GDC: Taking mobile games to the next level

Execs from wireless carriers assess the fragmented world of mobile gaming, say there are too many games on the market.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--As part of the 2006 Game Developers Conference, executives from several major mobile carriers' gaming teams gathered at the Regency Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose today to discuss the future of the mobile gaming business from an industry perspective. Top decision-makers from Verizon Wireless, Vodafone, Orange, Sprint-Nextel, Virgin Mobile, and Cingular took the stage with moderator Seamus McAteer, chief product architect and senior analyst at M:Metrics, a private firm that keeps tabs on the mobile industry.

The panelists offered the message that the quantity of mobile game content is currently overwhelming. Jason Ford, general manager for games at Sprint-Nextel, currently offers more than 100 games to his company's mobile customers but isn't sold on the idea that more is better.

"I've often wondered what would happen if we took down everything but 25 games, what would happen to our sales," Ford thought. "If we took [our game library] down to 50 games, I honestly believe that my sales as a whole would be the same."

For carriers with large international bases, finding and distributing new content is even more of a challenge. Steve Glagow, head of Orange Partner, the content development arm of Orange, noted that his group has to negotiate fees and deliver content for 17 different national markets--each one very different from the other.

Nevertheless, mobile games continue to be a lucrative market for carriers, and the growing adoption of 3G handsets will give consumers access to games with higher-quality graphics and sound, as well as faster downloads. According to M:Metrics, one in four US mobile customers have played games on their cell phones, while almost nine percent have downloaded one.

As Key Sar, associate director for content at Verizon Wireless' Entertainment Programming group, noted of their multimedia V CAST technology, "The way we see V CAST is that they're higher-paying, much more loyal users." As EVDO (evolution-data optimized) phones drop in price, the early-adopter phenomenon is being replaced by a larger mass market for new multimedia features.

All of the operators expressed a mutual interest in capturing this new market of casual gamers (and nongamers) who are relatively unfamiliar with mobile gaming. "We see a mismatch between the availability of content in various genres and consumption," argued McAteer.

Operators were all keenly focused on improving the service and capabilities of their game decks, the Web- and WAP-based "view" cell phone users browse for new games to download. Tim Harrison of Vodafone Group noted, "We're starting to see SMS recommendation engines sitting in the Java layer, but there are still some basic realities to get around."

Operators are also hoping to attract broader audiences through branding. Ken Ruck, general manager of downloadable content and product development at Virgin Mobile, noted that as a second-tier operator he does not always have access to top games as they emerge. Instead, he targets a largely teen and preteen audience. "We have to keep our titles relevant to that demographic. I want our games to be relevant to the overall Virgin brand experience."

As mobile operators develop new ways for users to communicate with each other about games, they also hope to inspire more grass-roots and viral marketing around new products. At the same time, they are competing for revenue with other multimedia offerings, such as ringtones and wallpapers, oftentimes from their own company. But to reach a wider audience, the carrier executives noted that they need to educate users who may not be used to using their phones for anything more than conversation.

"There's no question that more people listen to music and watch TV than play games," said Harrison. "But I think we need to rise to that challenge. We need to prove that it's not a niche product."

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