The mobile games industry has suffered from a generally poor reputation within the traditional games industry, struggling to make much headway from fairly static figures that show around 5 per cent of handset owners downloaded games - but the numbers don't necessarily paint the whole picture.
In the first part of a wide-ranging interview with GamesIndustry.biz, EA Mobile's European marketing director Tim Harrison gives us his thoughts on where the industry sits at the moment, but how the picture is changing.
Q: How do you see the mobile games industry at the moment? Clarify your philosophy about who the audience is.
Tim Harrison: I think the big difference in terminology here is that when people say 'casual games' they assume a certain type of game, or a certain kind of person. The reality is that it's a lot more complex than that - there are certain types of people in certain types of need states, and a gamer in one environment will have a very different set of criteria to a gamer in another environment.
Another example of that is the popularity of puzzle games on the Xbox 360 - the same guy who likes Gears of War might be more than happy to play Hexic. So I think classifying casual gamers versus hardcore gamers for a start can be a little bit tenuous.
We try and look at our customers as mass market gamers in mobile, and the reality is that EA has access to an astonishing range of mass market consumer brands, many of which step outside games entirely - EA Sports, for example, is much more than just a games brand.
So really what we're trying to do on mobile is create approachable and compelling mobile games experience based within the world of EA brands. We're not trying to create casual games, or hardcore games - just great games.
The reality is that the restrictions of the mobile handset tend to make those simpler - however what we try and do is replace simplicity with depth, so a very simple game with no depth isn't particularly enjoyable. We try and add that additional depth to make up for the constricted screens and controls.
Q: And crucially something that's platform suitable?
Tim Harrison: Yes, but again, we're creating across a whole range of platforms, all the way from the low-end devices - which is a certain type of consumer in the Western markets, but in the less developed regions it's probably more the mass-market consumer. Then that's all the way through to the iPhone, the iPod, BREW, N-Gage - the high-end stuff.
So this is the other thing - you're trying to create a gameplay experience for a whole range of customers across a whole range of capabilities, so the reality is that segmentation of your customer base - by its very nature - has to be very broad. That's the nature of mobile gaming.
Q: From a consumer's point of view, if they're an existing gamer, they'll look at the difference between platforms as being the difference between consoles, or handhelds, or the PC - not necessarily taking into account that range of handsets?
Tim Harrison: Possibly not, but in some of our markets we actually sell more versions of a mobile game than we do on some of our other platforms - so that brand is, by definition, not necessarily being sold to a traditional gamer.
Q: With some handsets, perhaps where the 3D capability isn't so good, and you're talking about a game like Need for Speed - if people see the console version, is there a problem with expectation about the mobile edition of that franchise title? How do you manage that?
Tim Harrison: Well, we always try to be careful in our communication not to misrepresent the product - we're selling a branded gameplay experience, we're not necessarily selling an audio-visual experience in the same way that you might on a console, and we make sure marketing reflects that.
Q: But that's how games are sold, for the most part - it's all about the screenshots, the gameplay - and doesn't that lead to a general expectation of games as a certain standard?
Tim Harrison: Yes, but again it's possibly an expectation among a slightly different audience than a mobile phone game has to cater for. This is the challenge, and in some ways it's very similar to that of the traditional games industry, but very different in others. And I think the secret of success in mobile is to navigate your way between Scylla and Charybdis, as it were.
Creating and marketing mobile games is still an astonishingly complicated business in terms of processes, technology, and the wide range of very similar but fundamentally different things that you have to do - the devil is totally in the detail with mobile games, and I think that it continues to be a source of frustration to absolutely everybody who works within the industry.
We're still at the stage where we're having to focus so much time and energy - and economic investment - in dealing with what is effectively irrelevant stuff to the consumer.
But one of the things that I think is changing is that there is a recognition - more and more - by handset manufacturers that this is a waste of time and resources, it's not a competitive differentiator. I think one of the things that will help accelerate that is the fact that the handset manufacturers are more and more becoming content sellers - they're looking to develop end-to-end services much more than in the past.
Most operators now are accepting that their position is changing, that the balance of power is shifting around a little bit, and different people are taking up the slack in the value chain, and aggressively moving after new revenue streams that perhaps haven't been identified or weren't capable of being delivered...advertising is a prime example with operators.
So I think that it will, over the course of the next few years, have a very positive impact on the industry. The simple fact that there is a difference of a few lines of code within the Java version of an implementation on one handset versus another one is the difference between creating a new variant of the game or not.
I think the numbers of different SKUs of games that have to be created in order to service the numbers of customers that we reach is pretty famous, and everyone's got a different number but they're all pretty high.
The reality is that we're seeing a consolidation of platforms - we're seeing new platforms come into the market, and I think possibly the most important thing about the iPhone isn't so much about the iPhone, it's about the Apple operating system. It's about effectively another computer-based operating system moving into the mobile space and the effect that it will have on the standardisation of platforms going forwards.
Handset manufacturers will no longer justify having multiple different flavours of very similar platforms across the range, and that in itself will reduce complexity and allow publishers and developers to do more with the phones.
I think that's probably what's very exciting about the years to come in mobile - we are moving into the stage where we're getting increasingly sophisticated platforms, but we are reducing the level of fragmentation that we have.
I think there will be a short period of pain - with every new platform that comes out, a new opportunity, but another variant to create for. But I think that over the next two or three years the net effect will be positive.
Q: You say "short period of pain" but you could probably argue that in fact we're approaching the end of quite a long period of pain?
Tim Harrison: Developers don't mind developing for great new platforms that allow them to make exciting games at the end of the day - it's the nitty-gritty, it's the minor annoyances, the small changes to a code base that really add very little to the customer experience other than allowing the game to work. That's the sort of stuff that holds the industry back. New platforms with new capabilities - touch screens, accelerometers, and so on.
Again if they're done in a fragmented way with no commonality then it starts to introduce new challenges, but I think the industry is developing these in such a way that they're recognising the opportunities that can only really come with something reasonably unfragmented.
Q: Part of the impact of the iPhone is due to the marketing - the message that the Internet is accessible, they talk about Facebook, the 'real' Internet - they're trying to get people to feel better about data, and surely that will have a positive knock-on effect for games downloads?
Tim Harrison: I think the challenge has been really that operators will continue to find it challenging to sell data plans unless there's a compelling reason for people to want data plans. It's like back in the days of the Internet - why did you want a broadband connection before video or music downloads. It would make Amazon go a little bit faster, but that was about it in the early days.
Q: But arguably, part of that was also about the horror stories with dial-up left on overnight, big phone bills...whereas the attraction of broadband was effectively one fee for seemingly unlimited access? It's a peace of mind thing, isn't it?
Tim Harrison: Peace of mind, I agree, to very heavy users. But to light users it was effectively irrelevant - apart from the fact they might make a mistake and leave their PC on, for very light users in some cases it continued to make more financial sense than broadband. And there's still a percentage of the population out there who do use dial-up, because the only thing they use the Internet for is probably to check emails, so that's all they require.
So you're absolutely right, but I think it's those two factors working together. It's the fact that the sort of 'build it and they will come' mentality doesn't really work - you actually have to go in there with a content proposition that will drive data downloads as well.
And in fact games has been one of the few areas ever since it took off with operators that has consistently driven revenues for downloads - driven usage of their services - and that can only increase as the marketing of the data plans becomes more effective.
Q: Fundamentally though, we're still talking about 5 per cent of users that are downloading and paying for games.
Tim Harrison: It depends how you segment them, whether they're regularly paying, whether they've ever downloaded a game, every three months or every week - there are lots of cuts...but I agree that it's lower than the industry would like.
Tim Harrison is the European marketing director at EA Mobile. Part two will be available next week. Interview by Phil Elliott.