Mobile market growth in the US: paths to glory

Speakers at GDC Mobile echo optimism about growth, but also focus on what's holding the business model back.

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SAN FRANCISCO--Cochair of GDC Mobile, Robert Tercek, began Tuesday morning's flight of four heavyweight speakers with a discussion of the challenges that US mobile game developers face. Thematically, Tercek focused on the changes that need to take place both with the carriers and with consumers for serious growth to take place.

In particular, he shared what he felt was a "telecom identity crisis"--the problems that current mobile carriers are facing when confronted with the possibility of offering massive quantities of mobile content rather than their traditional offerings of service and handsets. Brand identity, he said, was "in a state of flux" and perhaps more so than in the past. "Market positioning will dictate a mode of behavior," Tercek said.

On the consumer end, Tercek asserted that it was still far too difficult to buy a mobile game. Bewildering menus, cumbersome UI, scarce shelf space, unpredictable quality, complicated calls to action in the industry, and poor marketing channels were the key contributors to a lack of consumer education and confidence.

One example he provided was the mobile game based on the popular Jeopardy game show on television. On the Cingular network, it's in the "puzzle" section. Sprint? "TV and movies." ATT offers it as a "word and trivia" content download, while Verizon categorizes it as "classic" content. Tercek suggested that there should be intra-industry communication about standardizing the taxonomy of mobile content to serve the consumer.

He concluded his opening remarks with several optimistic predictions for 2005. Marketing, he said, would move beyond retail stores and more prevalently into television, radio, the Web, and print. Similarly, he expected stronger promotional partnerships to emerge with carriers and major media companies. He also predicted that B2C companies would begin to compete more voraciously for consumers while MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators--basically local mobile service providers) would seize lucrative consumer segments.

Mike Yuen, the director of the gaming group at Qualcomm, was the next to take the stage. His talk had a surprising historical and academic structure, highlighting Malcolm Gladwell's theory in The Tipping Point as a way to see the future of American mobile gaming. Within this theory, he summarized, there are three key principles: the law of the few (minorities drive majorities of growth), the stickiness factor (small changes to content can make its message more compelling), and the power of context (the environment in which a message is received is just as important as the message itself).

He cited numerous examples of this theory, beginning with Paul Revere (as Gladwell did) and moving into game history with games such as Pac-Man and Doom.

In discussing the future of mobile gaming, Yuen focused on its potential to link numerous platforms together: accessing console or PC game data away from home, maintaining persistent personas and game files, and storing game memory for other platforms, to name a few.

In this vein, he cited the necessary design considerations in a forward-thinking, buzzword style: the "mobile DNA" effect (leveraging the uniqueness of each phone number), the "trailer" effect (generating future excitement and incentives for habitual home play), the "season premiere" effect (serializing monthly content leading up the next major game franchise release on PC or console), the "frequent flyer" effect (creating affinity or loyalty programs to secure commitment and increase the cost of switching carriers), the "Amazon associates" effect (empowering people with their own content to offer it to consumers), and the "reciprocation" effect (winning benefits on one platform to be used in another).

Kosei Ito from Square Enix (publisher of the enormously popular Final Fantasy series) was the next speaker at the mobile event. Tercek seemed particularly excited that he was presenting in English. "I've been living in the US for only four months," Ito began apologetically. "Please excuse my broken English." Forgiving chuckles were heard in the audience, but Ito quickly made clear why a veteran of the Japanese games industry had moved to the US from Japan. "I see huge potential in the US market--just like three years ago in Japan."

Ito went on to discuss the problems he and his team faced when porting Final Fantasy I from the original NES to a mobile platform, presenting them as pitfalls to avoid. He discussed unexpected problems in memory capacity and management, screen resolution, drawing speed, and sound.

He went on to demonstrate Final Fantasy VII: Before Crisis, designed exclusively for a mobile platform. In particular, he impressed the audience with a particular feature of the game that lets players take a picture of something and turn it into a magic item within the game. He demonstrated this by using his own phone to take a picture of the crowd and then loaded that image into the game to create the magic item.

Though Ito was clearly quite proud of his successful transitioning of an expansive role-playing game onto a mobile platform, he expressed skepticism about taking it a step further. Some game genres, he warned, were not meant to be brought onto a mobile platform, like massively multiplayer games, which demand far too great a time investment for them to be feasible on such a small and portable device. "Wait for Final Fantasy XI," he joked.

Ito's speech made clear that his attitude was one of helpful cooperation. "To create great games on mobile phones," he offered in conclusion, "you will face great hardships, like me." Clearly he wanted other developers to be aware of the problems that Square Enix had faced and to take necessary steps to sidestep them.

Before leaving the stage, Ito drew hearty laughter in saying that if anyone was interested in developing creative mobile games, they should write to the e-mail address in his last slide: jobs@square-enix-usa.com.

Tim Walsh, presidient of THQ Wireless, was the last speaker to take the stage. The main theme of his talk centered around the importance of, nay, the necessity of, collaboration between developers, publishers, and mobile carriers in order for mobile games to successfully take hold in the United States.

He elucidated targeted consumer groups based on age and offered a humorous qualifier for each group that characterized their consumption, which elicited laughs: preteens who want a "mobile pacifier," teens who want a "rite of passage" to echo their independence, the young adult "power users," 20-something "console cross-overs," 30-something "loosely supervised executives with a company phone," and 40-plus "grey gamers" who want to be young (Walsh included himself in this group).

"If you're a developer here, you're in a great spot," said Walsh near the beginning of his talk. (A show of hands revealed that about 10 to 15 percent of the crowd were mobile developers.)

Continuing his dialogue with developers, Walsh warned that they could not work in a vacuum and adamantly asserted that working with a publisher "can allow you to succeed." They provide marketing, brand management, advertising, publicity, and carrier promotion. Working with publishers with venerable experience with game publishing is essential, he stressed, especially since "timing is so important in this business."

Walsh finished by showing an extended Star Wars mobile content promotion that THQ was running.

Though the speakers were selected for their disparate perspectives on the mobile industry and its potential for success in the United States, there were surprisingly similar themes to be found among the speakers.

Just as the international panelists had emphasized the day before, Tuesday's speakers expounded on the enormous growth occurring in the mobile sector and the necessity to capitalize on it. Yuen cited the "wireless growth explosion" and the necessity for further "epidemic" growth. (He almost made it sound like a mobile apocalypse is approaching: Abandon all land lines, ye who enter here!) Ito moved away from his home country to tap directly into this budding market. And all the speakers in one way or another referenced figures tracing the steady growth of mobile users over the past several years.

Collaboration was a common theme as well. Certainly this is a central theme of the Game Developers Conference in general, but Walsh in particular discussed the essentiality of collaboration between developers, publishers, and carriers in building the necessary technological and industrial infrastructures for mobile content management and delivery. Ito expressed this theme in sharing the problems he faced in porting Final Fantasy I to a mobile platform. Yuen wanted to see cross-platform communication and collaboration (among consoles, PCs, and mobile devices) improving the game experience of the player.

The presenters were also linked by the sense that mobile gaming urged designers to get back to the basics of making great games. Yuen suggested at the end of his presentation (with a hint of excitement in his voice) that cross-platform design would necessarily generate new thinking in game design as consumers demand more diverse gaming experiences. Ito ended on a similar message: "Development for mobile phones allows for great opportunities to rethink what is essential for great games."

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