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Paul Maglione, I-play

Penetration of mobile phones has reached saturation point. It's expected that by the end of the year most handsets will be Java or Symbian enabled, which leaves opportunist marketers with a dilemma. Who is the target audience? Paul Maglione tells us who I-play is putting its money on and the role simplicity will play in converting them.

I-play is the new consumer-facing brand from games developer and publisher Digital Bridges.

MobileIndustry Firstly, tell us some more about I-play - who you are and what you do that's different in the mobile space.
Paul Maglione

I-play, as you know under its former name Digital Bridges, is one of the oldest players in the market, it's been around since 1998. It really started off with WAP games and then SMS games before switching over Java handsets when they hit the market.

What we've done differently from other mobile game publishers is from day one we were very focused on brands, big brands, even in the WAP and SMS days, we had very early relationships with EA, Sony Pictures, the BBC, Warner Brothers and so on. That clearly has continued, we add new big brand franchises all of the time, and so that part of our business will continue.

We feel that at this point in the development of the industry it's still quite new to people coming to mobile gaming, and therefore trusted entertainment brands are one of the things that breaks down the barriers to adoption.

In parallel with that we have a new vision of the market which we've started maturing towards the end of last year, and that is this market, for it to really take off and meet the potential that many of the analysts have forecast for it, really has to embrace simplicity, simplicity in game design, in game play, ease of navigation to the games on the various carrier portals, and ease of downloading.

So we as a publisher are going to be doing everything we can to reorient our whole way of doing business to those things. It is really starting to determine our publishing strategy as well, in terms of making sure that we, in addition to the big brand type games, we also have simpler games, games that are more oriented towards girls and women, games that are super simple to play, puzzle games like Jewel Quest, and so on.

MobileIndustry Tell us a little more about the re-branding from Digital Bridges to I-play?
Paul Maglione

That is part of this whole initiative of presenting a more user-friendly face to the consumer. It's also in recognition of the fact that in some of the operator channels already, notably Telefonica, there will be navigation by publisher, as with i-mode basically. We think it's a trend that we're going to see more of in the future.

That model of shop-within-shop, or concession within the operator portal is one that will make some headway over the course of the year. Therefore we needed to have a more consumer friendly brand as well, which also helps communicate the inclusiveness of mobile gaming, we want everyone out there who has never played a mobile game to feel that these people are making it simple, they have an attractive games line-up and there's something in there for me.

MobileIndustry What was the outcome of the I-play/Play-It legal dispute?
Paul Maglione

I can't comment on that specifically, but it has been resolved, and we are moving forward absolutely.

MobileIndustry Your mission is "to make mobile gaming the worlds most popular form of electronic gaming" - what's your strategy?
Paul Maglione

I think it's a multi-channel strategy, like any other consumer good or industry, the more ways of getting to the consumer the better. So we're already in a world where the operators are doing their bit, then you also have big portals like Yahoo and so on, you have specialist retailers like Jamba and Jamster, a number of retail concepts hitting the market, and you have the handset manufacturers taking a more active interest in selling content or pre-embedding content into their handsets.

Our job is to really work with all of those people and with the media and entertainment companies to make sure that the mobile entertainment experience and mobile gaming experience is as good, as valuable, and as simple as it can be. We keep coming back to this idea of simplicity, because at the end of the day, a mobile phone is a fairly tech-heavy piece of kit, and therefore we have got to make sure that the actual user experience of downloading and playing a game is intuitive and friendly.

MobileIndustry What changes have you made to the business in moving from Digital Bridges to I-play?
Paul Maglione

A number of things, one of them has been to simplify the way we code games, to make them more intuitive in terms of the key presses required. Another thing that we've done is to really focus on one-thumb gaming, so from a publishing point of view and from a gameplay point of view, focus on games that can be played with one thumb.

Again from a publishing and content strategy point of view, we have added games that are more mass market to the portfolio, so Jewel Quest and Skipping Stone certainly qualify for that. We're doing games that are more oriented towards girls and women, like Maria Sharapova Tennis, and we continue to expand the distribution so that we are really selling the games across as many channels and geographies as we can.

MobileIndustry Your recent '5 Country' consumer research found that over half of mobile owners had played a game on their handset, but less than 1% had successfully downloaded a game. What's happening?
Paul Maglione

Yes, downloaded successfully from their viewpoint. I think what it does is opens up a lot of interesting new questions. If people perceive themselves to be failing in the download process then there's a number of things we have to look at, in terms of people trying to download with insufficient credit, people actually successfully downloading but the game being saved into applications and they don't think to look there, so they don't think they've received it.

It could be in some cases an aborted download, a kind of 'source application unknown' message, and they refuse the download because they think it's a virus. So what it's done is really just flagged up all these barriers to adoption, that the industry as a whole needs to address.

MobileIndustry You've also acknowledged 'tweens' as the core downloading demographic, though they have bigger hang-ups over cost - other than simply reducing price, what else can be done to turn tweens into extensive downloaders?
Paul Maglione

Here's an area where the operators can do a lot, in terms of flat-rate or free browsing, because if the kids are aware that just browsing for the games and figuring out which one they want to download is costing them money, this is going to make them less inclined to do it.

Again if there is a data charge for every download which adds to the cost of the game, that's going to discourage downloading, some operators have done some very interesting things with game sales or special budget areas of their games portal, which seems to work with the tweens as well.

There's a lot that can be done, in the same way as any other industry that looks at a particular target demographic, let's go through their buying experience, and their buying sensitivities and see if we can address them.

MobileIndustry Will this type of research become a frequent activity for you?
Paul Maglione

Yes, I don't know how often we'll do it, for the time being we have this and are still mining a lot of information from, but we do want to do them on a regular basis. One of the biggest advantages we got from this research is that we can really compare the US and Europe. Half of our revenues come from the US, so it's very important to understand what the similarities are between the two geographies, and also what some of the big differences are.

MobileIndustry You've identified the female audience as prominent mobile gamers - what can be done to make this segment more profitable?
Paul Maglione

The encouraging sign is females are playing the games, they're playing a lot of embedded games and I think that there's a certain discomfort with the downloading process, they really don't know or they're not confident that they know how to do it, so I think the industry can look at all kinds of things to get around that.

Maybe now that phone memories are getting a lot bigger you can have more games preloaded onto the handset and you could sell them an unlock code as opposed to download a game. There's possibly more that can be done at the retail point where when someone goes to top-up their phone, they get assistance also in downloading the latest games.

Really, at all the consumer touch-points there's a lot that can be done and also another very important thing that we found is, for Europe in particular, people want to be able to do more on the web, including buying mobile games, and for example on most operator websites you cannot do that. So there's something that's fairly simple for the operator to e-commerce enable their website and allow people to buy directly from the web.

MobileIndustry It seems like the overarching barrier to downloading is transparency - of cost, quality and compatibility - what steps can the industry take to increase transparency and grow the market?
Paul Maglione

I think there's a lot that can be learned from the US, who have really gone from 0-100 in a very short amount of time. They've been more experimental that European operators in terms of flat-rate browsing and data usage, also in terms of try before you buy or subscription where the initial price of a game is lower but you just re-subscribe to it month after month.

There is no one player in the value chain that is going to revolutionise everything, it has to be the consultation of publisher and operators and developers wanting to try out new things.

MobileIndustry In your keynote at MEM you highlighted the need for a better standard in the marketing of mobile games - take us through your marketing plans for your next big release, Skipping Stone.
Paul Maglione

That is really being PR driven as it is such an addictive, cult game, it's not something you can get across just purely in advertising terms, you actually have to put the game into peoples hands, and once they've played it they become the games greatest fans and they tell everyone they know about it.

It's going to be different things for different games, but in the case of something quite quirky and addictive like that, the best thing is word of mouth.

MobileIndustry What's next for I-play? What should we be looking out for?
Paul Maglione

Well, we've just announced the acquisition of a developer and porting company, Ditto, in Macclesfield, so that gives us more internal capabilities in terms of porting to a wide range of handsets. In terms of developing some more of our games in-house including 3D games and we continue to grow our US organisation, we continue to grow our distribution into new parts of the world, Eastern Europe, Russia, India and so on and we have a number of big, big license acquisitions that we have yet to announce that will be coming in the next few weeks, so we will continue very much to be a content driven company.

I think the next big thing is not necessarily going to be multiplayer, 3D or community, I think it's going to be more on the usability side. I think that you're going to start seeing some quite innovative operators or portals or websites who figure out how to make this a lot more user-friendly and they will start generating some interesting numbers. That's the trick, when you have any market where the penetration of the market is one, two, three percent, there's clearly a lot to be done on the user awareness, user education and usability side, that's the biggest challenge right now, not really making more games.

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