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Mobile Games: Hubris or Nemesis?

The Osney Media Mobile Games Forum 2008 took place last week, and I was there to try and gain an insight into the latest results, trends, opinions and feelings about the mobile games industry.

I first attended the event in 2004, when the main topics of conversation revolved around four key areas: the feasibility of handsets for playing games; the need to port games to a wide range of handsets; the relationships between developers, publishers and the carriers; and the looming threat of consolidation.

Four years on and the only one of those not still debated at length was the latter - despite M:Metrics data showing that consolidation in 2007 continued at some pace.

For an industry that's still realistically less than a decade old, and one with so many interested parties involved, to be wrestling still with such fundamental problems for such a period of time is disappointing.

What's even more worrying is that while the potential for growth remains tantalising - around 75 per cent of mobile phone users don't currently play games on their handsets, and only around 5 per cent actually pay for downloads - base line growth has been restricted in the past few years.

This is down to a number of reasons, but most notably I'd argue an issue of perception on the part of the industry in terms of who is actually interested in mobile games - a question which serves up something of a paradox.

Traditionally, mobile phone games publishers have always liked to talk about the 'casual' gamer as their preferred target audience of choice - the player that will be attracted to Tetris, Sudoku, Deal or No Deal and so on.

Citing the birth of the videogames industry and the likes of Pong, Pac-Man and other arcade classics, I've often heard people talk about the way that people like to dip in and out of their mobile phone games - that it's a convenience and something to pass the time, rather than a more 'hardcore' appointment-to-view approach to play.

That seems entirely reasonable, except of course that those pioneers who played the early videogames mentioned above were anything but casual gamers, instead then taking part in a niche, if fast-growing, pastime.

The other problem with appealing to the casual gamer today is that the process and transparency of actually getting hold of mobile games has always been overly complex and lacking in transparency.

From a navigation and discovery standpoint there lingers a strong, if nowadays less justified, fear of anything other than talk and text - everybody has had, or knows somebody who has had, a bad phone bill experience, and as a result there's a general reluctance on the part of consumers to explore any form of mobile online offering.

But even if somebody does explore further, and finds a game which sounds as if it might appeal to him or her, the price point for something that has little or no guarantee of quality is problematic.

Worse still, if that person takes the plunge, buys the game and subsequently has a poor experience, there's a pretty strong chance they won't make the same mistake twice - they're gone, never to return.

On the flipside mobile phone games aren't yet at the level that more dedicated gamers would look for from their mobile device, and while advances in visuals have helped matters, they simply can't yet compete with the sheer aesthetics of the PlayStation Portable or the quirky usability of the Nintendo DS.

But, that said, sales charts tell us the most popular downloaded games are ports of existing videogame franchises - so does that mean that most mobile gamers are in fact existing traditional gamers, or does it simply mean that those are the titles that benefit from the highest marketing spend?

If it's the latter, spending ones marketing budget on games that aren't casual games - by virtue of being part of a videogames franchise - flies in the face of conventional wisdom that, as mentioned earlier, mobile gamers are casual in nature.

If it's the former, then significant portions of the industry need to think carefully about the range of games to be served up in the future, particularly if there's broad agreement that poor execution of existing franchise ports could be damaging to the industry in the long term.

And aside from all this, the other issues still remain unresolved - handset keypads don't offer a compelling or satisfying game control experience, there are too many stakeholders involved in the mobile games chain to enable nimble business decisions, and resources are drained further by having to adapt each game to hundreds of different handset configurations.

Happily there are signs that these last problems are finally developing long-awaited solutions.

While handset keypads haven't yielded much ground to games developers to date, still taken up with core functionality of user interfaces, talk and text, the iPhone could spur on other manufacturers to develop touch-screen technology, opening up a lot of potential crossover with Nintendo's fabulously popular DS console.

And while the links in the chain from developer to end user show no signs of consolidating much, other business models, among them the iTunes download model, have the potential to at least make the experience a more straightforward and transparent one - providing enough reputable sources for such distribution methods become available.

Additionally, while flat-rate billing is finally a reality for most providers, and although this is a message which needs to be communicated far more effectively to the general consumer, some of the lingering doubts about browsing and the use of data services might begin to fade.

Better still, if Nokia's new N-Gage software platform can filter down to mass market handsets quickly enough, the potential for an Xbox Live style of community, complete with game feedback and recommendations, could finally be realised.

Undoubtedly one of the most frustrating elements for anybody working in the mobile games industry in the past four years must be the way that other forms of mobile entertainment have arrived on the scene and supplanted them.

It happened with music, which was followed by the early TV offerings, not to mention adult entertainment and gambling. All have taken attention away from mobile games.

Now it's the turn of social networking to take to the stage - but while in previous years the gloom surrounding games has increased with each new kid on the block, a newfound positivity seems to be encouraging developers and publishers to embrace potential opportunities.

Questions of combining aspects of Facebook with a multiplayer game design are discussed, alongside thoughts of tapping into existing online behemoths such as World of Warcraft.

And if carriers recognise and agree that getting people communicating in ways other than just talk and text is the future, maybe that message about data price plans will get across, and games will benefit from greater general exploration.

Or if hardware specialists such as AMD and Nvidia follow through on promises of improved chipsets that in turn enable more intuitive user interfaces, handset manufacturers might feel better about designing devices for digits other than the thumb on a single hand.

All of these areas are of course overshadowed by significant question marks, and the likelihood of the level of progress that's really needed actually occurring is probably slim, but at least people finally seem open to new ideas and new ways of working - and if that's the case, there's still yet hope.

Whether 2008 will be a good year for the mobile games industry, or yet another year of stagnation and resistance to change, remains to be seen. But unlike last year, there at least seems a little more chance of the former. Fingers - and thumbs - crossed.

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GamesIndustry International is the world's leading games industry website, incorporating GamesIndustry.biz and IndustryGamers.com.

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