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Games on a Plane
Games on a Plane Exclusive
June 29, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

June 29, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC, Production, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

If you've travelled with an airline in the last several years, chances are you've encountered an In-Flight Entertainment device that offers on-demand video, music, and other media. In many cases, these devices also play games, which left us wondering: is there an unexplored business here worth investigating?

Most In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) devices can vary wildly by airline -- they might be standalone tablets or even built into the seat ahead of you -- but they all offer developers the same opportunity: to put your game in front of hundreds, or perhaps thousands of travellers every day.

The problem is, it's not easy to install your game on an airline's IFE devices. Most airlines have a number of strict rules and regulations that prevent developers from simply distributing their games to passengers, but some external IFE companies -- like DTI Soft and Western Outdoor Interactive -- exist to help developers get past those hurdles.

Major developers like EA, Capcom, and Namco Bandai already work with these companies to get their games into travelers' hands, and EA's new platform director Matt Dixon told Gamasutra that creating an airline-friendly game would be a huge undertaking if the company didn't recruit this outside help.

"We work hard to make sure our games are designed tested and certified for the various In-Flight Entertainment systems available, but this takes time and a lot of resources -- believe it or not, itís not a simple task. This is where DTI stepped in and really helped us through the process," he said.

Of course, if major companies like EA need external help to get their games into the skies, the task is even more complicated for the smaller, independent developer. We asked Dixon if he thought this was possible: he said the only real way for small teams to get their game on an airline is to secure a publishing deal with a company already working with an IFE firm.

DTI's VP of creative and product design, Vincent Bedard, told us that to secure a deal with an airline, developers also need to make sure their games already have proven appeal, because most companies only want to pick up games that are sure to find an audience.

"For instance, most airlines will want a good mix of strategy games and puzzle games, which are popular with most demographics. An Asian airline, however, may choose to include more well-known Asian games like Mahjong or Chinese Checkers," Bedard said.

"Including well-established and popular brands are always good to include as well, as they donít require a passenger to learn new rules in order to play."

Of course, getting an airline to adopt your game is just one piece of the puzzle. Modern in-flight devices come with a number of technical caveats, and making your game actually function on these machines can prove a bit difficult.

Hitting a moving target (platform)

In order to shed some light on these challenges, Gamasutra spoke with DTI's VP of engineering, Marc-Andre Bruneau, who explained that In-Flight Entertainment devices, much like smartphones, are constantly changing, and on top of that, developers will need to work with an older, fragmented hardware ecosystem if they want to get their games up and running.

"The low level software of the platforms are in constant evolution, and can even be updated the day of the airline release," said Bruneau. "In addition, most seat-back systems have been developed first and foremost for video playback, and the certification process that hardware manufacturers have to go through before a system is flight certified means that the technology is already three to five years old once it is installed.

"In order to have games that work on these systems, they need go through a variety of processes for in-flight integration...At the end, each game is unique to the in-seat system on which it is installed."

EA's Dixon pointed out that many IFE devices are still running on very old firmware, making it even more difficult to port games that were originally designed for newer devices.

"The new systems are mainly Android based, though by the time you've run QA youíll be many flavors out of date," he said. "Today the systems are only just running Android 2.1, which is far behind the smartphone world of 4.0."

DTI's Bruneau added, "Although the recent hardware is getting similar to todayís smartphones, there are even some airlines flying Unixware, OS9000 or even Windows 3.1 based systems!"

Beyond these limitations, developers also need to keep in mind the physical limits of an IFE device. Given the form factor and limited online connectivity in these devices, some modern game features are simply off the table when making a title airline-appropriate.

"Developers also need to keep in mind that the devices may be fixed to a seat, so accelerometers will become defunct and any connected features will need to be stripped out," Dixon said. "It's not just a case of taking your smartphone content and porting it across, a lot more thought about gameplay and restrictive gestures has to be taken into consideration."

Though despite all of these hurdles, Dixon remains optimistic about the in-flight games market. It's helped EA develop a new revenue stream and boost exposure for its casual titles, and he predicts things will become much easier for developers as IFE devices continue to evolve.

"Today, airlines understand that to keep customers you have to offer something above and beyond the traditional service. Content is one of these services, and they are now working on systems that can be updated more easily and more frequently. Not to mention that the systems are already a lot more capable of running great gaming experiences," he said.

"We see our investment not only paying off financially, but we're excited by the fact that millions of people will have the opportunity to try and enjoy our games."

(Image credits: Virgin Airlines, DTI Soft)

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Ara Shirinian
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One of the most incredible yet lowish tech things I ever played on a plane was a free in-flight live trivia game against everybody else on that plane. It engaged me so much that I didn't mind the turbulence, the air conditioner leaking water into the ceiling above, or the threat of smashing into the sea at all.

Frank Cifaldi
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I agree! I think it's just about the most perfect multiplayer concept possible. You've got a confined audience with nothing else to do, and a game so universal that there's no barrier to entry.

brandon sheffield
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Hmmm, I'm a little skeptical that it needs to be branded content. Most of the airline games I've seen (though I haven't really checked in a year or so) have been generic copies of shooters, pac-man, tetris, trivia, et cetera, not the actual licenses. maybe this has changed recently, but how quickly do airlines update those systems? what is the revenue stream?

Daniel-David Guertin
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Brandon: Although I also disagree that known brands are useful to make sure passenger don't have to "learn new rules in order to play", they are a very important key selling point when dealing with airlines. How it works is that a developer like DTI will meet with airline companies and offer a catalogue of games, which consists of a wide range of genre, going from simple memory games for pre-schoolers to Sudoku up to shooters. Games are not sold one by one but rather in bundles: airlines have no use for one game; they want to offer variety to their clients. Then, the airlines select games "ŗ la carte" or bundle to install in their in-flight systems. Think of it like a cable company: you don't pay for one channel; you buy a bunch of them at once. So when dealing with airlines, it's always a strong sale point to say "Bundle A has Pac-man and bundle B has Bejeweled. Bundle C is for kids and has Mickey Mouse." And to be honest, most sales are made by salesmen and they aren't usually avid gamers. Branding an original IP doesn't have the same effect as mentioning a brand they have heard of.

As far as I know, most airlines do not update their game content often. A few airlines do and even hire in-flight developers to create custom games or applications, but most airlines don't spend their in-flight entertainment budget on games and invest on movies, music and other applications. However, I have not dipped my toe in the business side of airline gaming for a couple of years. I used to be lead game designer at DTI.

brandon sheffield
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very interesting info!! thanks for replying!

kevin williams
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Great observational piece - I would point you too the hospitality (hotel, restaurant and tavern) scene for a follow-up on this application of digital out-of-home entertainment!

Joe Cooper
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This sounds soul-crushing. I get the impression that anything but a Tetris clone would be like throwing pearls before swine.

Jeremy Glazman
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I flew Virgin last year, and the in-flight games were embarrassing. They were the lowest quality games I've seen on any system ever, in terms of gameplay/graphics/anything. Pick any NES game ever made and it would put each and every one of Virgin's games to shame. It was like stepping into a time machine and discovering a world where humanity had never discovered how to make video games.

They were pretty bad, is what I'm saying.

Ian Bogost
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"To secure a deal with an airline, developers also need to make sure their games already have proven appeal, because most companies only want to pick up games that are sure to find an audience."

I don't doubt this is true, but what a missed opportunity. Airplane audiences are *by definition* captive. Just think how willing we are to watch movies on a plane that we wouldn't watch otherwise To feed them the same games they already know is a shame.

Nooh Ha
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I was under the impression it took 3-5 years to get any new technology, software or hardware, onto planes due to the approval process for international and national air safety bodies. Has this changed?

Felix Adam
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I was a level/game designer at DTI, and one thing that the company needs is feedback. They sell the bundle of games to the airline (as explained by Daniel-David), but the airline are not the one who plays the game. Not a lot of data is sent back to DTI about what games are more popular, how long we're they played etc. (I remember hearing about such data, but it was in rare occasions). This kind of information would help a lot in planning the products the company has to offer. For example, are DTI's original games well received by those who play it, even if they are not the most played game on the flight? Having such little contact with the end user is not something easy.