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Namco Europe talks i-mode

Last month, a little bit of mobile history was made in the heart of London, as mobile gamers from across Europe gathered underneath the County Hall building on the south bank of the Thames to compete head to head at well loved arcade classic, Pac-Man.

It doesn't sound like much of a piece of history, admittedly; gamers coming together to play games in what is, after all, a games arcade, is not normally the stuff of headlines. What sets this gathering apart is the fact that it was the culmination of the first ever mobile gaming competition to span multiple European territories, with Namco seeking the continent's best Pac-Man players using its Pac-Man Arcade title on European i-mode services.

This was, the company believes, a taste of things to come. The launch of i-mode has opened the door for providers like Namco to start taking control of their own customer base in the mobile gaming space - and having players from different countries and operators competing against each other is only the start of the story.

MobileIndustry.biz spoke to Jessica Gwyther, i-mode manager at Namco Europe, and Pramesh Chauhan, head of business development for Namco Europe's web and mobile content division, about their plans for Namco's i-mode service - and their views on how i-mode will develop in Europe in the coming years.

MobileIndustry First of all, can you tell us where you go from here? What's the game plan for Namco's i-mode service after you've run your first tournament?
Jessica Gwyther

The tournament is the perfect place to start, because obviously it's the first of its kind. From an industry point of view, it shows that we can be quite innovative - we want to continue with that throughout 2006.

What we're going to do, after Christmas and after all the dust from the tournament has settled, is put our heads together, both me and my colleague in Japan, and look at what we've learned from the tournament - focus on the site down to the lowest common denominators and see what we're doing well, what we need to improve on, what the competition in the marketplace is doing and where it's going. Then obviously, in 2006, we'll see if we can do some more exciting promotions and activity.

We're planning to sit down and finalise that in January, so we'll know more detail about it then - but for the moment, we're going to continue to, as the handsets grow in features, try and do some innovative bits and pieces - try and show off Namco, try and show off Pac-Man Arcade.

MobileIndustry Is this something that's only really become possible with the launch of i-mode? Couldn't it have been done before with the gaming systems we had in Europe?
Jessica Gwyther

Absolutely. We initially pitched in to Vodafone and T-Mobile, and from a technology point of view, it was impossible. i-mode is brilliant for this - because obviously, we've got so much control over our own site, and also due to the fact that everything is server-based. What we can do, when a user plays the game and records a high-score, is load it into one central server - and the fact that that server has all of our sites throughout Europe on it means that we can link them. We can do something like Pac-Man tournament because there's a lot more visibility - people here can see what's going on with the scores in France, say, and we can treat it as one big ranking page.

MobileIndustry So that's not something you could have done on previously existing networks?
Jessica Gwyther

Yes - the carriers run the servers for them, rather than us. At least with i-mode we're in control. It makes it a lot easier.

Pramesh Chauhan

It is changing with some of the other carriers. You're starting to see now that some of them are starting to open up their gateways a bit. I think in future, it will be possible with some other network operators.

However, the level of interaction and community-level features that we've got on our site would not be possible on a WAP-based system at the moment. You could do a simple high-score tournament with a carrier at the moment, assuming they let you host it yourself or use a third-party technology company, maybe like Terraplay or one of those companies that will act as an intermediary - but it's a lot more complicated.

If you also look at it from the perspective of the way that a lot of these big carrier groups have grown, like Vodafone and T-Mobile, they've grown through the acquisition of smaller operators in some of these markets. Obviously, a lot of these operators in different territories weren't exactly compatible - when you get down to the nitty gritty of understanding how it works, it's such an incongruous mess of different platforms. Until they actually move it all over to single platforms, it's much harder to do a cross-country roll-out.

Jessica Gwyther

The thing is as well, i-mode was obviously invented by one company, by DoCoMo, and it's their proprietary technology. If you look at something like WAP, WAP is a merging of ideas and it's created by a conglomerate of handset manufacturers and software developers - so [i-mode] is just a lot simpler, as a technology, for people like us.

When DoCoMo created i-mode, they were saying that they were creating something that was going to be easy for content providers who had web-based content to move across to a wireless service - whereas for us, who've never really been big in the internet side of things, the fact that it's all written in CHTML makes it a lot simpler for us to get people who can bring our mobile content to DoJa [the i-mode application environment].

For us, it's a win-win situation with i-mode. Obviously, being a Japanese company, it helps that we've got that heritage - for us to be able to give them a call every now and again if we have any problems.

MobileIndustry In terms of the content Namco is putting onto i-mode here in Europe, is this content that has been ported over pretty much directly from your Japanese services, or are you developing new content for this market?
Jessica Gwyther

At the moment, absolutely, yes. At the moment, what you'll find is that all the games we have are Namco-branded games, straight from Japan. They've already been created for DoJa, they're all already on DoCoMo in Japan.

The problem is the technology in Japan. They're on to - I think it's DoJa 4 they're on to now, they've got these advanced devices where we're just still introducing DoJa 1.5 into Europe. From our side, it's great because we've got all of this DoJa content - but a friend of mine at another content provider, when we first met, he was going "oh, you're so lucky, you've got such a rich portfolio of content you can draw on whereas we've got to create from scratch!"

It's like, hold on - if it's a question of porting games to DoJa 1.5, we may as well start from scratch anyway! It's really difficult - it's almost impossible.

Pramesh Chauhan

They're probably about three years ahead of us in Japan in terms of handsets. I mean, by the time we get to DoJa 4 in this country and it becomes relatively mainstream, it's going to take two to three years.

Jessica Gwyther

The good news is, speaking to friends in the industry who really are in the know, they all say that the target from DoCoMo is to eventually have European and Japanese handsets on the same playing field. When that happens, we'll be jumping for joy - it's going to be wonderful!

Until that happens, it's still going to be an issue of us saying "wow, can we have Ridge Racer on i-mode?" and being told "no, not yet, you have to wait until the handsets can handle the DoJa version that we have..."

It's difficult. We are definitely a content provider who is using existing Japanese content, for Japanese devices, and bringing it down to European DoJa levels - whereas some European or American content providers do the opposite, they're creating new games for European handsets. Even though we have got the Japanese DoJa content, it keeps us on the same peg. We've all got similar problems, I guess.

MobileIndustry Are you not in a position where you can turn around and take content that Namco was putting onto Japanese devices three years ago, and roll that out in Europe?
Jessica Gwyther

We are doing that - but what's happened with DoJa, and DoJa's evolution in Europe, makes it complicated. In Japan, it was DoJa 1, DoJa 2, DoJa 3 and now DoJa 4, whereas in Europe, it started off at somewhere in between DoJa 1 and DoJa 2, so we started off as DoJa 1.5. Now the next-generation handsets are DoJa 2.5...

MobileIndustry So there's no exact parallel between the technologies?
Jessica Gwyther

Yes. We have that content, but it's not a case of clicking your fingers and there it is - there's always going to be a bit of development that needs to be done on some side. Also, as you can imagine, being Namco, the brands that we have are protected quite fiercely by our colleagues over in Japan.

So, for example, if you create a game featuring the Pac-Man character, or the Pac-Man logo - if the shape is not perfectly round, if he looks a little bit oval, say, then they won't let you release the game! So, yeah... [laughs] It's always fun when that happens!

Pramesh Chauhan

In Japan, I think that the evolution from DoJa 1 to 2, from 2 to 3, moved a lot quicker than it's going to happen in this country. That's due to the dynamics of how handsets are actually sold - I think over here, the whole process of how handsets are sold is a much slower process, because there's a group buy concept. I think the way it works is that you have the whole group of i-mode alliance carriers, and you have the handset manufacturers, and I think that to try and reduce the cost, they do bulk purchases. So, you have the carriers getting together for that.

I think that driving i-mode is much harder in this market. O2 is one of the first major tier one carriers that has got its i-mode service up. It's quite positive how this has happened - Telefonica had i-mode but it never branded its services as i-mode.

Jessica Gwyther

The thing is as well, with the handsets, you've got a situation where they had to start with those 1.5 handsets, and at the time the intention was to migrate over a majority to 2.5 handsets - but what's happened is that there's a market for really cheap handsets. If you look at the new NEC, the 343 - it's a really sexy, beautiful handset, and it's cheap, and people want it.

So, especially with the way that the European carriers are structuring their packages... I mean, if you go into O2, you'll get a pay as you go handset for i-mode for 69 quid, or 79 quid. That's a great deal, and people want deals like that - but if you want those 2.5 handsets, you have to be on contract, or it's going to be about 200 quid. So that's a problem for us, as in moving the handset technology closer to our Japanese colleagues.

Also what's happening is that at the moment in Europe, DoCoMo has tended to release a lot of Asian brands - we've got a lot of NEC and Samsung handsets, because they know the technology. What I think we'll see, late this year and early next year - it's already started - is more European brands releasing DoJa handsets.

MobileIndustry Looking more closely at what exactly Namco is doing on the service, can you talk me through your offering briefly? If I'm an i-mode subscriber on O2 right now, what can I get from Namco?
Jessica Gwyther

Well, if you're with O2, the pricing is GBP 3 per month, and everything is all-inclusive, for the one-month period. That's the traditional i-mode model - it's almost like you're renting the service. In other countries - we've got our service rolled out in France, Greece and Italy, and in those three areas we're priced at 3 Euro a month, and our O2 sites, in the Netherlands and Germany, are both priced at 2 Euro a month.

What you get is, on a mature site, we have a selection of 20 games at the moment - ranging from sports games, puzzle games, action games... Obviously there are a lot of arcade favourites in there like Pac-Man and Mr Driller, Galaga, Galaxian... So there's a selection of games.

You'll also get wallpapers and ringtones from blockbuster games like Tekken 5 and Ace Combat. We've got some great new games with a really big fanbase, but as mentioned, we haven't got the technology to bring them to i-mode at the moment, or to mobile in general. So what we've done is, we've taken the official content from Japan - that's the latest release for their domestic market - and we can release that as mobile content like ringtones and wallpapers.

MobileIndustry So you're using i-mode to drive and promote new Namco titles, as well as the retro back-catalogue?
Jessica Gwyther

Absolutely. We've actually got a relationship with the consumer branch of Namco here in Europe, and already we're looking at doing some cross-functions - so what we're going to do is, as they release a console title, make sure it ties in with the release of the official wallpapers and ringtones on our i-mode site. Then they can give us some of the console games as prizes, and we can run some competitions.

Even though we can't offer the games as yet, we can still have something for the phone - because as you know, Tekken 5 and games like that do have loyal followings. We're not just pitching this as a retro site or an arcade specialist - we want to try and expand the offering, even before we've got the games onto the handset.

MobileIndustry Speaking of offering prizes, you clearly see competitions and connected gaming between users as being a really key part of the i-mode offering...
Jessica Gwyther

Yes, absolutely. The fact that i-mode is server based, and the fact that we can build a community, that we can have that arcade community.... What we're going to do, like I said, is in January we're going to do a whole review. We'll be looking at bringing in more community-based features to our site - for example, more photos, more interviews with our subscribers, get to know our subscribers.

We might have competitions that are not just high-score based - maybe it's suggestions on how to improve the site from users, and they can win a console game plus have their ideas actually implemented on the site... It's just different ways that we can create a mini-world, where people can come in and they can win prizes, they can play games, they can have ringtones and wallpapers, they can see high-scores... It's more like internet thinking, rather than just mobile.

MobileIndustry What kind of response did you have to the inaugural Pac-Man tournament, which you ran the finals for here in London recently?
Jessica Gwyther

I haven't got the entry numbers in front of me at the moment, but from our point of view, it was quite successful. Obviously, different countries performed in different ways - in one country, we actually doubled our subscriber base, so to us, that's an absolutely roaring success.

Also, from the carriers' point of view as well - they've put a lot of marketing behind this and really promoted the service and site. It's something quite unique for them, and it really drew them together as an i-mode alliance, rather than individual carriers. Yes, it had more difficulty, it's something unusual for them to do in comparison to someone like Vodafone or T-Mobile, but also it's the first time they'd really worked together as a whole on a project like this. They had meetings where they'd discuss it, and they worked as a group. It was a real step forward for them as well.

MobileIndustry Is that something that DoCoMo has been encouraging i-mode carriers to do?
Jessica Gwyther

Well, yes, but that's the first opportunity that I think we've all had to put that into practice. It's great that this has happened, because I think that really, it's what the i-mode alliance gives to individual carriers - it gives them a group, it gives them a lot of strength as a whole rather than if they were going internationally individually. So yeah, I think it's been a success!

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