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EA Mobile: Part 2

Tim Harrison gives his thoughts on the new N-Gage platform, as well as how he sees the role of the operator changing over time

Following the first part of the in-depth GamesIndustry.biz interview with EA Mobile's European marketing manager Tim Harrison, part two concludes with his thoughts on the new N-Gage platform, as well as how he sees the role of the operator changing over time.

Q: Would you disagree that there's anxiety about the use of data on mobile phones? Isn't there a sense of concern on the part of the general public about data, because they don't know how much they're paying, they're not clear on when payment starts - isn't it too easy to take your phone out of your pocket, realise that it's been connected to a WAP service or something - and that scares people, even when they've not really downloaded anything?

Tim Harrison: We are going to see a slow consumer shuffle towards high volumes of data usage. It's not going to be a flood, unless we get a tipping point that suddenly opens things up. I think among a certain segment of the population I think the iPhone has started to do that.

And I don't think we should underestimate devices like the Nokia N95, one of the first devices to be released and marketed as a multimedia computer. And other traditional handset manufacturers who are coming out with what are just basic, normal phones - they're just very well optimised data and multimedia content devices.

Q: You could argue that the price point of the iPhone and the N95 make them fairly self-selecting - those people won't worry so much about data prices. People often talk about the advantage of mobile phones is the sheer penetration of numbers, so shouldn't the priority just be to make it as easy as possible to use data services they'll start to find the games...and feel better about paying for them?

Tim Harrison: I think in time that will help, but I think that the broadband penetration didn't happen overnight. It happened relatively swiftly as soon as everybody realised how good it was, and I think that is what we'll see with mobile. It's still pretty early days with the N95 and those kinds of devices - but look at the success of the Blackberry. There's a device that four years ago nobody would have pointed to as a consumer device.

These things do change - they take time, then they speed up and accelerate. The fact that UK operators in particular are increasing the data tariffs, once you start to see data bundled with content offerings at the same time, that's when you'll really start to hit the mass market.

But if you come to me as a customer and ask me if I'd like to have an extra 20MB for just GBP 5 per month, for a start I'd ask what 20MB was, what I could do with it and how would I do it...it's a whole holistic education that needs to happen, and customers need to have the value demonstrated to them before they will positively engage.

Invariably the thing we always find in our research, when customers do buy mobile phone games and do play them, they think they're great, and wonder why they haven't tried them before. So all the signs are there that the product we're putting out as an industry is actually very compelling, very strong. It's continuing to get better, but what we need to see is a more aggressive move from operators towards these pricing plans. It's happening, it will happen slowly.

There are other drivers behind it, and advertising will be one of them. Shifting revenue models from the traditional 'we sell' content model to the 'we enable to sale of content' for operators is a subtle but fairly critical shift.

In some markets we're just starting to see things open up. If you're predicated on advertising, you're reliant on eyeballs. If you're reliant on eyeballs, you're reliant on impressions, and if you're reliant on impressions you're reliant on hype, data, bandwidth...so that's again a model which will itself have an effect on all this.

Q: The issue of franchise comes into it as well - generating interest in titles from that perspective is important, is there a correlation?

Tim Harrison: Yes, we work very closely with a lot of OEMs providing them both full games and embedded games for their devices, because we know that they drive browsing. They drive data use, curiosity...people play a game, have a good experience, try a demo, click through and explore further.

And that's a very strong reason why we work closely with them, because we know sampling is a very strong way to increase further usage.

Q: What's your impression of the N-Gage platform? What will that do to advance the cause?

Tim Harrison: Nokia has spent a lot of time working on it, for many reasons. I think from a strategic point of view, they've identified many of the key barriers and found a customer proposition that really does try and address a lot of that stuff.

I'm totally supportive of what they're doing there, and the quality of the games that you can achieve on the platform is above that which you can achieve currently on the majority of Java platforms, or at least it's quite challenging.

I was at Vodafone running its game service for six years, and when we launched Vodafone Live, we were actually living in a very different web and WAP type of world. It was very much a 'push' content type of world.

The reality is that it's changed massively now, and people live in a social world - they want to be connected to their friends. Their decision-making, a lot of their shopping decisions, they're made around other people's feedback. So I think the idea of user ratings and communities needs to be pretty central to any kind of Internet experience, whether fixed or mobile.

My experience so far has been very positive, but I think the challenge that we all face is just achieving that level of scale. And I think that if anybody can do it, Nokia can.

Q: Operators have always been between the developer and consumer in quite a different way to regular retail - more of a gate-keeper than a conduit. How do you see that developing?

Tim Harrison: Well, I think it's always difficult to generalise - they differ from market to market, company to company, and even within companies. You get some operators out there who have always had a pretty liberal attitude towards services, while you get others who have always had a walled-garden type of operation - that's one of the differences between US and European operators.

I don't think it's so much of a shift in balance of power, because I don't think that's the reality. I think it's recognition of where the value is to the customer, and where your part in the value chain is.

If you take an example from the web - the guys who came up with eBay, they could have gone about trying to sell every item in the world, and makes loads of money. What they actually did was create a tool so that everybody can sell their own items, and they take a tiny percentage of each of them...and make even more money.

While I'm not suggesting we'll see that model across all operators any time soon, I think some operators are starting to see that by investing their money in the enablement of data streams, data traffic, retail over mobile, banking over mobile even - by enabling all those kinds of technologies, systems, architecture and infrastructure on their networks, they actually stand to generate far more in revenue than they could ever hope to if they tried to do those services themselves.

Why would I want to use an operator's equivalent of Facebook, when I'm using Facebook all the time on my PC? Why would I want to use somebody else's IM when I've got my own that works quite well? However, if I can provide a system where, at a very low cost, I can use my IM and Facebook on the mobile network, then great.

I think we'll start seeing something similar with retail, that's the difference. You're starting to see the outsourcing of services from operators to third parties, so they will run their content stores for them. In some cases you're seeing a complete white label solution where the whole business is being pushed out, or indeed the whole network is being opened up.

So there are differences between operators, but I do think that the old model with the operator as content retailer first and foremost is very significantly shifting, and there will be more of an opportunity for third parties - and publishers themselves - to start delivering their own offerings over operator networks in collaboration with them.

Ultimately the operator is still the best person to educate the customer about the value of mobile, still the best person to deal with customer care. Still a critical acquisition point - so I don't think it's a question about the balance of power shifting, I think it's recognition that there is more than one way to do this.

Tim Harrison is the European marketing manager at EA Mobile. Part one is available now. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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