Pocket Gamer

Pocket Gamer
A New Hope: How Apple Reformed the Mobile Games Industry

Pocket Gamer | 7 Jun 2009 09:00
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Before Apple's App Store went live last July, mobile games journalism was an optimistic discipline. We listened to developers enthusing about Next Big Thing technologies like camera-based motion-sensing, touchscreen interfaces and GPS multiplayer, but none of these ideas ever took hold. Mobile gamers didn't want innovation. They wanted Tetris.

We also listened to publishers enthusing about the business potential of making entertainment software for a platform that had at least two major advantages over the mainstream consoles: everybody had one, and it had by far the best distribution mechanism. Consumers could buy games without moving, and the cost was invisibly added to their monthly phone bills rather than conspicuously surrendered in sweaty cash over a counter.

For some publishers, mobile gaming is big business. EA Mobile makes money by hoovering up big licences like Deal or No Deal and Tetris. Gameloft, meanwhile, has thrived largely by focussing on quality. The mobile games industry even lured EA founder Trip Hawkins into its fold. His studio Digital Chocolate is one of the widely respected in the business.

But the cultural impact of even the most successful and creative developers of mobile games on the video game medium is negligible. There's an art to making a good mobile game - just as there is to making any good casual game - but the art has been largely effaced by the business. Tetris outsells everything, followed by generally execrable film and television licences, followed eventually by the best of what remains.

So why hasn't mobile ever really taken off? Despite the business potential of an unassailably massive install base and a dream distribution mechanism, mobile games developers have always worked with three huge handicaps: controls, fragmentation, and - once the game is made to everybody's satisfaction - the tyranny of the operators.

Control is the least of these problems, but it nevertheless limits the type and quality of game a developer can make. Peggle and Tetris sit fairly comfortably on a device whose primary interface is a grid of numbers, but racing and platform games are less successful, and football games are strictly for committed fingersmiths.

Fragmentation - the necessity to make a game compatible on hundreds of handsets - is a bigger issue, affecting as it does development costs and the feasible quality of many games. It's difficult for a developer to push boundaries when he needs to test on hundreds of handsets and make his game playable on new models and models that are five years old.

Some developers have the luxury of being able to produce high and low end versions of games for different phones, but fragmentation is still a major headache in the mobile industry and much ire is privately directed at those who enforce it: the operators.

Though few publishers or developers will go on record about it, almost all have grievances about the operators on whom they largely rely to distribute their games. Eavesdrop at the door of any mobile development studio and you'll hear about unreasonable revenue splits, unrealistic demands, and the operators' dispiriting tendency to see games as just another form of mobile content, rather than a creative medium.

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