Spot On: What's keeping the mobile revolution on hold?

Cell-phone gaming has been growing rapidly for almost a decade, but there are still hurdles to clear before realizing its full potential.


Though he didn't know it at the time, in 1997, Nokia programmer Taneli Armanto was told by the company's product-marketing team to create the seed of a billion-dollar industry.

"There was a consensus in product marketing that something 'new' should be added to the Nokia phones," Armanto said, "and it was decided that it would be some 'nice little games.'"

Armanto was charged with finding and programming the games. What he found was Snake, a simple time killer where a player guides an ever-lengthening serpent around the screen while making sure not to run into the snake's own tail.

Snake has become a staple on Nokia handsets. Even the N-Gage got its own fancy 3D version.
Snake has become a staple on Nokia handsets. Even the N-Gage got its own fancy 3D version.

The game came preloaded on Nokia's 6100 series of mobile phones, and the response to it was so positive, the company has included updated versions of it on virtually all of its handsets since. All told, Nokia estimates that 370 million handsets have a version of the game on it.

From that inauspicious birth at the request of a marketing department, mobile gaming has grown rapidly, much like the protagonist of Snake, and it might also need to shed a few layers of skin if it wants to keep growing. The question is what exactly has been holding the industry back, and what are the current players going to do about it.

Namco was among the first traditional game publishers to jump into the mobile-gaming space, eventually splitting off its mobile division into its own company and establishing Namco Networks America in January. Scott Rubin, the company's vice president of sales and marketing, says Namco's mobile sales have been growing steadily for years. But he adds that while everybody knows Pac-Man, not everybody knows he's available on their cell phones.

"There are 200 million people in America that have mobile phones," Rubin notes, "and about four to six percent have ever even downloaded a game or even know they can download a game, I think the statistic is. So, the biggest challenge is education. I also read that one-third of people that have cell phones would like to play a game on their phones. So, one-third would like to play it and yet four percent know they can actually do it."

To address the problem, Namco Networks is working on educational campaigns to increase awareness of their games. Beyond running copromotions with cell-phone carriers such as Verizon and Sprint, the company had a high-profile booth at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, featuring a number of cell-phone demo kiosks styled after arcade machines, a Volkswagen Beetle painted up to promote Super Pac-Man, and booth workers wearing Pac-Man headgear. The company is even looking out for more nontraditional venues to get the word out to people wherever they may be stuck for a few minutes with nothing to do, such as running commercials on domestic United Airlines flights. Clearly, Namco considers the mobile audience to extend far beyond those who play traditional console games.

Simple arcade games such as Pac-Man and mobile phones: a match made in heaven?
Simple arcade games such as Pac-Man and mobile phones: a match made in heaven?

"I think the fact that we have an audience of 200 million people that all share this need to be constantly entertained no matter what they're doing is the best opportunity we can ever ask for," Rubin said. "People are constantly looking for something to do. They constantly want to be entertained at some level, and the cell phone is sort of the one that fills that casual five-minute gap."

While Namco may be focusing its efforts on the mass market beyond its console and arcade-gaming audience, cell-phone manufacturer Nokia has devoted a good number of resources to attracting the hardcore gamer. The company's N-Gage, originally launched in 2003, was a high-profile flop for a number of reasons.

"In retrospect, it's really pretty simple to look at where we faced some challenges there," said Nokia director of games publishing Gregg Sauter. "For us, it was really an issue of providing a device that wasn't quite optimized for your everyday user. We provided a device that worked great for the guy that was really, really into playing games...Unfortunately, for your guy that wanted an everyday phone that he wanted to use for business or what have you, it just wasn't really the right device."

Nokia has since moved the bulk of its mobile-gaming efforts to its Series 60 line of phones, some of which will be optimized for gaming. Sauter also said the new phones will still provide a good gaming experience but added that users wouldn't be embarrassed to bring them out in any kind of setting. But the fight for core gamers is just a small aspect of the overall mobile scene, and Nokia's current approach also calls for broadening the cell-phone-gaming market.

"On the console side, nobody's really too concerned about how many PS3s they're going to ship in Malaysia or India or China where there are billions of people," Sauter said, "but we're already there. It's an existing business, so when you think of [the] mobile-games business, it's immediately a global business. And nobody has as many relationships as we do in those territories like India and China where [there] are just massive opportunities."

One way Sauter hopes to take advantage of those opportunities is to improve the customer experience, from the way they find out about games to the amount of information they have before making a purchase to the end product itself.

"We've plateaued a little bit in terms of the user experience," Sauter said. "What we feel the industry really needs to be focused on now is the whole end-to-end experience...Once you get the game, yeah, it has to be good, but that's just a piece of it. And that's really where our focus is in the coming years, not only delivering the best quality games on the highest-end handsets but really filling the holes in this whole end-to-end experience, from discovery to purchase to managing and sharing and playing with your friends."

One current sticking point is the actual purchase of a game. The current standard in mobile gaming is for a customer to go to the "store front" screen of their phone and be presented with a list of games, each with a short description of gameplay and (in rare cases), a screenshot of the game. Nokia has begun to emphasize free demos of games and a feedback system that will let customers see other users' reviews of a game before buying it, but these features are far from industry standard at the moment.

However, not everyone is hurt by the dearth of information available to consumers. Rubin acknowledges that the state of current mobile-gaming storefronts tilts the playing field in favor of Namco's lineup of simple, highly recognizable arcade classics.

"The carriers are starting to realize that if that one-word line says 'football,' then maybe the consumer has this huge image of what it's supposed to play like because they just bought a new Xbox 360," Rubin said. "So they download it on their mobile phone--it's instant disappointment. [But if] you see Ms. Pac-Man, you have an image of what Ms. Pac-Man is supposed to look like, you download it on your phone, and it plays and looks exactly like Ms. Pac-Man--it's instant satisfaction."

But what's worked for Namco hasn't necessarily been good for other publishers, or the industry in general, according to Parks Associates analyst Michael Cai.

"I think focusing on chasing franchise and porting popular console titles might be the biggest mistake some companies are making," Cai said. "Due to the limitations of the mobile platform, many games are not yet suitable for mobile play."

One publisher that Cai thinks is handling the transition to mobile properly is Square Enix. And it's not the publisher's insistence on tying in its cash cow Final Fantasy franchise into the games that has him approving.

Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII uses a phone's camera function to create magic in the game.
Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII uses a phone's camera function to create magic in the game.

"They are trying to leverage the unique characteristics of the mobile phone," Cai said in reference to Before Crisis - Final Fantasy VII. "It does not support full interactivity and a persistent world, but it allows gamers to communicate with each other in order to fight monsters collaboratively. The phone camera is also incorporated into the game design, which allows gamers to create [materia, the game's form of magic]. You have to leverage the unique characteristics such as location-based services capability, built-in camera, always-on-and-always-connected, and short gaming sessions. I'm also a big believer in cross-platform gaming that involves mobile phones."

It's not just the publisher's approach to mobile-game development that has tempered the industry's growth, according to Cai. The myriad handsets on the market have different screen sizes, operating systems, and user interfaces, all of which need to be addressed if a publisher wants to get a game out to the widest number of potential consumers. Cai also expects that new business models will need to be introduced in the future, including free, ad-supported content, as well as micropayment and pay-for-play schemes.

As for the programmer whose work first clued people into the potential of mobile gaming, Armanto is watching its growth from the sidelines. Shortly after the game's completion, he was moved over to work on ringtones for the company. He still works for Nokia today as a software specialist encompassing "duties that sound much less interesting from the 'early days.'"

However interesting his duties might have seemed, Armanto admitted he didn't realize at the time exactly what he was a part of.

"I didn't expect that mobile gaming would be a big thing, at least not how it is today," Armanto said, "although I knew some people would definitely love Snake. I loved it myself, and liked to play it even though I'm not a computer-gaming 'freak.' So there were some expectations, but I guess nobody foresaw where it would lead to."

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Avatar image for not_grape

Go to hell! This was posted in June...

Avatar image for sony_boy_18

HEY EVERYONE THE PS3 SHIPS IN 16 DAYS .YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.

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Dan_the_pirate: thisis what ive heard, it wasa hile i read this but, you take a picture of something green, and yo get yourself some green materia. take a pic on something red you got yerself a summon. now how to specify what magic it is i dont know. maybe its differs on the type of green or such or maybe you learn new amgic that you can then put in a materia wich you can then use. or osmehing. not a hundred percent if this was what you did. but pretty sure.. like 96%

Avatar image for wildsoul0509

what happen to the good games like pinball and snake on your cellphone?

Avatar image for Dan_the_pirate

One thing i don't get: how do you "create magic" with your camera phone in the final fantasy game? that just makes no sense and the article is too vague. do you take a picture of something to fill up your magic?

Avatar image for ssjtrunks6

wow the only game i liked playing on a cell phone was snake...LOL

Avatar image for gymfreak831

i agree with runstalker as well... but didnt Playstation do something like that already, in some sense, with the PocketStation or whatever it was in Japan? i remember with FFVIII that was the only way to obtain certain GFs and items. so we want something more along the lines of that, but online, right? that would be the best!

Avatar image for urluckyday

An example of wasting money is buying food you can't eat...another example is buying video games that aren't fun...that's what you find in cell phone gaming...especially N-Gauge...

Avatar image for judge__judy

Mobile games can be oookay because you carry it around all the time but yea- runstalker

Avatar image for soulmanpt

Runstalker nailed it. Games need to be able to be bought from third parties and installed by the users instead of the user having to download it from their service provider ala Verizon. Also, more and better blue tooth controlers need to come out so that we don't destroy our phones keypads in the persuit of gaming.

Avatar image for ClaudeLv250

Please, people, get off of runstalker's sack. We don't need 30 people all kissing his ass at the same time.

Avatar image for rokkuman09

ya most of the games are rather boring and have unresponsive controls

Avatar image for julian79

All games as we know it started on the same basis as phone games.To tell the truth most phone games where pc games or console games at one stage or another.This onley means the techknowlogy will move a lot faster on phones then on consoles to acomodate for the lack. i think give it a decade or 2 and phone games might contribute a little if not a lot to current hardware we have on pc or other consoles.

Avatar image for soundofspeet

Raise the roof for runstalker! He knows what he's talking about! And about the transmedial connectivity, I believe that's something that Live Anywhere, from Microsoft, is aiming to achieve. It will be a bright day when you've gather ores from a cave in Elder Scrolls V, taken them home, put them in your smithing chest, leave for work, and on lunch break, build yourself some armor from those components that you gathered, ready and made for you upon returning home. Am I right?

Avatar image for EvanO_O

I don't even have a cell phone. Mobile games are a joke. If I want to play a classic, I either use my NES, Xbox live arcade or a compilation disc of old-school games. No need for cell phone games when you have a DS or a Game boy either.

Avatar image for simon50

I don't know if anyone else agrees, but Runstalker is absolutely correct. You lot should give Runstalker more credit LOL

Avatar image for runstalker

What we need are mobile phone games that allow you to make some type of "offline" progress in a main console or PC game. The data would be sent to a centralized server at the end of your mobile session, and the next time you start up the 'main' console/PC game it connects and dynamically updates using the progress you've made in the cell phone game. Mini-games ranging from building cities to crafting armor to micro-managing tactical maps and other, more original ideas. Why create these obscure and archaic full games on mobile when you can create awesome gameplay designed to compliment and enhance popular fully-realized console and PC games? That's where I'd put my money: in cool transmedial connectivity.

Avatar image for vidgamer2002

I like the concept of playing mobile games on a cell phone as long as the game and price is right. Since I don't carry around my GBA around everyplace I go, the idea of having a library of games on a cell phone is enticing. This is especially helpful when waiting in long line at shopping center or on break from work. However, like many have said before me, many games are not worth playing either due to the game being bad, or the hassles just to get the game. Plus, if the cell phone hardware isn't powerful enough, the game would suffer tremendous slowdown. I have experienced this before. Then there's the problem of transferring games from one phone to another. In most cases it's not possible. I know I'm dreaming here, but if companies would start caring about their customers rather than money, I believe the mobile game market would have a lot more potential.

Avatar image for osxgp

Great...another idiot on the cell phone playing games instead of driving! Bad enough to have people talking and not paying attention. Besides, Nokia tried this already...and FAILED!

Avatar image for loic54

- The fact that hardcore gamers don't take mobile phone games seriously. - The fact that far better dedicated hardware exists for portable gaming. - The fact that carriers make it irritating to purchase games and camoflauge certain aspects of pricing. is runstalker is right!

Avatar image for rynmls

not interested except for before crisis of course...

Avatar image for comthitnuong

i dont see how anyone enjoys mobile games

Avatar image for NightRain

I say that there's a real lack of interest... and a lack of power... people aren't really interested in these tiny games... and people doesn't all know how to get them.. so... Mobile game will always be underground...

Avatar image for living420

if we had phones half as good as the ones in japan we could play decent games... It seems so odd how long it takes us to catch up to a country that America industrialized.

Avatar image for Shingo

runstalker runstalker runstalker. It seems like its a rule to say the name. Yes, he's right. We get it.

Avatar image for daqua_99

Why should I spend $1000 over 2-3 years for a top-notch mobile with games when I could get a DS and 9 great games.

Avatar image for mikedude_01

"Spot On: What's keeping the mobile revolution on hold?" The fact that it's not suppose to happen. There, I have answered the question.

Avatar image for WolfSkill5544

RUNSTALKER its right. I personally don't want to spend money on cell phone games, when I have my Nintendo DS and PSP.

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While I agree with the first post and the many following, there is an issue that needs to be pointed out. Mobile Games as we see them today are not ment to be a huge draw for true hardcore gaming individuals. If you look at the past & current line ups, the main focus is marketing for other media (IE. King Kong, DaVinci Code, Cars and so on). Other types of mobile games are made for the Casual expereince ( IE. Waste time at the Doctors office, Kids practice or Standing in line somewhere). The best place to showcase these are not on Gamespot, but on or MSN. This is the type of people that make it a billion dollar business. As for comparing them to DS & PSP, it realy comes down to people that buy a Free or $29.99 phone in this demographic don't find a $129.99 or $199.99 portable gaming device that interesting. They may not feel that paying $39.99 for a Sudoku Game that much of a bargin when they can get it on their phone for $5.00. There is a place for Mobile Games, just not this crowd.

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Cool, the first post answer the question, good jog runstalker.

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Avatar image for alberto2045

ooookkkkk there is no good game for a phone and there will never be and there shoulnt ever be one, it just sucks i mean come on playing on a cell phone without a wireless controler or a mouse and a keyboard

Avatar image for Lapperscrapper

The pricing structure is what keeps me away. I have to log on to cingular's media mall to download games, and it has to download around 50k just to get into the game list. They charge $0.01 per K, so I have to pay $0.50 just to look at a list of games I can then decide to or not to purchase? Then even more if I want to actually read the game descriptions. It may not seem like a lot of money, but it feels like money I am just throwing away. I wouldn't mind a Tetris or Lumines or Qix :) on my phone for a couple dollars, but I don't want to pay money just for the option of purchasing them. My suggestion to providers, seperate game downloads, and other media, from the web browsing that charges you for every little byte you download. Make it free to browse through the games, but you can even tack on a little extra price to the game to cover the costs. I bet that would net the providers more cash in the end.

Avatar image for Manatassi

They are never going to expand a market so flooded with the truly appauling games the mobile games scene is overloaded with. Even casual gamers are put off by the sheer amount of rubbish available on phones, which is also affecting the games market as a whole. Many potential games players are lost because they downloaded some peice of rubbish on a phone and think thats what a game is.

Avatar image for supererman14

wow runstaker's got it on the very first post.....bravo additions would be.... Cell phone's in the US are much as nobody can really live without one now-a-days, they are pieces of junk....I am one of the people who shouts conspiracy and I fully believe that Cell phone companies make there phones cheap so they will break on you so you have to spend more money, and every cell phone charger is different. I think Cell phone's must have used to have been built well and the build it bad developed after everyone got cell-phones because I have yet to see a phone that has been made in 2000 and up that has lasted more then 2 years without something going wrong, when my grandfatthers 15 year old cell phone that is frigen huge, and goes to work with him everyday(carpenter) still works with the origanal battery. It has been through way more then pretty much any cell phone including having paint being spashed on it and it being tooken apart and clean off.... and on top of my cellular phone rant they just dont have a good setup for games, the screen is too small, the button placement makes it hard to do things that would be easy with a normal controller. But then again I have a friend who will own at any cell-phone game, but he can also text of to 55 words per-a-minute. cell-phones do amazing things but they are all crap....and always will be because cell phone companies need there customers to keep more and more billlions of dollors..

Avatar image for A7Xfan

TAKE THE PATH OF NINTENDO...Simplicity appeals to the consumer. Let it be known games are one of the major functions and what's available for those games a little ticker that goes across your phones telling you would be nice.

Avatar image for pr_master

yeah verizon want me to log into get it now every time i want to buy something, that .12 a minutes, you may say it now much but browsing all games and ringtones take alot of time, last month i d/l 1 ringtone with a free credict and they charged me like $5 in air time or something like that. and i only have puzzle games in my cellphone, i have lumines :D it fun :D

Avatar image for byronman91

runstaker's totally and completely wrong! j/k =]

Avatar image for Chebwa

I think it also has something to do with the fact that there's a certain aspect to "owning" a game that makes purchasing a GBA game more enticing than a cell phone game. I don't want to shell out $5 for a game that disappears with my cell phone. I want a cartridge.

Avatar image for pundog

I think its an issue of quality and pricing. The games are a pain to download and you don't know how much they'll cost, especially on plans where you only have a certain amount of airtime. And when you do download them, you end up with a crappy game that you have to play with a keypad. The cellphone gaming market is really non-existant (in North America anyway) because almost everyone owns a car and drives to travel, which is the only time anyone will really use it. Thats why they're much more popular in Japan, there are alot more people using buses and trains.

Avatar image for Kwiksilva

Yea runstalker has a very good point. plus most of the games just arent fun.

Avatar image for Iron-Dragon

If I could quote the first guy for truth, I would.

Avatar image for madman_420

Im not on the runstalker band wagon, but he is right. I love my PSP, i got all i need with that little device, maybe a cellphone PSP would be the next step?

Avatar image for John_of_Fire

One other thing to add to the list: Poor hardware in the US I bought a few games for my cell phone and enjoyed them. Then my directional pad went out and I had to get a new phone. Then I had to redownload the games again (takes 5- 10 min per game) and then the directional pad went out on that phone. Now I have $60 invested in games I can't play. I don't want to throw any more money away.

Avatar image for ZeroGravX

While what Runstalker says is mostly true, there are quality games on cellphones and it's a lot easier to walk around all day with a cellphone than a DS or PSP. Can anyone say Doom RPG? :D

Avatar image for SNKrock

the fact that mobile phones haven't set a base standard as far as programming capabilities/software. If they told me tomorrow metal gear or something was avaialable for cell phones, they made a commercial maybe (DUH!), and it worked on phones on any network, i'd buy it.

Avatar image for spidey008

I play monopoly and ghost and goblins on my cell phone. I have also download a casino game. I think cell phones have a good market for casual games, but they must be games that have easy controls and can be stopped and started with no problems. Playing Ghost N' Goblins on my cell phone is really a challenge. It is already a hard game, but the phone style control pad makes it even harder. Developers should stick with simple games for the cell phone. Ones that can be played with one hand using a cell phone pad.

Avatar image for oldhott02

plus phones aren't ment for games they are ment to be phones so if someone really wants a good game on a cell phone (other than a classic) they will have to buy a handheld game system

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