GDC: World tour wows audience

Speakers showcase this year's most innovative international mobile games, focus on networked, social games.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--The buzz surrounding today's "World Tour of Mobile Innovations" session, part of this year's GDC Mobile agenda, started building yesterday. On numerous occasions, attendees and speakers said it was by seeing what was being done in the overseas markets that they got some of their best ideas for games here in North America.

This year's "World Tour of Mobile Innovations"--a tradition at GDC Mobile--was again hosted by Matthew Bellows, Floodgate Entertainment's general manger and vice president of marketing, and David "DC" Collier, CEO of Pikkle, a Tokyo-based mobile content provider. Bellows began by saying that they do this session each year because "the cat's out of the bag": Mobile games are now visible to mobile carriers, and now a profitable future for the industry is foreseeable.

The pair outlined their talk as addressing three important thematic areas of mobile content--in-game, networked, and out-of-game. With that out of the way, the two speakers immediately began the showcase and got to what attendees were hoping to see--strange, creative mobile games from overseas.

The demos began with a bang, showcasing a pair of mobile oddities. In Flitzer (developer: Handygames), the user steps into the birthday suit of a streaker whose goal is to run around as long as possible during a soccer game without being arrested. Airborne's Pinball Factory lets users design their own pinball level--by importing images and placing bumpers--and upload it to their phone.

The speakers spent most of the session's 60 minutes talking about networked mobile games, however, echoing the excitement that Monday's keynote address speaker, VP of EA Mobile Mitch Lasky, had for possibilities of the genre. They discussed Pet Shop, which uses localizing software to allow for digital "best in show" competitions at local, city, state, and even nationwide levels, and Floodgate's more sinister Pet Trap, wherein players have to electrocute their opponent's pet.

Most interestingly within the genre was Path of a Warrior from Korean developer Gamevil. This game was able to score a deal with Korean carriers so that the game was uniquely priced at $10 a month for all-you-can-play. No other mobile game has been able to secure a similar deal with a carrier. Referring to the reluctance of the American carriers to work closely with developers, Collier joked, "I'm sure the American operators are dying to emulate that and help us all make a great business."

The speakers briefly touched on games that have cross-platform interaction with the PCs, such as Star Wars Battlefront and The Sims 2, and moved quickly into mobile experiences that go beyond the handset.

The out-of-games applications discussed were largely MoSoSos (mobile social software), such as Dodgeball, Rabble, or PeepsNation, a utility that helps users expand their social network by aligning the player with groups with common interests. Bellows also discussed the market of fantasy sports players and the various mobile applications that are available to them.

Bellows mentioned Google Mobile's efforts in the sector, praising its SMS and map services. Furthermore, since Google develops and releases its software completely outside the carriers, he wondered aloud whether the company's mobile services will train users to get content onto their handsets, since the implications for such off-portal acquisition of content could be significant for the mobile gaming industry.

Advergaming was briefly touched upon, and Collier suggested that it was a valid and successful way for developers to fund their games.

Another particularly interesting out-of-game mobile innovation was Felica, Sony's attempt to make the checkout process (in a retail establishment) quicker. Felica offers a chip to be installed on a mobile phone that lets the user wave his or her phone in front of an RF reader to act as payment.

Camera games were some of the last games to be demonstrated, one of which was the game Devil Darts, which allows the user to take a photo of someone or something and then throw digital darts at it. Then they showed a video of ARTennis, which uses the phone's camera to allow real-time Ping Pong between two players.

They didn't skip adult mobile games such as Hot Secretary, wherein the player has to manage a rap empire, mostly by insisting that the employed secretaries sleep with him or her (lest they lose their jobs).

Collier in particular lavished praise on Flash games, both because of their capacity to inspire innovative gameplay as well as because of their lack of platform specificity. One game he demoed required the player to pluck nose hairs that grew too long (eventually ending with blood pouring out of the onscreen nose), and another involved keeping a lumberjack running on a log in a logjam.

Seeing that they were being subtly urged out of the auditorium by GDC employees for the next session, Bellows and Collier hurriedly concluded their session. "We live in a carrier's world," said Collier, and he emphasized that even today, games are a very small subcategory of services that mobile carriers fund. The next generation of mobile games, he argued, will have to leverage the communication or social networking capabilities of phones in order to achieve a more prominent position in the carriers' portfolio.

In contrast to the session last year, Bellows and Collier have since broadened their notion of innovation and focused more attention on mobile social networking applications. The shift in ideas echoed the themes put forth thus far in other GDC Mobile sessions: In order to create a sustainable mobile industry, developers must always remember the device for which they develop, and its fundamental function above all others is as a communication device.

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