CyberEdge Journal

Monday, May 09, 2005

At GDC 05: Get the phone, there’s a game calling!

10 March, 2005, San Francisco – I was amazed that they could fill a good sized room at Moscone Center at 9:00 AM at the Game Developers Conference. That speaks to the fact that the hottest part of the white-hot game market these days is on mobile platforms, primarily cell phones. After my surprise of the day before – I had seen only one skateboard-toting punk in a full day on the exhibit floor – I should have realized that GDC has grown up a lot since I last attended. Games are no longer kid stuff, and the GDC this year was populated by far more people in suits than people with their tattoos and piercings showing.

It was the serious folks filling the room on Thursday morning to hear about the International Game Developers Association’s ( latest whitepaper, The State of the Mobile Games Industry. Brian Robbins, of Fuel Industries, chairperson of the Online Games SIG, introduced a panel of five for an hour-long session. Moderating the panel was Don Wisnewski, Superscape’s Senior Vice President, Publishing and Marketing, who described the 60-page whitepaper as a labor of love by dedicated people who are eager to see the success of gaming on the PC and console platforms replicated on mobile devices. Considering the work it takes to create this sort of document, he was certainly right. He went on to characterize the greatest problems of mobile game development as stemming from the increasingly rapid development cycle. PC and consoles hardware typically has a 18-24 month lifetime, while mobile phone platforms are going through substantial revisions every 4-12 months. And when every new handset hits the market, the phone companies expect classic and new games to be ready – running, debugged, and ported to dozens of platforms.

You want how many versions?

The multi-platform issue was the challenge most often mentioned by the panelists. Jon Estanislao, Senior Manager, Business Development and Platforms for Activision, made the point that while there were many areas of game development for mobiles that are similar to other platforms, such as planning and design, playability issues, prototyping, development and approvals, there are also significant differences. These include porting to dozens, if not hundreds of platforms, submitting finished games to service providers, and obtaining certifications from those providers. Lou Fasulo, Senior Product Manager, Games and Applications, at Cingular Wireless, concurred, adding that he deals with six or seven new handsets every month, and that at any given moment, Cingular must support over 100 different models. Estanislao said that this impacts developers in several key areas. First, developers must themselves have dozens to hundreds of phones in-house for testing. Phones come in families, which make the chore slightly less burdensome, but each phone may also be localized to dozens of locations, each requiring a different language, unit of currency or measurement, or other customization. Successful developers quickly learn to write clean, modular code to facilitate porting and localization, and to reduce the testing regimen to manageable levels. But no matter how well the code is written, he cautioned, obtaining certification from the carriers (service providers) is still a major hassle, because each has its own expectations and requirements. But what they all want are tight code, with file sizes ranging from 64K to 300K, adherence to naming conventions and menu standards, and accepted techniques for dealing with those annoying voice calls and messages that interrupt the important gaming experience.

Another item that differs from console games development is the billing model. Games for mobiles are sold in a variety of ways, including one-time purchase (most like console games), subscription, pay-per-play, and micro-payments. Each of these payment methods is based, at least partially, on player perceptions. This is an impulse-driven marketplace. There are no store shelves, and potential buyers do not linger over their decisions. So the initial presentation must convey the value of the game quickly, and the payment structure must be consistent with the user’s general impressions of the game. One positive angle is that there is no competitive shopping – if you want a particular game to play on your Nokia N-Gage on the Verizon network, you have only one place to buy it.

Quick reactions are not only a requirement for the players, Fasulo added. Because the pace of phone development is so fast, and the carriers so twitchy in a highly competitive landscape, the game developer must be ready to turn on a dime and give 8 cents change. He felt that key issues, in a addition to those cited by Estanislao, include the ability to quickly port a game to a new handset, the ability to present new concepts well – that means fast and compelling – and the ability to consistently deliver good product on time. However, he, as did every panelist, emphasized over and over that porting is the key, and that the most successful game publishers are the one who can move their titles to new platforms quickly. As he put it, “learn to port, port, port!”

Another issue he emphasized, from what sounded like personal experience, is that the market will not wait. “Late”, he said, “equals dead.” Delivering great product, on time, and running well on dozens of handsets requires a professional and disciplined process. Aside from the rapid turnover of hardware, the software itself tends to have a short lifetime, especially movie tie-ins, which may be dead in months, but must arrive as the picture hits the theaters.

Other issues mentioned regarding development include the expectation of increasing bandwidth in the next six to twelve months. This will allow for larger games, enhanced sales presentations, and improved game play, especially for multi-player titles. Branding is important, all agreed, and Fasulo noted that the top-selling titles are movie tie-ins, sequels to other popular games, and sports games. Solid branding can boost sales, both through publisher name recognition, and through connections to console games and other well-known properties. He advised publishers to put more energy into branding.

The mobile game biz
The two other panelists, Oliver Miao, President of Centerscore, and Greg Ballard, President of Sorrent, addressed the business of game publishing. Miao emphasized the difficulties of building and running a game development business. It sounded like he has been through the wringer, but maybe he just had too much fun the night before. He told us that the publishing business was hard, that most developers struggle to stay cash-flow positive, and that, since not many people actually seem to like porting titles, that may be a good business model. Since getting financing is so hard, one way to succeed, he suggested, is to win a contest. This was just as valuable as it seems here.

Ballard, on the other hand, had some useful information. He said that the carriers see a need for higher quality, that the move to quality began in 2004, and he sees the trend accelerating in 2005. That trend is causing carriers to bring game development in house, often by acquiring independents. He suggested that developers start looking in the mirror and asking if they want to be part of a big organization or stay smaller and independent. Applications other than games are starting to appeal to carriers, who, like sharks, need to keep moving to survive. There is no killer app yet, he said, but the developers who think about non-game tie-ins and apps are more likely to succeed. Such content might include ring-tones, wallpaper, or other branded content.

Publishers who deliver a suite of related games and apps will get a better reception from the carriers. He expects mobile development costs to double in 2005, mostly due to porting requirements, localization, the increasing use of 3D graphics, and a general increase in complexity.

In the open discussion, a few more interesting ideas were voiced. Extending the franchise of a successful PC/console game could be key to a popular mobile game, Estanislao pointed out. New games will make use of cell phone cameras, Miao prophesied, and developers should start thinking about how to make games that relate to where the user is, and make use of the imaging capabilities of the cameras in phones. Multiplayer games are very popular in Korea, Ballard told us, but have not caught on in the US at all. He expects this to change soon, and cited on-line poker games as an example of a concept that may lend itself to mobile development.

Ballard and Miao both talked about the market and demographics of the mobile game player. Miao sees the market splitting in two: high-end, largely 3D games, and simpler, less expensive and less immersive 2D titles. Ballard though, sees the market somewhat differently. The breadth of the mobile gaming market will require imagination and hard work to satisfy. There will be many types of games that will succeed. Keep in mind the basic demographic of the mobile game player, he said. It corresponds roughly to the demographics of those who have indoor toilets.

The whitepaper on which this panel was based will be available at no charge from the IGDA website by early April. Look for it at


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