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The Road to E3: Mobile Gaming

We count down to the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo with a series of features about the issues affecting the future of the games industry.

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Mobile gaming has come a long way since Snake or BrickBreaker. The attempt at turning mobile phones into handheld gaming devices has long been a defining factor in the consumer electronics race, aiming to marry expediency and entertainment to create a new market for the gaming industry. When Snake launched as the first preinstalled mobile phone game in 1997, it became an instant hit; according to Nokia, the game now exists on more than 350 million mobile phones. But even though mobile gaming had finally found an audience, technological limitations would prevent mobile phones from becoming a viable gaming platform for at least another decade. It wasn't until Apple launched its iPhone in 2007 that everything finally changed.

Today, mobile gaming holds a growing percentage of the global gaming market. Almost everyone owns a mobile phone, and an increasing number of devices support Internet access and high-quality graphics and sound. Smartphones are also beginning to gain a larger percent of the market share, giving more and more people access to app stores full of bite-sized gaming experiences tailor-made for the mobile platform. The games industry has responded accordingly: an increasing number of publishers are setting up separate mobile businesses in a bid to reach out to the growing audience, and mobile gaming has become one of the most promising areas for game developers. But just what will this growth mean for the future of the gaming industry? Will mobile gaming carve out its own niche? Or will it integrate itself into the current industry and blur the lines between core and casual gaming? This feature will look at some of the biggest names in mobile gaming today, including Angry Birds developer Rovio, Ngmoco, and Fruit Ninja developer Halfbrick.

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The Flurry study. [Image credit: Flurry]

The Mobile Revolution

Last month, US mobile analytics service Flurry found that the iOS and Android game sales market grew from 5 percent in 2009 to 8 percent in 2010 in the US, with revenue climbing from US$500 million to US$800 million in the same period. According to the analysis, not only are mobile games gleaning a growing portion of the video game market share in the US, but they also seem to be surpassing PC game sales, which earned only US$700 million from 2009 to 2010. The figures also show that iOS and Android game sales are catching up to portable game sales: when compared to the Nintendo DS and Sony's PlayStation Portable, Android and iOS market share climbed from 19 percent in 2009 to 34 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the DS fell from 70 percent in 2009 to 57 percent in 2010, while the PlayStation Portable fell from 11 percent to 9 percent in the same period. Moving internationally, information technology research firm Gartner predicted that the worldwide mobile gaming market is expected to reach US$11.4 billion by 2014 (jumping from US$4.7 billion in 2009 and US$5.6 billion in 2010).

While the number of people playing games on their mobiles is clearly on the rise, so too are the success stories coming out of the mobile game development space. Ask any average iPhone user if he or she has heard of Angry Birds, and the likely answer is an enthusiastic yes. The popular iPhone game made history earlier this year by becoming the first smartphone game to break free of the mobile category in the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences' Game of the Year Awards and earn a nomination for Best Game. (The game hit 140 million downloads last month). Not that anyone would know it, but Angry Birds is actually developer Rovio's 52nd title since the studio formed in 2003. In fact, no one really noticed the game when it launched on the Apple App Store in 2009. It took Rovio a lot of persuading to convince even friends and family to buy the game, something that Peter Vesterbacka, Rovio's marketing and business developer, says finally helped Angry Birds reach number one in Rovio's home country of Finland. That, and the fact that there aren't really that many iPhones in Finland to begin with.

"We underestimated development costs, and it took a lot more time and money than we thought, but I think that was the big factor behind the game's success," Vesterbacka said during a panel talk at this year's Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. "At first, we aimed to sell a few thousand copies to cover development costs. But after it became number one in Finland, it then became number one in Sweden too, and that's how it all began."

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Rovio's Angry Birds has 140 million downloads as of last month.

This was more to do with luck than anything else: during an interview on national television, a renowned Swedish skier let it slip that she'd been playing a lot of Angry Birds to pass the time while holed up in hospital recovering from an accident. Soon, the whole country followed suit, helping the game reach number one on the App Store in Sweden, then the UK, and finally, the US. Vesterbacka believes the iPhone led to a marketplace filled with good-quality games, each offering a different kind of experience.

"A few years ago at GDC there was a mobile panel and the carriers were talking about the fact that we don't need 27 poker games--we just need one good one. But that sounds a lot like communism, doesn't it? You don't need 27 brands of toothpaste, you just need one! The thing that matters is good games, not how many of them there are. Timing is important too--we've been hearing that everyone is going to have these devices [smartphones] since 2003, but it wasn't until last year that that actually came true. When you look at the gaming market now, all the action is in mobile. That's where the new trends are being defined--it's the centre of gravity for all of gaming."

However, this shift also left a lot of developers in the dark. It takes a long time to establish a new way of doing things in an industry that has been set in its ways for decades. After Angry Birds became a hit, Rovio found itself struggling with crucial decisions and questions that no one really had the answer for. Instead of following traditional business models and capitalising on their newfound success by spamming the market with dozens of Angry Birds clones, Rovio decided to drop everything else and dedicate all its time to supporting and growing the Angry Birds franchise. The first step was to release seasonal content to match with popular holidays like Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day. The team then moved on to updating game content once a month and looked for a way to keep things constantly interesting.

"Nintendo says this kind of [business] model is destroying the industry, that it makes games disposable--but that's not true," Vesterbacka says. "We don't see Angry Birds as disposable. If you look at how console games work, they're made, publishers charge for them, DLC comes out, and then that's it, it's forgotten. It cannot stay fresh. If you don't update your games regularly, it won't be very popular. But mobile games require a new way of thinking, different from games that have been through traditional development. It's more like a service as well as an experience. New ideas will emerge in the mobile space and go into other areas. We're only getting started, and there is so much opportunity to innovate."

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The Right Games for the Right Platform

Once game developers began to understand the business models operating within the mobile market, the potential for growth and innovation enticed many to move into the space. Stories of high-grossing games made by one or two people in dimly lit garages on budgets less than an average day's wage become an all-too-common phenomenon, signalling the start of a new age in software development that could finally give developers pure creative freedom and untapped access to a wide audience. Companies like EA caught on to the trend relatively quickly, investing in the mobile gaming business as far back as 2004. When Ubisoft and THQ followed suit in 2008, the industry began to take notice, pushing more and more publishers into the space. The shift continues to this day: earlier this year, Capcom and Insomniac Games announced their individual intentions to dedicate part of their publishing business to mobile development, while EA revealed it is currently in negotiations to acquire Australian developer Firemint (Flight Control).

For some developers, the move into mobile was a tactical choice, rather than a creative one. Following the economic downturn brought on by the global financial crisis of 2008, the already-small Australian game development industry began to show signs of exhaustion: studios shut down, development teams were let go, projects were cancelled. Since continuing to push on in the console space was no longer a viable option, studios like Halfbrick, the developer behind hit iPhone title Fruit Ninja, turned to mobile.

"We weren't there from the beginning, but we saw opportunity there," says Phil Larsen, marketing manager at Halfbrick. "The things we wanted to do aligned well with what was happening in the mobile space, so we just went for it. And I'm glad we did."

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Fruit Ninja was a step in the right direction for Australian developer Halfbrick.

Halfbrick released Fruit Ninja in early 2010. Today, the game has roughly 25 million downloads in total, spread across the iPhone, Android, and iPad versions. At first, it's not hard to guess why games like Fruit Ninja have become so successful: they're simple, quick, addictive, and fun. Almost anyone can play, anywhere, anytime. It seems like a foolproof template for succeeding in the mobile market. Yet for every Angry Birds or Flight Control or Fruit Ninja out there, there are dozens of copycat titles that seek to capitalize on the success of their predecessors, only to fail. So why does this template work for some games but not others? What is it about these games that cannot be replicated?

"Games like Fruit Ninja aren't successful just because they offer simple gameplay," Larsen says. "It's because they are the right type of game for the mobile platform. You can probably make Gears of War for the iPhone, but it probably won't do very well. These games utilise gameplay conventions that work well with touch screens and other smartphone features. It's also a lot to do with the marketplace: people know it's really easy to download a game. They know it's integrated, and it's cheap. I can carry around my DS and tell people about the games I'm playing, but they'll forget. But if I pull out my iPhone and say 'Hey, check this out!' people will get it right away and then go experience it for themselves."

The popularity of games like Fruit Ninja is also helping shift mainstream attitudes towards gaming. While core gamers don't necessarily look upon mobile or casual gamers with a sympathetic eye, the fact that popular mobile titles are helping cultivate a growing audience for gaming on the whole cannot be ignored. The question is: what effect will this have on the future of the industry?

"People who love core gaming are proud of being gamers, but anything that grows the gaming audience is a good thing," Larsen says. "I'm a gamer myself--I play everything. But I also play mobile. So how can gamers stand to criticize other gamers? It's easy to blame mobile gaming, but I don't see it as having harmed the industry. Mobile gaming hasn't replaced anything; in fact, it's brought a new spectrum of ideas to the industry. The technology is there for us to create games the way we want to. I see these two industries growing together, alongside each other. Consoles will still allow people to play games inside their home, while mobile will allow them to play outside of it."

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Future Outlook

The gaming industry has had plenty of experience with rapidly changing trends: platforms have suddenly died out, highly anticipated games have not sold well, digital distribution models have become popular, and indie games have flourished on small budgets. While sales figures and market share make it clear that mobile gaming is here to stay, at least for now, there are some in the industry who have already begun to look at how the mobile space can influence and integrate itself into other areas of the gaming industry, further blurring the boundaries between core and casual gaming.

In June 2008, EA executive Neil Young left the publisher to start his own company, Ngmoco (Next Generation Mobile Company), focusing solely on iPhone gaming. By March 2009, Ngmoco's first three titles--Topple, MazeFinger, and Rolando--had reached more than 7 million downloads on the App Store. After acquiring a number of iPhone, Facebook, and iOS developers, Ngmoco entered into an acquisition deal with Japanese social games publisher DeNA in October 2010, shifting the focus of the company towards the successful marriage of social and mobile gaming. Ngmoco's first step in this direction was to pay closer attention to the importance of artificial intelligence in mobile development.

"Mobile games should be tying people to their phone and what they do with it--that's where social networks come in," says Andrew Stern, AI developer at Ngmoco. "Imagine a scenario where waiting at the bus stop transforms into a multiplayer game about meeting someone not in your friend list. If, say, the weather is bad, then this creates an opportunity to start chatting to other people [at the bus stop]. What we're trying to do is tie in interactions that arise out of the settings people find themselves in every day to the things they have at their disposal, like mobile phones."

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Ngmoco found success with iPhone title Rolando in 2009.

Before joining Ngmoco, Stern was responsible for the creation of the best-selling Petz franchise, a series of virtual pet games for the PC that have sold 3 million copies worldwide to date. Ngmoco brought Stern on board in 2010 for his experience in the field of AI and procedural animation, after the company acquired Stern's studio Stumptown Game Machine and the game Touch Pet Dogs, a virtual pet title for the iPhone and iPod Touch that topped the free app charts on the App Store on its release, hitting more than five million downloads to date.

What Stern is developing now is a multiplayer text-based simulation game for the iPhone that aims to use social networks to help players build relationships with other players both in the gameworld and outside of it. The game itself is like a massively multiplayer online game--players can interact with both non-player characters and their own friends in the gameworld and can create their own characters and pick suitable traits such as charisma, charm, wit, and so on. These traits affect players' interactions with other players in the game much the same as they would in any role-playing game (for example, adding "wit" as a character trait means that character makes more jokes). The problem is that the game is essentially a large chunk of scrolling text, which is why Stern is hesitant about how well it will be received.

"The advantage of text-based games is that you can have more verbs and adverbs, and on the whole it's easier to express the internal state of characters. But because of this, players don't actually know which characters are non-player characters and which ones are their real friends--this makes it fun. Sure, text isn't sexy, but this varies each time you play it."

For Stern, building better AI in the mobile space is all about creating more immersive gaming experiences on mobile platforms to tie in to the already popular social gaming market. At the start of the project, Stern's team was faced with the challenge of moment-by-moment interactivity: would it be possible to make a game that would harness the appeal of text messaging and social platforms like Facebook and Twitter?

"Text plays a big part in social networks, but would this carry over to an interactive experience? There was also the problem of trying to get players to care about the non-player characters. People like Facebook because they interact with people they know. What we found was that trying to build content in this way is hard. It's hard to make an expressive interactive adventure--text-based games are niche, even if they do have depth and variety. But that's the challenge--to see if this will actually work on the mobile platform. It's all about exploring possibilities in this new space."

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