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Tim Harrison, Vodafone - Part Two

In this, the second part of our exclusive interview with Vodafone's head of games, Tim Harrison, we continue our discussion of the wide range of issues facing the mobile games industry - including Harrison's view on connected and multiplayer gaming, and on the current enthusiasm for 3D titles within the industry.

If you haven't read the first part of the interview, you can find it by clicking here - and be sure not to miss the third part of this exclusive interview, which will be posted tomorrow, wrapping up our focus on one of the mobile gaming sector's most important players.

MobileIndustry A lot of publishers are talking about communities and connected gaming as being a key factor in building successful mobile games - what sort of moves is Vodafone making in that area?
Tim Harrison

In terns of communities, we've run multiplayer trials and connected trials in a number of markets with various different games. We've run some tournament prize games, tournament type applications and games in the German market for example, we've run a couple of multiplayer games in Spain and in the UK.

The challenge for multiplayer at the moment really is tied in very much with the overwhelming challenge for mobile gaming, which is that of fragmentation. Every carrier will have slightly different settings in their phones, every phone will have slightly different settings to other phones. So actually launching the connected proposition in a meaningful way across loads and loads of customers has been very very challenging to date.

One of the things that Vodafone has been trying to do is to reduce the fragmentation in every area of the mobile handset, not least in the network connectivity area. We've been working very closely with manufacturers to make sure that our new handsets, when they leave the shops, just as Vodafone Live broke new ground in having all the WAP functionality set up and working out of the box, we want to get to a situation where from a connected point of view, it's up and working out of the box.

Vodafone will be doing an awful lot more in this area in the months to come. We've still got some technical challenges to get over, as every operator has to. To give it real scale... Our belief is that although these connected communities are very appealing to our customers, only if we can deliver them in real scale will the return on investment make sense for our publisher partners.

MobileIndustry So there's a critical mass problem there as well?
Tim Harrison

Yes. I think there is with any kind of community functionality. There's a critical mass which comes from usage. We're looking forwards to when we're starting to address that critical mass usage issue. For us, first and foremost, the chief issue is a critical mass of capable handsets in the hands of the people who want to use that functionality. That's going to take time to build out.

MobileIndustry Do you think there are a lot of appreciative revenues which are going to come from those type of communities, from connected gaming?
Tim Harrison

I think one of the things we've identified is that the actual multiplayer aspect of gaming will appeal to a number of people. Once you start to introduce a prize element to that, and once you start to introduce an element where those communities can be... Not, if you like, the great wide world, but that community can be more specific to you as a customer, we think that is going to drive gameplay and usage.

One of the challenges at the moment with mobile games is that you download a game to your handset and then you play it on your own, and yet gaming is undoubtedly a very very social element. We've seen that all way through from the game communities on the web and casual games, through to the simple thing of getting the latest Pro Evo and getting your mates around to play it on the PlayStation. So there's no question that the sociability and the community element of gaming broadens the appeal of the games themselves.

I think the crucial factor with mobile is actually using the connectivity to increase the ease with which a customer can play a game. In other words, to use that connected function to introduce new gameplay elements, to maybe something which is more of an engine that sits on the phone, rather than for them to have to buy a new game every time they want to have a new gameplay experience. So I think our focus initially will be much more on enabling the things that make it easier for customers to enjoy to the content, and then when we build the critical mass of customers, to introduce more and more of those community elements. That's kind of the direction it'll go.

MobileIndustry Do you draw a distinction between connected games - games which have community features such as shared high-score tables - and actual real-time multiplayer games?
Tim Harrison

Yes, but they're all part and parcel of the same group of things. The fundamental that we focus on is using effectively the network to increase the appeal of a game. That's ultimately what it comes down to; that is what is most important to us. As I said, the appeal of that game could be because it's easier to buy, it's easier to interact with, it's a quiz game that gives you a new set of questions every week, it's a crossword puzzle that gives you a new set of clues every day, it's a Sudoku game that allows you to update a whole bunch of new puzzles every time you want to. You don't have to buy a new game - a simple click and you can download any new elements you want to. That's one extreme, and that's the connected area.

Obviously, real-time gaming is possible over 3G - but again, it has its technical challenges and in terms of critical mass, we're not there yet. In terms of massively multiplayer online games, again, it has a huge amount of appeal for a small percentage of our current market. So really, to us, they're all parts of the overall proposition that we need to address, and really our strategy is satisfying all those customers in the right order, using what technology we have now.

MobileIndustry Given that, as you've mentioned, a lot of the most successful titles on mobile have been traditional arcade-style games or very simple games, do you think that there's a mistake being made by the companies who are rushing towards 3D titles on mobile at the moment?
Tim Harrison

Again, I think this is all about one of the joys of the mobile platform, which is the huge breadth of customer that you're actually addressing. That's also one of the challenges, and I think that the classic, old-fashioned if you like, classic arcade and board based games, the simple puzzle games, they appeal to a very specific market. There is absolutely no doubt, however, that there's another sector of the market who are looking for a more sophisticated gameplay experience.

Yes, people love the classic games, and first and foremost gameplay is the single most important thing. Whether it's got flashy graphics, flashy sound... It's all irrelevant unless the actual gameplay is strong, it's compelling, makes you want to go back, gives you a sense of competition, a sense of thrill, if you like.

But let's face it, there's a whole generation now who haven't really experienced gaming in anything other than 3D - the guys who grew up with the PlayStation, the Saturn, these kind of games. We need to show them that there is a certain level of graphical quality that is available on mobile phones, and I think we're getting there now with the 3D devices. We've got a load of new 3D devices coming out before Christmas, and we're very much encouraging our partners to create content for those.

Let's not run before we can walk, because these are not hugely powerful devices once you start throwing pixels around a screen - there's no question about that. But we are now stepping up to the stage where we're having acceleration, specialist graphic chips coming into these phones, and it's not just the high-end phones - we're seeing 3D acceleration and decent sized processors in many of our mid-range phones, making them increasingly affordable. Obviously we've got a faster bearer, so we can download larger files, and the capacity of the phones themselves is much higher now - many of our phones ship with 32MB memory cards.

So it's a growing market. It's not going to overtake the lower-end 2D games, simply because of the number of devices we have out there. It's not going to overtake that any time quickly, but it's certainly a market that we believe has a positive return on investment there.

MobileIndustry We're seeing an increasing trend for games to be part of an overall media package - for example, supporting the launch of a new movie with a single pack that includes wallpapers, ringtones, screensavers and a game. Is that something Vodafone has seen much success with?
Tim Harrison

It's something we do with pretty much all our major releases when it comes to movies, for example. Again, it appeals to a certain section of the customer base who buy content based on an IP that they have a particular appeal to or an affinity to. I think it's great for us, because we're able to do some great co-marketing opportunities with some of these guys, where you can actually offer content that will appeal to a much broader base than perhaps just marketing a game based on a particular IP. So yeah, I mean, it's very much part of our overall content strategy.

The one challenge obviously you have with movie games is that they tend to have a shorter shelf-life than some of the other IP. I think traditionally, the movie studios have been guilty of churning the games out a little, to the extent that the quality hasn't been as high as perhaps it should have been. That's improved a lot over the last six to nine months, and will no doubt continue to improve. It's very much part of the overall package.

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