GDC: Risks and rewards of taking your game global

CCO, VP of Glu Mobile weigh benefits, rocky road of producing mobile games for an international market, stress that riches abound if done correctly.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--EA Mobile exec Mitch Lasky, in his keynote speech at the 2006 Game Developers Conference this morning, was critical of the current US mobile gaming market for failing to reach and secure consumers with consistent, easy-to-attain, and innovative games. It's no surprise then that an afternoon session at GDC focused on the necessity for mobile developers to target the global market rather than keeping their product localized.

In a tightly scripted and to-the-point 45-minute session, speakers Robert Nashak and Kristian Segerstråle, CCO and vice president of production at Glu Mobile, respectively, articulated some of the design challenges that mobile publishers face when targeting their games to international markets, and they offered suggestions for designing successful global mobile games. Speaking to an audience of mobile developers, Nashak and Segerstråle addressed some esoteric design issues and outlined the ideal developer-publisher relationship as one where the developer thinks about what would be profitable for the publisher.

Citing handset fragmentation (the exponential increase in handset models across carriers) as a topic that has been "flogged to death," Segerstråle got to the crux of the issue. The problem, in his eyes, is not only the number of handsets, but also the difference in capabilities between the simplest phones and the most technologically sophisticated models.

Moreover, he argued, that gap is getting bigger and bigger. Accordingly, mobile publishers have to invest an increasing amount of time and effort into porting these games so that each carrier can serve content fully to its constituency, almost regardless of handset model. The focus should not be on ports or handsets, but rather on SKUs. Nashak defined SKU for the audience: "basically any [game iteration] that gets distributed that takes into account language and other bits of localization, handset technology, and also operator or carrier technology." His argument was that thinking about writing software based on platform or handset alone is far too limited and that the SKU is instead a better indicator of possible design variables.

They offered Marc Ecko's Getting Up, one of Glu's more successful games, as an example. In the US alone, with only one language involved, the game's porting process involved 203 devices, 203 ports, and 563 SKUs--563 individually customized versions of the game.

Part of the way they begun to manage this incredibly complicated process was to meticulously maintain an enormous engineering document containing all the peculiarities of each SKU, effectively facilitating the port of each game for their employees. Because of the numerous technological peculiarities endemic to various parts of the world, the speakers heavily suggested an open and flexible relationship between the developer and the publisher, since going global amplifies the consequences of decisions made early in the design process.

Most game publishers would welcome innovation of all types, but Nashak and Segerstråle cautioned against "wow factor" innovations, like incredible 3D graphics or other processor-intensive developments that work only on sophisticated handsets. Instead, they enthusiastically supported what they called "grow the market" innovations: killer apps, areas of innovation that encourage the user to download more content, or mechanisms that encourage viral distribution, for example.

Said Segerstråle, "The 3D stuff and the networking stuff, that's obvious at the end of the day--but it will only ever work on a small amount of handsets. And you'll never really be able to differentiate in a big way in those areas. Whereas to be honest, there's so much room for innovation--both technical and design innovation--in the area of making mobile games truly unique and making them actually grow the market."

The speakers summarized their advice to the developers at the end of their talk--think like a global publisher, concentrate on framework and information management, keep accurate and up-to-date design documents, and specialize and innovate. Despite the fact that the lecture focused on many design pitfalls, the enormous amount of work that thinking globally entails, and the fact that the complications of going global encourage only limited forms of innovation, the speakers stressed the necessity of selling games internationally and the enormous profit waiting for them if they do so successfully.

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