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Upwardly Mobile

Thursday, May 11, 2006, 12:56PM EST

Less than 10 years ago, mobile gaming comprised one black-and-white snake. Now it’s a billion-dollar industry--with a vast potential audience. Tim Green texted in this report.

Is it possible to name the day when the mobile game industry went from sideline to real deal? You could do a lot worse than December 8, 2005. Why? That was the day Electronic Arts acquired mobile pureplay Jamdat for $680 million in cash. Clearly the deal reflects EA’s ironclad belief in mobile--and puts the Burbank giant at the forefront of the sector.

There are 1.5 billion mobiles in use--and 40 percent can download applications.

The arguments for mobile gaming are worth repeating. There are 1.5 billion mobiles in use, of which an estimated 40 percent can download applications. Screen Digest estimates there were 689 million "games capable" mobile subscribers at the end of 2005, and will be 2.014 billion by 2010. It projects a market value of $8.4 billion by the end of the decade. Indeed, the pull of mobile content--games especially--has engendered a new kind of operator that bases its offering around entertainment rather than voice. Amp’d is one. It’s here at E3.

Mono to PS2 in seven years

For the market to hit $8.4 billion, it will have to convert the dormant user base into a live one. Because the truth is that although most mobile subscribers have played games embedded on their handsets, only a tiny minority have bought one. Indeed, a study by U.K. publisher I-play last year found 47 percent in the former group, but only 4 percent in the latter.

But let’s not be too negative. This year E3 will showcase the brightest and best in the business--developers and publishers, technology providers, and handset vendors. Between them, they illustrate the remarkable progress of a sector than has gone from mono to virtual PS2 quality in seven years, and is now a billion-dollar business.

All over the world simple one-thumb games have prospered.

At the creative level, mobile gaming has been welcomed by a development sector keen to return to quick, cheap coding with the emphasis on "old-fashioned" gameplay. It was this kind of thinking that inspired Iomo’s lucrative Pub game franchise, for instance. Iomo was eventually bought by Infospace.

All over the world simple one-thumb games have prospered. Swedish game developer Jadestone created a winner with Kodo, in which eight simultaneous players play on a single handset. It won awards--as did Skipping Stone, a maddeningly addictive game of skill by Korea’s Gamevil, subsequently picked up by U.K. publisher I-Play.
The coin-op comeback

If the spirit of mobile development recalls the early days of gaming, then it’s little surprise coin-op classics have been reborn. Namco has topped charts the world over with Pac-Man, while Tetris is considered such enduring IP that Jamdat coughed up $137 million for the rights.

Lately, publishers have begun reworking 8- and 16-bit licenses too. Codemasters, for example, is working on versions of Cannon Fodder, Sensible Soccer, and Mega Lo Mania while Sega Mobile is currently riding high (in partnership with iFone) with Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Monkey Ball, and others. In Paris, Vivendi Universal Games’s new mobile division has launched with the estimable help of Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and Leisure Suit Larry.

The beauty of these reruns is not just to do with gameplay, but also recognition. Everyone knows Pac-Man, and familiarity is important to "virgin" gamers. Hence the brisk trade in TV and film licenses, too: Glu Mobile recently notched one million sales of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in Europe and has just acquired kitschy toy brand Transformers; I-play extended its Fast and the Furious license; THQ signed Top Trumps; France’s Gameloft bagged a hit in King Kong and is hoping to repeat this with Mission Impossible 3; Mforma acquired the rights to all Marvel Entertainment comic characters.

The porting nightmare

But brands cost money. This factor, along with accelerating handset specs (162k colors, 1GB memory cards, 3D-accelerated chips), has driven budgets up. So although it’s still possible to make inexpensive creative titles, some mobile games cost more than half a million dollars and take six months to complete. These are the kinds of sums that have been invested by EA, for example, on The Sims 2 and by Square Enix on its Final Fantasy mobile series. Meanwhile ambitious "traditional’ games such as Sunflowers’ Anno 1602, Capcom’s Resident Evil, and Konami’s Silent Hill have also received lavish mobile treatment.

At a corporate level there remains great faith in the sector. The big game publishers and entertainment companies (VUG, EA, Codemasters, et al) have committed while the "pureplays" (Mforma, Infospace, I-play, Glu) accrue VC funding with which to take them on.

Innovate to accumulate

The challenge is to create and market games that appeal across all users, whether console spin-offs that enhance the original IP, addictive one-thumb games, brain teasers, or even celebrity-based fun for mobile-fixated youngsters. James Kaye, marketing director of Mforma, thinks "sharing" will help. "To bring in true nongamers like my mum, we need viral elements so you can invite relatives and friends to participate in what you are playing. It can only help lower barriers to entry," he says.

Perhaps developers need to think more laterally about what a mobile game is. After all, a phone has built-in connectivity, a camera, a vibrate function, a contacts list--there must be a way to incorporate them into some diverting fun. After 30 years of electronic entertainment ingenuity, there’s every reason to assume they will.

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