Thursday, November 15, 2007

Gaming To Go

It would seem logical to expect an evening at MIT focused on mobile gaming to attract a very specific, stereotyped crowd. Instead, the room was filled with investors, attorneys, entrepreneurs and students. Ten years ago people involved in a conversation about video games would likely have been limited to young folks, programmers and a handful of pony-tailed Dungeons and Dragons aficionados who perhaps operated out of their mom’s basement.

In
2007 however, the tides have turned and video games are a multi-billion dollar industry and a key component in the business of modern technology. Thus, the people in attendance at Monday night’s MIT Enterprise Forum event on the mobile entertainment industry were not just there to play games.

The title of the night, “An Industry on the Move: When Games Are On the Go and Cross Platforms” did little to prepare me for the oft neglected topic of games designed specifically for mobile phones. As an avid gamer myself (and the owner of numerous cell phones over the years), I was aware of the niche industry that is mobile gaming, but was surprised by the amount of creativity and talent in the industry and on display.

The panel consisted of three industry experts from companies ranging from small start-up to multi-billion dollar giant. Matthew Bellows is GM of Floodgate Entertainment, a software development company focused on mobile gaming (whose award winning Mobile Age of Empires is pictured below), Beth Marcus is president/CEO of Zeetoo, a company founded to improve the quality and usability of handheld devices with mobile hardware, specifically cell phones (pictured right is Zeetoo's accessory the ZeeMote which allows you to wirelessly control games on your cell phone with a their joystick), and rounding out the discussion was Jeff Burdeen, VP of Digital Media and Games at Hasbro.

The discussion began with the panel reflecting on the ways that the mobile gaming industry has fallen short of where it was initially expected to be by the year 2007. Ten years ago, when the concept of games on mobile devices was still in its infancy, many people expected it to be a viable and significant piece of the gaming industry by now. As this has yet to come to pass, the panel voiced why they thought mobile gaming has been bogged down.

They focused primarily on two hurdles that have inhibited the expected advancement of the industry. The first was the hardware. Programming for cell phones is exponentially more difficult than programming for any other gaming platform because there is no consistency to the devices or to their operating systems. Everyone has different phones with different buttons and different programs. Because of this, there is no standard upon which these developers can begin to build their games. Creating a piece of software that works the exact same on a Razr as it does on a Sidekick is no easy task. The medium has “unlimited fragmentation” Bellows said.

The second hurdle mentioned was the carriers. At this point in time, when cell phones are still working their way up to true functionality with the internet, all of the data acquisitions have to go through Sprint, Verizon, AT&T or whomever provides a cell phone with its service. This means that for a company like Floodgate to distribute their games, they have to do so through a carrier and carriers will cut into their profits. If a game costs six dollars to download, and the carrier takes 50% of that total as a distributors fee, there is only three dollars going to the company to pay every hand that was involved with the development of the game, which is simply not enough given how many of these games are actually sold.

While Bellows and Marcus were optimistic throughout about the future of the mobile gaming industry, Burden was much more realistic about the possibilities. As a former employee of Nokia, who was involved in the creation of the N-Gage, (left) he was very aware of the challenges and potential of the medium, yet as a VP in a corporate giant he is now very aware of just how difficult a road these developers have in front of them.

Bellows claimed that technology is nearing the point where the games we see on consoles and computers can finally be mimicked on a cell phone. Strategy games, shooters and more complex sports titles that dominate sales in other markets will be portable to mobile devices. The obvious question to ask was asked by an audience member: “Why would I want to play these games on a phone when I can play them on a TV or a PSP (below)?” Bellows responded by explaining that his goal was not to mimic these games but instead to create games that are innovative and unique to mobile gaming. Games that incorporate the device’s location, the time of day and especially other mobile device users in the vicinity.

While this seemed interesting, Burdeen was quick to chime back in with his sobering realism and say that the games people want to play on their phones are games that can be played with one hand and that don’t require any learning curve. Games like poker, Tetris, Pac-man and pong are the games that thrive on these systems because they are simple and easy. In other countries, specifically Japan, workers commute up to two hours each way and therefore have time to invest in more complex mobile gaming, but here in America, this is rarely the case and the demand for a more in depth experience may be lacking.

Another question posed was by a woman who wanted to know how this panel planned on marketing to Baby Boomers, who still make up the greatest population demographic. Bellows explained that puzzle games and programs focused on brain stimulation (such as Nintendo’s Brain Age (left) which has sold 5-6 million copies in the first months of its existence) will have a large part in selling this industry.

In the end it was very clear that the mobile gaming industry has a lot of challenges looming in front of it as it battles to become a thriving endeavor. Bellows and Marcus were very impressive with their talent and ambitiousness, but it was hard to ignore Burdeen’s all too realistic assessment that developed out of so many frustrating years with Nokia. The one hopeful tidbit Burdeen was willing to leave with the audience was that with a technological development like the iPhone, it is becoming clear that technology can reach previously unthinkable heights very quickly and this technology has the ability to allow for a previously unheard of intersection between wireless and the internet. This being the case, mobile gaming will have many more distribution channels and creative avenues through which they can attempt to finally put their ambitious ideas into code.

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