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Fun and games in Barcelona

Screen Digest's David MacQueen runs down the highlights from this year's MWC.

Screen Digest's senior analyst and head of Mobile Media, David MacQueen, highlights the key moments from this year's Mobile World Congress, which took place in Barcelona recently.

Another year in Barcelona, another week's worth of hangovers to recover from. Aside from learning yet again that too many networking drinks is bad, what did the mobile industry's biggest show teach us?

Again, the expectation was that more focus would be on the content side of the industry, and again all the big news was about pipes. Femtocells, LTE, WiMAX; the delivery technology gets better, faster, stronger, but where is the content to fill these pipes?

There were a few more companies than last year in the content hall of the conference centre, and noticeably more visitors to that area, but the industry remains extremely technology focused.

Touch me

Technology does, of course, influence the mobile content industry, and in terms of games, touch screen handsets look like the way forwards. Every handset manufacturer showed at least one iPhone copycat device and mobile games publishers are keen to exploit what will undoubtedly be a large installed base of users.

Interfaces have always been a huge issue for mobile games and the touch screen could do much more to solve this problem than the original N-Gage or any number of failed joystick peripherals ever will. Gameloft, the only mobile games publisher to have a stand at MWC, showed several very nice touch screen games.

On display

Speaking of the games on display, it was rather hard to find many. Naturally nVidia had a few on their stand, although even this company, which made its name in the PC gaming arena, devoted more space to 3D mobile phone interfaces than 3D games.

Evidently nVidia's found that there's more money in UI than games. The 3D star of the show had to be Mobile Suit Gundam, on showing off its impressive graphics and gameplay at the NTT DoCoMo stand.

Technology advances have been important for this not only because of 3D, but because of the bigger pipes I lamented earlier. The game is one of NTT DoCoMo's Mega Game range, which are allowed file sizes of up to 1MB.

Swinging

While the technical wizardry of Mobile Suit Gundam caught my eye, it was Glu's rather less graphically rich My Hangman game and another 2D casual title, Cellufun's Call of the Pharaoh, which were joint winners of the GSM Association's prize for best mobile game.

I don't wish to appear unkind though; in fact My Hangman has one very interesting graphics feature. Players can crop faces from photos taken on the phone's camera and swing them from the hangman's noose.

That's not the only way to inflict capital punishment on your friends; there's also a multiplayer mode. Call of the Pharaoh goes one step further and requires multiple players in order to complete a pyramid.

The photos in My Hangman could just about qualify as user generated content, to use one of the buzzwords of the show, and multiplayer is rapidly becoming a hot ticket in mobile games.

Anyone who has been in mobile games for any amount of time will be wary of such a statement. Multiplayer has been touted as the "next big thing" for almost the entire decade or so that mobile games have existed, but it has never come of age.

So what's changed?

Partly it's the shift in the industry to flat-rate data plans, so users (at least those on these plans) don't need to worry about paying through the nose for data traffic when playing.

Mobile operators are offering these as network capacity increases. Another factor is the deployment of HSPA networks, which suffer from considerably less lag than 3G networks. So the pipes have an influence here too.

Technology is not the only reason 2008 could be the year multiplayer finally takes off. With the number of people playing mobile games remaining flat, attention shifts to increasing the revenues from these users in order to boost games revenues.

Multiplayer or community elements keep players coming back, rather than just downloading a game when they upgrade a handset but then not again until the next change of phone.

Social networking, community and user generated content are also the current buzzwords in the industry. After so many years of multiplayer being the next big thing in games, many mobile games companies have the technology in place to help publisher and mobile operator clients ride these bandwagons, and they are making hay while the sun shines.

One developer studio I talked to said every game they currently have in development has a multiplayer or community feature.

Overdose

The GSM Awards was not the only show in town, in fact not even the only show with the GSM Association's involvement. The International Mobile Game Awards were this year endorsed by the GSMA, so there was rather an overdose of games awards winners.

Disappointingly though, the IMGA judges did not give out the award for the Excellence in Connectivity category. Perhaps the future isn't so bright for multiplayer gaming after all.

3D was certainly in evidence though, with ONE (Digital Legends) winning the prize for best gameplay, World Rally Championship (Firemint) scooping the People's Choice award and Metal Gear Solid Mobile (Ideaworks3D) winning two prizes, including the Grand Prix.

A bit on the side

As well as a cash prize, the winners should all also get distribution via Buongiorno's off-portal site (or, as they prefer, "multi-faceted end-to-end storefront solution"). This highlights another trend in mobile games; off deck distribution. Off-portal is a growing market for games, and Disney announced an off-portal move in the UK.

Vivendi waited until just after the show to announce the launch of its own portal, Zoaza. Another route to the consumer is 'sideloading' from the PC to mobile. Nokia's new N-Gage platform almost launched in time for the show - an open Beta for N81 users was the first public outing for the handset giantâs new games platform.

EA Mobile has also indicated that sideloading will be the next area of growth, although the company has yet to make any firm announcements. Sideloading, of course, sidesteps the operator's pipes, so while the new network infrastructure may play a significant role in multiplayer gaming, its importance may decrease for distribution.

Peek show

Handsets featuring Google's new Android platform were on display, giving the industry its first peek. If the buzz on the internet is anything to go by, bedroom coders are excited, but the established players in the mobile games industry seemed unimpressed. Until there's a large volume of handsets on the market, publishers are not interested in investing in the platform.

Reasons to be cheerful

For the first time in a couple of long hard years for the mobile games industry, a distinct whiff of optimism could be detected at MWC. There was intuitive new touch screen interfaces, multiplayer and community features, off-portal and sideloading distribution to reach new audiences, and attractive 3D graphics.

Perhaps next year we'll be saying "2008 was the year things really took off" rather than "2009 will be the year for mobile gaming".

David MacQueen is senior analyst and head of Mobile Media at Screen Digest.

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