruments, all of which are now part of a Working Group created to "streamline the process of developing and delivering games for a range of mobile environments".
We spoke with OMA Games Services Working Group chairman Kevin Mowry about the specific goals of the mobile gaming initiative, how this push will effect publishers, carriers, and OEMs, and what their roadmap is, among other subjects.
Question: First off, can you give me a little background on the OMA itself? What is the association's broader goals? Who makes up the OMA?
OMA is the leading industry forum for developing market driven, interoperable mobile service enablers.
OMA was formed in June 2002 by nearly 200 companies including the world’s leading mobile operators, device and network suppliers, information technology companies and content and service providers. OMA is the focal point for the development of mobile service enabler specifications, which support the creation of interoperable end-to-end mobile services. OMA drives service enabler architectures and open enabler interfaces that are independent of the underlying wireless networks and platforms. OMA creates interoperable mobile data service enablers that work across devices, service providers, operators, networks, and geographies. Toward that end, OMA will develop test specifications, encourage third party tool development, and conduct test activities that allow vendors to test their implementations.
The Goals of the OMA:
1. Deliver high quality, open technical specifications based upon market requirements that drive modularity, extensibility, and consistency amongst enablers to reduce industry implementation efforts.
2. Ensure OMA service enabler specifications provide interoperability across different devices, geographies, service providers, operators, and networks; facilitate interoperability of the resulting product implementations.
3. Be the catalyst for the consolidation of standards activity within the mobile data service industry; working in conjunction with other existing standards organizations and industry fora to improve interoperability and decrease operational costs for all involved.
4. Provide value and benefits to members in OMA from all parts of the value chain including content and service providers, information technology providers, mobile operators and wireless vendors such that they elect to actively participate in the organization.
Q: More specifically, tell me about the background of the mobile gaming initiative formed in early '06. How did its formation come about? What are its stated goals?
The mobile gaming initiative was formed in early 2006 with the aim to streamline the process of developing and delivering games for a range of mobile environments, resulting in reduced platform fragmentation, lowered development costs, and a richer gaming experience for the consumer.
Adapting games to multiple handset models and operating systems adds significant cost and development time for gaming developers, which can result in less compelling gaming content for consumers. The initiative aimed to define a common architecture to help different devices and operating systems present a common set of minimum capabilities that game developers can rely upon, making game porting easier and more efficient. With less time spent developing multiple versions of a single game, content developers would instead be able to focus on creating new gaming titles for mobile consumers with richer graphics and features.
In July 2006, the members of the mobile gaming initiative agreed to join forces with the Open Mobile Alliance to broaden industry participation among world’s leading mobile operators, device and network suppliers, information technology companies, application developers and content providers. The OMA Game Services Working Group’s efforts create an environment for reduced platform fragmentation, lowered development costs, and a richer gaming experience for the consumer.
Q: What fragmentation currently found in the market does the OMA hope to eliminate? Most of the current porting needs are generated by unique hardware (UI, screensize, etc.) differences, and carrier specifications, and seem unchangeable.
Actually, what we are finding in our discussions with game publishers and developers is that most differences in the physical attributes of a device can be dealt with rather efficiently, and in fact neither game publishers nor OMA members want to commoditize handset design into a single form factor.
Rather, it is the often what would seem to be minor architectural decisions that can cause serious degradation in game performance or cause significant porting issues between devices. Some examples include notifying games of multiple simultaneous key presses (not all devices do this), implementing double buffering schemes to enable high LCD refresh rates, and enabling the ability to mix multiple audio channels such as sound effects and background audio in an efficient manner. These are just some of the problems that game developers face that cause them significant time and effort to work around. The OMA objective is to collect, collate, and publish this information to drive out these types of fragmentation in new handsets coming to the market.
In addition to these fragmentation issues, there is a lack of clear and consistent guidelines for measuring and communicating a holistic measurement of device performance. As such, a mobile phone may be pre-sold as having a certain level of performance, but game developers are not able to achieve that level of performance due to other system issues. This is largely due to the fact that overall game performance is dependent upon several system attributes, not simply the performance of a single hardware component. The OMA is collecting industry input with a goal of providing recommendations on how to better measure and communicate device performance to enable a more consistent gaming experience amongst comparable handsets.
Q: If a common definition for minimum handset capabilities is set, what if a large publisher like EA Mobile wants to cast as wide a net as possible for one of their mainstream titles - say, bowling - and wants to hit handsets that fall below that line? What is the benefit of defining minimum capabilities, instead of allowing publishers to drop legacy support when they deem fit & when it is no longer cost-effective?
The OMA gaming specification aims to establish a common vision and means of eliminating fragmentation issues facing game publishers and developers by meeting with and incorporating input from companies across the mobile value chain, including content providers, information technology companies, wireless vendors, and silicon providers. The selection of specific handsets to target for mobile games is a business decision that is outside the scope of OMA activities.
Q: I'm unclear on what the OMA's standardized specification push means for the various programming languages. How does a proprietary system like BREW fit into this mix?
The OMA gaming specification is focused on establishing more consistent measurement and reporting of performance typified by a small, well-defined set of performance classes, and driving out fragmentation by providing clear guidelines for capabilities used by mobile gaming publishers and developers. Such a specification is universal to all mobile handsets and can be utilized by BREW vendors as well as any other handset or solution vendor.
Q: The benefit of less market fragmentation to game publishers is clear - but what about the rest of the mobile industry? It seems that hardware standardization might be more harmful than helpful for device manufacturers, as well as carriers.
The OMA gaming specification does not seek to commoditize wireless handsets, but rather to identify specific areas of fragmentation that significantly add to the development and porting costs of mobile games. By collecting and communicating these issues and their impact, OMA seeks to drive more consistent implementations in the future that will create a more favorable environment for content providers and encourage the proliferation of mobile games.
Q: Is there any concern that a push towards capability homogenization would limit hardware ingenuity or innovation?
OMA firmly believes in innovation and differentiation which fuels the success of the wireless market. OMA utilizes market driven specifications developed by the industry to allow all parties in the mobile value chain to invest with confidence in innovative products and services.
Q: As an international effort, how does the OMA hope to address the mobile technology gap between Japan & Korea and the Western world? The gap is closing, but still very much present.
The OMA includes strong membership from all these geographic areas and is encouraging their active participation in developing the mobile gaming specification so that we all can learn from the successes in various regions.
Q: Does the OMA have a roadmap or timeline to achieve their stated goals?
The OMA Game Services Working Group is on track to complete drafting of the gaming specification by the end of the year and expects to release the gaming specification as a candidate for implementation in 1Q07.
[This interview was produced in association with Modojo.com ahead of the launch of Gamasutra's new mobile game business site, for which more information will be available in the near future.]