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Postcard from GDC Mobile 2005: The Tipping Point in Wireless Gaming


March 9, 2005
 

It's just a matter of time before mobile gaming blows up, says Mike Yuen, director of Qualcomm's gaming group. Wireless gaming revenue in the US is predicted to become a $1.7 billion market in 2008, from $160 million in 2003. What will be the tipping point to push mobile games over into the mainstream? Yuen submits that cross-platform design will play a major part in this initiative.

As for just what Yuen means when he says 'tipping point' - he's referring to a pioneer that opens the floodgates for others, opening up the industry to a point where it can be self-sustaining. He cites Pac-Man as having done this for arcades - the great success of the title, combined with the strength of the branding, character recognition, the first cut-scenes and wide-spread (not especially violent) appeal, all served to make consumers take games seriously as an entertainment medium.

Super Mario Bros. did this for the home console market, essentially remaking the home system industry after Atari's fall from public grace, and Doom gave greater legitimacy to PCs as gaming platforms, also popularizing multiplayer network gaming. Mobile gaming, according to Mike, is the next frontier of interactive electronic gaming revenue.

The reasons for getting into the mobile field are numerous, most notably the potential for subscription-based billing, and the ability to penetrate emerging markets such as India and China with minimal piracy risk, and higher possibility of return on investment.


Mike Yuen

But of course, it's not as easy as all that. Hardware, software and network providers all need to coordinate to make this sort of vision a reality. Though phones will soon have the capacity to push near PS2-level graphics, no true cross-platform design exists.

Yuen's idea is that wireless could be a bridge between platforms, and the connectivity and mobility allows for a logical extension of the platform game worlds. If a developer allows a persistent persona (i.e. carrying character data from the platform to the phone), this would work especially well in character-building games, such as MMOs.

As for difficulties in the mobile design, Yuen mentions that developers should consider leveraging the uniqueness of phone numbers, through creating unique character avatars, generate interest through trailers and advertising, creating loyalty programs ala frequent flyer miles (re-subscription benefits, et cetera), increasing word of mouth, and serializing content.

Yuen also submitted some ideas about how one might actually implement this sort of cross-platform play. On the mobile side, suggestions included unlockable wallpapers, ringtones and screensavers. On the PC side, exclusive unlockable levels, costumes or avatars could potentially help spread word of mouth. This sort of integration, Yuen maintains, should serve to strengthen the overall brand.


Super Mario Bros.

According to Yuen, in order for something like this to come to pass, there needs to be a Paul Revere of the mobile industry, someone who knows the right people and has the right branding to make cross-platform integration an appealing prospect for consumers. Some might argue that Sony's PSP/PS2 integration, or Nintendo's GBA/GC connectivity might have already paved the way for ideas such as these, but clearly the concept has yet to truly enter the mobile space in a significant way.

Yuen summed up by urging developers to use the installed base of mobile users to their advantage. It's going to be a big market, especially for the first group that really opens it up. Like MMOs, the potential for monthly subscription makes a good business model, and in theory, this integration could breed further gaming innovation as well.

The power of the handsets is almost there, and the networks are nearing readiness for this sort of integration as well. All that's necessary is for developers to make the content to drive the industry into the future.

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