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Steve_P Blog

The Zodiac Killer

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Earlier this week, the Tapwave Zodiac experienced the pointy end of American capitalism first-hand. The slick, Palm-based PDA/multimedia device/gaming system--the pride of late 2003 and early 2004, when it won numerous design awards, including a rave review on WGR--was finally discontinued, after a year of twisting in the wind. The prospects of its creator aren't looking so great, either. Although there's no official news as of yet, Tapwave has retained Ueker and Associates to settle "any outstanding claim[s] with the company," according to the company's web site. Them's fightin' words, pardner.

I, for one, really liked the Zodiac. I had only been in the office for a few months when a pair of Zodiacs arrived, prompting me to abandon my chief reviewing tool at the time--an LG VX6000--for the sexy, touch-sensitive newcomer. The device, shaped like a sheer, black hourglass, had shoulder buttons, Bluetooth, a gorgeous screen, and video acceleration, and it could run a decent polygonal version of Spy Hunter. It looked like a glorious alien artifact, and it played like hell on wheels, compared to the pokey mobile games I was used to. I wondered if it made any sense to cover the Zodiac next to downloadable mobile games...but then again, we were playing N-Gage games too, so why not? It was Wireless and it played Games, so we were going to Review it.

On the other hand, there seemed to be a question for every bold statement the Zodiac made. Yes, the device won accolades for its tight design and broad feature set, but did that justify its sky-high price? The Zodiac 2, which came with a usable amount of internal memory, started retailing at about $400--well outside the budget of most gamers looking for a portable system. That fed into a larger question: where, exactly, could the Zodiac position itself? Tapwave secured a wide-ranging retail deal with a number of electronics chains, including CompUSA, but it never gained any traction in the video games sections of America's retail powerhouses, like Wal-Mart and Target--let alone game specialists such as Electronics Boutique. I bet that the vast majority of Zodiacs were sold right off of Tapwave's web site. The Zodiac's high price-point and lack of distribution insured that nobody bought one on a whim--only committed gadgeteers could be bothered to seek it out.

Another major question concerned the very same feature set that the critics were raving about. It its core, the Zodiac was just an extra-fancy Palm OS PDA. After all, it was best navigated with a stylus, and it had no indigenous telephonic or WiFi capability. Even in 2004, the Golden Age of the PDA was a memory, given the increasing ubiquity of smart phones and microlaptops. It's midway through 2005, and many people are still saying that voice and TXT are mobile's killer apps--features that the Zodiac never supported. Once you threw in a shaky game catalog and a clunky online authentication scheme, a lot of the Zodiac's shine came off on your hands.

Due to its poor positioning, the Zodiac had the misfortune of occupying the limbo between technological and portable games cycles. It included just enough expensive next-generation features, like Bluetooth and video acceleration, to make it a luxury good, but not a single revolutionary feature. The gaming aspect could have been that feature, but there simply weren't any games to get excited about. The Zodiac's biggest release, arguably, was a decent port of Doom II. Ring a ding ding. Meanwhile, the launch of the Nintendo DS was only a few quarters away, and Sony was busy engineering Zodiac-style screens into its alpha PSPs.

It wasn't supposed to end like this. But then again, it never is.

Casualties!

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What's a casual game, anyway? Is it a game that everyone
already knows how to play, like solitaire, chess and
other "evergreen," public-domain pastimes? Or maybe it's
a game that you have to learn, but has no action
component in it. Or a laid-back game that doesn't involve
competition, supposedly so non-gamers will enjoy it. Or a
game that only uses a single button, or a game made
specifically for older people and women (the casual sweet
spot, according to demo graphic research), or some
combination of the above.

I've heard many competing definitions of casual gaming,
and a lot of them actually seem to contradict each other.
In an effort to find the truth, I decided to attend the Casual
Games Conference in Bellevue earlier this week and
consult the experts. It's common knowledge that the casual
games industry and the mobile games industry have
started to fuse into a single entertainment conglomerate,
whose products are reaching new heights of informality
even as they rake in billions of dollars. I wasn't sure what I
was in for--vice presidents lounging around in flip-flops and
cutoff jeans? Could I get away with having a pizza
delivered in the middle of a session?

Unsurprisingly, I found that the tone Casual Games
Conference was very much in line with any of the
multitude of mobile games conferences I regularly attend.

It was like a much smaller CTIA, minus the telco nerdery
and Michael Powell. I listened to a lot of talk about value
chains, aggregation strategies, virtual communities, and
commercial models. Like clockwork, every session
eventually turned to a free-form discussion on the mobile
games business, which started to sound like the casual
games family's rich but highly unpredictable uncle. A
flowchart appeared in my head: mobile games companies
want casual games' genuinely interesting content (think
Bejeweled, Zuma, Diner Dash, Hold 'em Poker, and so
forth), and casual games companies want mobile
customers, who have already been set up to spend by their
carriers and given a little shove in the right direction.

All of this made perfect sense. The prospect of deeper
institutional links between casual games and mobile
games is very exciting for both industries, because creating
synergies between the two is easier than falling down a
flight of stairs. In theory, casual games and mobile games
are both manifestations of Internet-based entertainment,
regardless of the terminal used to access the content.

Microsoft is even building Xbox Live Arcade into their
Xbox 360, for crying out loud. I played a rousing game of
AstroPop on a demo Xbox at the show, and had a pretty
good time doing it. It's not quite as easy as it should be
just yet, but it almost certainly will be in a couple of years.

But I still hadn't satisfied the real purpose of my visit, which
was to ascertain the real meaning of the term "casual
game." Unfortunately, nobody really had a logically
consistent, parsimonious answer for me--not even casual
games developers could really verbalize the entirety of the
idea, because it's still in an unformed, liminal state. The
landscape shifts depending on your point of view. Game
developers would like to think that casual games are all
about immediate accessibility, elegant design, and a
rapid, addictive reward schedule--traits that most
committed gamers appreciate. Most publishers, on the
other hand, say that casual games are primarily intended
for the widest possible spectrum of non-gamers, because
gamers won't be entertained by them. One prominent
casual games publisher told me that casual games should
actually be called "popular games," because casual is a
misnomer. He's right. At the conference, I found out that
players of the successful casual game Puzzle Pirates spend
three hours per day playing, on average. That's not casual
play. If you know an Internet poker addict, you'll probably
agree with me.

In either case, the unspoken assumption that underpins the
current, nebulous definition of casual gaming is that the
console gaming audience can't enjoy games that aren't
filled with violence and full motion video, paced at a
breakneck speed, and filled with complex button
commands. I think this is a tremendous fallacy, and a
potentially tragic one for both the casual games and
console games industries. The skill and technology barrier
between casual and console games barely existed twenty
years ago, and it need not be impermeable now--not if the
right kinds of content are marketed correctly to the right
kinds of people. Earlier this year, I couldn't get my mom to
stop playing Katamari Damacy, which she thought was
adorable. My 14-year-old cousin, on the other hand, owns
every modern gaming console, and also happens to be
addicted to certain high-quality mobile puzzle games. If
they appeared on Xbox Live Arcade, he would buy them.
There's room for a middle ground between casual and
hard core, and that's where the future truly lies for all sorts
of Internet games.

The Clone Wars

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Many people in the mobile games business have acknowledged that mobile carrier decks are clogged with too many similar options, but how serious is this problem, exactly? Although I see many, many similar games pass through the decks over time from my vantage point, our review work focuses on individual games, so I don't usually try to get a holistic, instantaneous picture of the content that a consumer can download on a single phone at a particular time. So, this morning I'm wiping my mind clean of all mobile gaming knowledge (sodium pentathol seems to work pretty well) and venturing onto Verizon's LG VX7000 deck, like any number of prospective American mobile gamers would.

Tabula rasa that I am, I can't seem to make heads or tails of the "fun and games" section of the deck, which is split into 11 distinct categories. The Featured Applications and Top Sellers categories are pretty straightforward--as are the TV/Movie Games, although it takes me about 20 button presses to scroll through all of them. How am I supposed to pick a game from the Sports section, though? There are six baseball games to choose from, five football games, and four basketball games, and many of these have their respective pro league's licenses. I'd need divine guidance to settle on a game in the Casino section, which offers no less than eight Texas Hold 'em products. Over in the Puzzle part of the deck, there are about a dozen games that involve the classic "Elimimatch" mechanic of matching like-colored blocks or balls, including Elimimatch itself!

There are many reasons why shopping for a mobile game on today's decks is not a fulfilling consumer experience, and an equal number of culprits--I like Get It Now, and I certainly don't want to single Verizon out. But still, these massive gluts of functionally identical content confuse consumers and dilute the overall quality of mobile gaming. By "functionally identical content," I mean games that appear very similar to consumers before they buy them. In most markets, more types of competitive products are advantageous to the buyer, but not here. This is because the way carrier decks sell games tends to commoditize games that are not, in fact, comparable in quality, or even in price. For instance, how is J. Random Mobile Gamer supposed to know that "NFL Football 2005 by THQ" and "NFL 2005 by Jamdat" are radically different products? They could check out our reviews before buying, but what if they're not in a position to access our website or our on-deck mobile reviews--waiting for a bus with a Cingular phone in hand, for instance?

No, we can safely assume that the majority of American mobile gamers buy straight off their phones, no questions asked. In my opinion, that means that mobile publishers, developers, and carriers need to do the asking for them, at least for now. Certain types of popular mobile games hit the decks in waves: there was a boomlet of bowling games a while back, followed sequentially by poker, golf, basketball, poker again, and mini-golf. Developers and publishers need to ask themselves whether following the leaders to market is a good use of their resources in every instance.

By the same token, carriers should revisit their gaming plans. If they're so worried about letting customers wander around outside the walled garden, why are they letting so much stuff in? They should consider a wholesale culling of their decks--a mobile Clone Wars, if you will. I'm well aware that devs and pubs have a hard enough time getting their games to market as-is, but they must realize that the consumer doesn't know or care; they're looking for a reasonably-sized palette of attractive, unique games across a broad range of interests, not huge groups of generic games that are dumped onto the decks all at once. If we can start to deliver more of the former experience and less of the latter, our business will be better off in the long run.

The Schism

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When I started at Wireless Gaming Review a little over a year ago, my job wasn't nearly as complicated as it is now. Most mobile games, regardless of genre, could be counted on to share a few characteristics. They had similar price-points, usually weighing in around $3-5 for an outright purchase; they weren't very technically sophisticated; and they made use of a very general design ethos, since they were being passively sold to an amorphous demographic that nobody knew anything about. Proliferation in design relies upon the differentiation of the commercial environment, just like the evolution of Earth's many species has been driven by the planet's wide assortment of habitats...

Read more?

Puzzling.

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I just read a little editorial that claims about a third of the mobile games downloaded in this country are "arcade puzzle" games--but that they only account for 10% or less of the games that are actually for sale on the carriers right now. The puzzle genre serves as sort of a catch-all category for most carriers, which greatly confuses the issue of what, exactly, an "arcade puzzle" game might be. I've seen the Puzzle moniker applied to all sorts of wildly different games, from the standard crosswords and block-eliminators to really off the wall choices like Taiko Drum Master. Impossible Mission--a side-scrolling platformer where the hero flips over robots and shoots them with a pistol--is currently listed under the Puzzle category on Verizon. Plus, I'm sure at least some of you played games like Tetris and Pac-Man (also frequently lumped into the Puzzle bin) in the arcade at one point or another. I know I did a couple of times when Virtua Fighter was occupied by this idiot-savant kid who never, ever lost.

I'm going to get people to join my union if I have to write a rambling op-ed EVERY SINGLE DAY.

They're all gonna laugh at you!

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A fairly high-level operative of an important game publisher (that will, of course, remain nameless) recently asked me why we're bothering to cover mobile games at all. "Nobody really cares about them, right? Heck, (another website) told us that the only reason they have any mobile coverage at all is that they're getting a check from a cellular carrier. These games aren't really good enough to bother writing about, are they?"

The defense rests.I guess I took a bit of umbrage at this. I'm not often called upon to justify my employment at GameSpot, or defend the value of the work I do here--not directly, at least. I've gotten used to readers laughing up their sleeves at our mobile efforts, or, more commonly, ignoring us altogether. Fine. But I felt compelled to respond in this instance, because I don't usually hear such questions from within the industry. I thought I'd share it with you....

Nokia's "nPod"

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Lookin' good.Mobile industry pundits have been speculating that MP3-playing mobile phones will eventually pull Apple's iPod line from the portable music throne, but we haven't seen much in the way of evidence yet.

Enter Nokia's N Series multimedia phones. These smart phones are fast, mean, and loaded with features like 2mpix cameras and AAC support--and one of them, the N91, sports a 4GB hard drive. They won't be compatible with Apple's iTunes service, either.

iTunes phone, where art thou? Apple is supposed to be collaborating with Motorola to produce an iTunes-compatible phone, but distribution has been hung up indefinitely amid rumors that U.S. mobile carriers are blocking the release. Of course, Verizon and Cingular don't want to be cut out of the revenue loop by a phone you can merely plug into your PC and load up with music; what will that do to ringtone sales? MP3 phones from companies like Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Samsung may not threaten the iPod in the immediate future due to their high price points, but it seems likely that Apple's cash cow might finally be getting some real competition.

Samsung Gaming Phone

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Samsung's new gaming phone, the SPH-G1000, has a 320x240 QVGA screen, a 3D accelerator, some sort of unspecified TV out capability and a 1.3 MPix camera. Right now, this bad boy's only been out in Korea for about two weeks, and there's no telling when it will go on sale States-side--but if Samsung wants to truly upstage fellow Korean handset manufacturer LG, it'll find a way to bring it out here before the LG SV360 makes it over...

Image courtesy of mobile9.com

Work Hard, Play Hard

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I've noticed something kind of odd about the people who frequent this web site, and gamers in general. I'd say that some of our customers are among the most avid consumers of video games in the world. They post to the boards hundreds of times a week, are constantly on the lookout for our review of the next Triple-AAA game, and get into verbal fistfights over very esoteric topics, like deconstructing which Street Fighter has the most efficient version of Guile. As a whole, the more serious members of the gamer caste have been known to spend hundreds of hours a month micromanaging their Madden franchises (in one memorable campaign, my 49ers won the Super Bowl 9 out of 15 years) or living vicariously through their avatars in World of Warcraft or Halo 2. They'll gladly match any time they spend at work or school in front of their console or PC--but, as important as video games are to them, they'll not often bother to keep abreast of events and trends within the video games industry. Even the most discerning gamers can happily splash around in the pool of great entertainment without paying much attention to the economic fountainhead of their entire lifestyle. Like the rest of the entertainment industry, the video games business exists as sort of a living contradiction; your participation in an imaginary world which has been designed, in part, to distract you from the realities of money, power, and politics, is contingent upon your ability to lay down cold, hard cash for the privilege. One thing I've learned since I've started following the industry professionally is that the most successful video games studios are among the best run, tightly focused businesses in the world. The people who are in leadership positions at these companies may call themselves gamers, but the only real similarity between the two groups is the time commitment they're ready to make. The differences begin at the type of currency they trade in: while you're busy trying to stack up gold coins to buy a mount, these guys are collecting zeroes at the end of their sales figures and inking deals over $1000 bottles of wine. The video games industry generates billions and billions of very real dollars every year, and the numbers are continuing to grow at a very healthy pace. Like any other semi-regulated, ultracompetitve gold rush, this industry is essentially a low-intensity war zone that is best negotiated by totally ruthless, paranoid people. There have been an increasing number of high visibility flareups recently, as the money side of the equation has started to assert itself even more vociferously. The most obvious example is Electronic Arts, whose business dealings have looked more and more like the actions of an imperial power of late. Rather than suffering a challenge to their hegemony in football games, EA went straight for Take Two's jugular by denying them access to the NFL's licensing. Then, to make absolutely sure they were being understood, the giant publisher swallowed the Arena Football League too--which, in respect to Take Two, was kind of like backing over a hijacking victim in his own car. EA followed this coup with a salvo of hostile maneuvers against Ubisoft that would make Gordon Gekko proud. Even if the French government eventually designs to step in and protect one of its valuable, sovereign resources from a takeover, EA has served notice that it will guard (and expand) its market territory using lethal force. Other examples abound: Valve vs. Vivendi and the sad fate of Acclaim prove that there are no continues whatsoever in video games, if you're not playing the product. Another bit of anecdotal evidence comes from my own corner of the industry, mobile games. I recently misspoke during a meeting with a developer and a publisher, wrongly assuming that the latter had bought the former. A few days later, a highly-placed official with the developer called me up and demanded to know why I thought his company had been bought by the publisher. Who had told me? Were there rumors circulating? He sounded like he was negotiating with blackmailers or something--but he had every reason to, because the mobile games industry has turned into a mergers-and-acquisitions free for all in the last few months. Not coincidentally, companies like EA and Vivendi consistently make the best games and the most profit. Are they inhumane employers? Perhaps by the standards of the gaming industry, but certainly not by those of investment banking or hedge funds, where 90-hour weeks are quite routine for lower-level employees. If you work for one of the most successful organizations in any market, you should expect to pull totally unreasonable workloads at least occasionally, even if you're ostensibly doing something "fun." My friends envy me when I go to LA for E3 or Las Vegas for CES because they assume that all we do is play video games and party when we attend trade shows. In fact, we are concentrating as hard as we can for days at a time and staying up as late as it takes to beat our competition, which is equally dedicated to scooping us. I think our team is comprised of people that thrive under that sort of pressure. We at GameSpot work much harder than we play, but when all is said and done, we've enjoyed the experience. I'm not trying to justify the establishment of the Greater EA Co-Prosperity Sphere in this editorial, mind you; they're just my chief example of how video games, like all entertainment and media, is a business first and a product second. This fact frustrates me to no end in my own specialized area, believe me, given that I routinely exhort mobile games companies to take risks that aren't necessarily in their own interest. In short, there's a reason why GameSpot places such an emphasis on news coverage. We want to educate you, the consumer, in every way we possibly can--and, while our coverage of actual video games predominates, the business moves of the various major players are at least as important. They're the ones that are going to decide which kinds of games you play when, not us.
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