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Focus On: Kayak Interactive's George Faigen

The wireless gaming industry has been accused, for the past number of years, of consistently over-promising and under-delivering - an accusation which isn't exactly an unfair one, as despite making a great deal of noise for over half a decade, the sector still fails to offer products more interesting than Nintendo's Game Boy line-up, or, more importantly, genuinely significant revenues.

The past year, however, has finally seen some promises being kept. E3 2003 in Los Angeles last May could well come to be marked as a turning point for mobile gaming; even if the revenues weren't there yet, there was a new aura of confidence about the mobile gaming contingent and a willingness to discuss their revenue streams and profit models, topics which had previously been, if not taboo, then at least somewhat impolite to raise in conversation with them.

Even if the industry has turned the corner into becoming a genuinely interesting commercial sector, however, there's still a long way to go - and one company which is taking the bull by the horns and working to drive the entire marketplace forward is Kayak Interactive, a well-funded start-up which has a base of technology for building multiplayer mobile games, and perhaps more importantly, a willingness to actually undertake to create a mobile multiplayer market for that technology.

Distributing Multiplayer

"Clearly, mobile gaming is lots of fun already," began Kayak chief marketing officer George Faigen when we caught up with him in London this week, "and on the handsets, there's lots of innovation going on, like faster chips, better Java engines, Symbian and others that make the user experience better as time goes on. Yet, we're holding a communication device - and we're not using it to communicate in the game."

"This was an oddity that we looked at over two years ago now, and said, what can we do to make it more fun? So we use the wireless networks that the phone naturally uses to bring people together into groups to play multiplayer games. Our background is primarily in wireless and in distributed computing... and we happen to have unique technology - technology that we have PhD's in - which happens to uniquely fit this particular problem very nicely."

Rather than just being a middleware provider, however, Kayak has recognized that the mobile multiplayer market needs to be sold to consumers and operators. In order to accomplish this, the company is working in partnership with a number of developers, effectively serving as a publisher for a range of titles which, it believes, will help to attract mainstream consumers to the concepts of multiplayer gaming on mobile phones.

"We don't give the SDK out," explains Faigen. "There are a couple of steps. First, if we're going to work with a game developer, they have to send us a plan. What is the game concept, where's the multiplayer aspect... If we think it's an interesting game, then we approve it. Once we approve it, there are several pieces of resource that come with that approval. You get the SDK, you get some training, and then you get an engineer."

Covering the Bases

Although it's quite an unusual approach for a technology company, it's one which mobile developers seem to have taken to, and Kayak is already involved with several projects. "We're engaged in six - three in the UK, three in the US - and we have a plan to consummate twelve in the first year, which is through to December," Faigen tells us.

"Some of them are relatively easy games for consumers, like golf, and we've also funded some persistent world games which are very interesting because there's both collaboration and competition in the game itself - a sophisticated game, yet playable on the basic handsets. Those will be arriving around Christmas time."

So how does a technology company like Kayak end up being commissioning - and paying for, in some cases, as the company's revenues rely on taking a revenue share down the line rather than an up-front payment - projects rather than simply licensing its technology? It's down to the fact that the biggest challenge facing mobile multiplayer isn't technological, according to Faigen - it's a marketing challenge.

"We've taken the technical challenges and solved them," he claims. "We still need to work with game developers to make sure that they use our technology properly to make a great game. Assuming that they do, and we put the game up on game decks - Vodafone, O2, Orange and so forth - there's still a marketing challenge to get the population aware of what it means to have a multiplayer game. Game players know what multiplayer is, but I wouldn't expect a hundred people on the street, who may have mobile phones today, if in an interview you asked them what multiplayer gaming means they'd have some vague understanding of what it is, and probably very little interest in it. They haven't really thought about it."

"So we have to take the simpler games, games that the average player would be familiar with - pool, darts, golf, card games - and introduce them to the aspects of multiplayer in a very natural way. It's natural to play golf with somebody else, it's natural to play cards with somebody else - so you ease them into that, so that they won't be fearful, and they'll understand how to push the multiplayer button or the online button, or just how to join a game and start to play."

Viral Vectors

Kayak believes that the best way to achieve this level of acceptance among consumers is to get them playing the games. "Someone needs to educate the market about this, and it's not obvious who does that," says Faigen. "The carriers don't market games very strongly, the publishers and developers don't have money to do so - it's tough to market to the entire UK population, that's a big challenge."

"I'm not looking for a killer app really - I'm looking for a killer experience. An experience of enjoyment that the mobile world today doesn't have. And once users have that, then they'll go and search out more games - so the first experience has to be with a game that is convenient and compelling. it has to be easy to play, it has to be easy to push the button that says 'play online', and it has to be compelling enough gameplay that they say, 'oh, cool, this was worth it' and come back to it - and at that point, you can start to build the interest. You'll tell me that you played the game, that we're playing online, you'll tell someone else - you get a viral network effect from that."

In order for that to happen, though, one other thing has to be in place alongside technology and gameplay - namely community. Kayak's approach focuses heavily on providing community features for mobile games, allowing players to compete in leagues and tournaments, and to communicate with each other, rather than just playing in simple disorganized "pick-up" games.

Sense of Community

"Exactly!" exclaims Faigen when we ask about the importance of community to online gaming. "Once you have the people, what do you do with them? Really the success of a multiplayer game is measured by the size of the community and how active the community is. They should be expanding the number of people, they should be playing a lot each month, and they should play for a lot of months. That would be a good community. That would be a community that you build around a game - a community of chess players may not have anybody in common with the community of a persistent world game, or of Pub Pool - but it doesn't matter. Each world is a world within itself."

"So the idea is, how do you build a community and keep them excited about the game? You first build the game, make it into a community and then grow it. So we have technologies for that, and as such we're going around the mobile world and getting content built to seed the marketplace so that game players will start to have fun doing multiplayer gaming, in quite a simple way... We raised money on the basis that we were going to have to go to developers and buy titles, in order to seed that marketplace and make the world aware of what we're doing."

He gives the example of Pub Pool, a mobile game created by UK-based Iomo using Kayak multiplayer technologies, as a title in which community features have been successfully implemented. "We helped their developer team, in this case Steve Longhurst, to take his knowledge of the game, marry it with our knowledge of multiplayer, and build a multiplayer game - player against player - and then take that and place it into a multiplayer tournament, where you have the construct on top of the game to allow eight people to play - in this case, as we did at GDC, to play in a single elimination knockout tournament."

Of course, while community is vital for many games, some other developers won't particularly want to implement full strength community features in their games - and Kayak's technology allows for that eventuality as well. "It's all API-based, and you can do what you want. The developers can just use the communication layers for networking to create a group - find a person, put them into a group, manage the group, message the group - and there might never be a tournament, there might never be a structure larger than the game. That depends on the developer and what their interests are."

Developing Lightweight

Indeed, Kayak's technology has been designed from the ground up to fit with what developers need on an individual basis - and it's worth discussing some aspects of the technology itself as well, since it's rather different to standard solutions.

"Our handset technology is also built upon different functions and you can pick and choose the function you want," explains Faigen. "The whole client is less than ten kilobytes - it's not large, but when you have a 100 kilobyte sandbox you don't want to use up too much of that so you can throw some things out and use a smaller version."

"So, it's very granular. That's one of the things about distributed computing which is just natural - you expect several things from distributed computing. The first is that you expect extreme heterogeneity - different air networks, different devices, different protocols. Every piece you talk about - just expect 'different', and that's how you build the expected design. The second thing is that you have to build it very lightweight, because in a distributed world you can't carry around heavy pieces."

"Even if you're doing nuclear reactor core management with multiple processors, you still build it that way, even if you've got very sophisticated computers. This happens to fall very nicely in line with devices where you want a very lightweight distribution because they're pretty lightweight devices. So from that point of view, we married a very interesting technology to a perfect problem."

Distributing the Future

The marriage of technology and marketing has always been crucial to the games industry, and Kayak is not only bringing both of these elements to the mobile multiplayer market, but also a healthy dose of realism - and enough cash (with over $12 million in funding) to approach the problem from a number of different angles.

"We're pioneers," says Faigen. "We don't know what is going to work in the hands of mobile subscribers. Nobody does. We have some educated guesses, we have some lessons learned from other parts of the game world... We're also very conscious that the wireless world is very different. If you buy an Xbox for someone, they're a gamer. A Series 60 phone user bought the phone as a phone; they bought some ring tones, they bought some screen savers, they bought some other stuff, and they're starting to understand that value added content can be purchased - they may even have bought a game already. But they haven't tried a multiplayer game yet, and they're not really a gamer, so how do you get them involved? We're working on it."

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.