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Ideaworks 3D's Tim Closs

Earlier this month, Ideaworks 3D unveiled Airplay 3.0 - the company's new middleware solution for mobile game developers.

MobileIndustry.biz caught up with chief technical officer Tim Closs to discuss the benefits of the new technology, the state of the global mobile gaming market and Ideaworks's future plans.

MobileIndustry.biz What are the main benefits of Airplay 3.0 for developers?
Tim Closs

Airplay 3.0 allows them to build their game once and employ it to as many different native handsets as possible. It basically reduces their porting costs almost to zero.

MobileIndustry.biz Do you think the issue of porting costs is still a big problem for the industry in general?
Tim Closs

Yes, very much so. We're still seeing Java porting costs being up to 50 per cent of the total game development budget. There are some very good solutions now in the Java space, such as Tira's Jump solution - but nothing like that currently exists in the native space.

So for people who are doing faster games, written in C++ essentially rather than Java, they're still limited to developing for one platform - for example, Brew - and then porting the game to other platforms such as Symbian.

With Airplay 3.0 they just write the game once and it goes across all those platforms - Brew, Symbian, Windows Mobile, Linux Mobile.

MobileIndustry.biz We did an interview with your VP, Thor Gunnarsson, earlier this year and he predicted that mobile gaming will overtake console gaming within the next few years. Do you think solving the porting problem is key to achieving that?
Tim Closs

Yes, very much so. In some ways, console and mobile are becoming closer in terms of the actual horsepower of the devices. The high-end mobile devices, especially those with hardware graphics acceleration, are comparable in performance to maybe a DS, and the next generation are going to be comparable maybe to PSP.

From a publisher's perspective, they're actually looking at these two spaces as being very similar, and looking at how they can address development across both as a single process.

MobileIndustry.biz Arguably, though, the DS and PSP are still doing better than mobile gaming. What problems must be overcome to redress the balance?
Tim Closs

One of the issues is still the problems from the operators' perspective - making it easy for people to actually buy and download these games. That's something that everyone in the industry is working very hard on, to try and make them improve their processes and make the user experience much easier. There are some good steps being made, particularly by Nokia and also Vodafone, to improve that.

Another thing is just more games, better games, for more platforms - we've certainly been trying to raise the quality bar with what we've done in our studio over the past few years, and we're starting to see now that most of the major traditional games publishers are taking steps into mobile. Obviously, Electronic Arts with their purchase of Jamdat are really investing a lot of money, and they see this as being a massive growth area.

MobileIndustry.biz How difficult is it for mobile game publishers to attract hardcore gamers? Are you just left with the casual audience?
Tim Closs

To be honest, at the moment mobile does appeal less to the core gamer than other platforms. If they're going to go for non-fixed platform, they'll probably go for a handheld rather than play on their mobile phone.

But the core gamer is such a small percentage of the actual addressable market - that's the main advantage of mobile, it's so ubiquitous. The real focus for most publishers is not the core gamer, but to think, how can we open up and address everyone else who's out there, who's got a mobile phone and who may want to play a game.

MobileIndustry.biz The EA/Jamdat deal clearly had a significant impact on the industry. What did you make of it at Ideaworks? Did it change your business model at all?
Tim Closs

No, it didn't really change what we were doing. In some ways it was just good news for us and good news for the mobile gaming industry, because when a player as significant as EA makes that kind of move it validates our vision for mobile gaming.

If anything, it's led to a closer collaboration between us and major publishers who have woken up and thought, blimey, if EA are doing this we really need to be looking closely at mobile as well.

MobileIndustry.biz Which of the other major publishers do you see as taking a significant interest in mobile gaming at the moment?
Tim Closs

Interestingly, in Japan, publishers like Square Enix have already been very successful at using mobile as a platform. They're now looking to move into Western markets as well, and that's led to us having quite a close co-operation.

MobileIndustry.biz Is Europe still lagging behind Japan in terms of the way the mobile gaming industry is developing?
Tim Closs

In some ways it's lagging behind, in others it's ahead. In terms of the number of people downloading and playing games, Japan is way ahead, and the number of people using interesting game-related connected services, or chat services with a gaming edge - there's a lot of stuff going on there that isn't happening outside of Japan.

On the other hand, in terms of high-end gaming, pushing the envelope in terms of 3D, connected features like episodic delivery of content and stuff like that, then the US and Europe certainly next year are going to overtake Japan.

MobileIndustry.biz Which market is the main focus for Ideaworks at the moment?
Tim Closs

To be honest, probably the US. We've had a lot of success over the last year to 18 months in the Brew market on carriers like Verizon and Sprint, with the games that we've done for Electronic Arts in particular, like Need for Speed.

So we've invested quite heavily in the Brew market, but I think next year Europe is going to expand greatly in terms of opportunities for us and for native gaming in general - especially with Vodafone and Orange now announcing they're going to allow native downloads. That's going to be a big turning point for native games in the European markets.

MobileIndustry.biz What areas of the market are you attempting to reach with the titles you're producing at the moment?
Tim Closs

Our focus is always to make games that can diffuse as widely as possible. With a game like The Sims, that's a brand which is coming from a traditional PC background, but it's also got enormous potential in terms of opening up to a wider audience on mobile. That's an example of the sort of thing we'd like to do more.

We are doing more and more original game generation within our studio, as well as working with major IP from the console space and taking that to mobile. When we work with these IPs, it's less and less a question of porting those game mechanics from console; it's more and more a question of doing a unique mobile game design that will really work on mobile, and hopefully appeal to a really wide audience, using just that existing franchise.

MobileIndustry.biz Isn't there more risk attached to producing original games? Why not stick to the safer option of relying on tried and trusted brands?
Tim Closs

There's obviously an attraction to sticking with brands, whether those are gaming brands or other brands is one question. There's a lot of bandwidth in taking general entertainment brands that people recognise and will therefore be more willing to buy into, and building games around those.

MobileIndustry.biz Is Ideaworks looking to expand at the moment, or are you just focusing on what you've built up so far?
Tim Closs

Our business model is to operate the two sides of the business in a co-operative way. So the studio will continue to make hopefully the biggest and best and most widespread mobile games in the world by working closely with the leading publishers like EA and Square Enix.

On the lab side, I think '07 is going to be an incredibly important year for us - obviously, taking the SDK to market, we're just going to continue to grow that and try and make that diffused as widely as possible; making that as much of a standard as we can in terms of cross-platform native game development. We'll continue also to work very closely with our partners like TI and Nokia, just to take the mobile gaming industry forward.

MobileIndustry.biz Would you be open to a big offer from a company like EA?
Tim Closs

That's not our focus at the moment. Our focus is making games for them, but also supporting them with technology where possible. That kind of relationship is good for both of us; we're not looking to be aquired by anyone at the moment.

Tim Closs is the chief technical officer for Ideaworks. Interview by Ellie Gibson.

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