Janet Hetherington chats with mobile gaming experts on the exploding popularity of games on the go.
The platform may be small, but the impact is mighty. As telephone devices mature and the graphics on them improve, videogames for mobile phones are experiencing a dynamite rise in popularity.
"The mobile gaming industry has reached a turning point this year and grown significantly with major innovations introduced by companies such as Apple, Nokia and Google," comments Gonzague de Vallois, SVP, publishing, Gameloft. "Products introduced by these companies have transformed the gaming experience for consumers and changed the industry's business model with digital distribution. Through these new interfaces, consumers are now able to preview games and purchase them in an easy-to-use fashion from an interface that is familiar, such as the iTunes Store and the upcoming Google Marketplace."
"Likewise, many handset manufacturers are also improving the hardware and graphics capability of mobile phones, so the visual of games are being improved to a level that is very competitive to PSP," de Vallois adds.
"It's an important market, and looking back, we're likely to remember year 2008 as the year when mobile gaming really started to take off," agrees Aki Järvilehto, global head of business development, games, Nokia.
David Zemke, director of product marketing for Glu Mobile Inc., notes that mobile gaming is indeed a growth market. "It's a $4 billion market worldwide, and we're looking at $6.5 billion by 2011," Zemke says.
Games People Play
It's not just phone-obsessed teens who are playing mobile games, although they are a big part of the market. "It cuts across all age sectors," Zemke insists. "People who play mobile games like to bring the experience with them everywhere they go."
Mobile gaming is also cutting across gender lines. "We're seeing a solid adoption from a lot of different target groups and in different geographies," comments Nokia's Järvilehto. "Sometimes the results are surprising. For example, last summer, one of our studies indicated that in the United Kingdom, 55% of people playing games are female consumers."
"Mobile games are played by males and females with ages ranging from 12 to 40 years old," affirms Gameloft's de Vallois.
The games that mobile users are playing can range from those based on popular movies to original-content sports and cooking games. "We like to have a good mix of original and licensed material," Glu Mobile's Zemke says.
Glu Mobile's slate includes licensed games based on such film tie-ins as DreamWorks Animation SKG's Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, which launched worldwide in conjunction with the film's U.S. premiere on Nov. 7.
Glu Mobile is also working on the mobile game version of Monsters vs. Aliens, DreamWorks' first film produced in 3-D, which aims to reinvent the classic '50s monster movie. The action comedy film is set for domestic release on March 27, 2009, and features an all-star cast, including Reese Witherspoon as Ginormica, a larger-than-life woman, Hugh Laurie as Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D., Seth Rogen, as the jelly-like B.O.B. and Will Arnett as the half-ape, half-fish Missing Link. Kiefer Sutherland will speak for General W.R. Monger, while Stephen Colbert portrays the President of the United States.
"When you're dealing with licensing, it's an interesting process," says Zemke. "It starts from the very beginning. You try to understand what the end user wants to do in a Monsters vs. Aliens game or a Dark Knight game. You have to work with the studios, and use your own expertise to know what works and what doesn't for a mobile game."
Using that expertise, Glu Mobile developed a mobile adventure for The Dark Knight, the only game available on any platform based on the Warner Bros. Pictures movie and DC Comics character. In The Dark Knight mobile game, a reign of chaos led by the Joker has swept over Gotham City. Players must fight crime using Batman's dynamic combat moves and special gadgets and use stealth to evoke fear in the hearts of enemies.
However, bringing the larger-than-life hero to a small screen proved somewhat daunting. "The quest for better graphics is like the quest for the Holy Grail," Zemke says. "You have to be economical and efficient, and be good at understanding the problems of the platform."
For Madagascar 2 and The Dark Knight games, Zemke says that Glu Mobile used 2D elements and relied on its in-house animators and their mastery of the "pixel by pixel creation." For The Dark Knight, animating Batman's cape was a key challenge, while recreating Alex the lion's gait was important for Madagascar 2.
Batman is scheduled to make more Glue Mobile appearances. Zemke notes that Superman/Batman: Heroes United, developed and published by Glu Mobile through its licensing agreement with Warner Bros. Digital Distribution, is based on the World's Finest Duo's mythologies and is about the superheroes' quest to fight evil. The launch in winter 2008 will mark the first mobile game to feature Superman and Batman together. In addition to the game, Glu Mobile will publish additional mobile content, including wallpapers, ringtones, animated screensavers, voice tones and ringbacks.
Marvel Comics' Spider-Man and Iron Man are also blasting into the mobile scene, courtesy of Gameloft. "We have to ensure that the mobile game mirrors consumer's expectations of these popular licensed brands," comments Gameloft's de Vallois. "Our production team has to create an environment and game play that matches familiar qualities of each brand. We also work closely with the comic book writers for both Spider-Man and screenplay writers for Iron Man 2 to guarantee that the storylines match the mobile game play. Also, with improved technologies from handset manufacturers such as larger screens, touch and motion sensor capabilities, we as developers are able to enhance the gaming experience and create 2D and 3D graphics."
"Gameloft works closely with Marvel Ent. to market and promote each title," de Vallois says. "Movie studios often use videogames as a marketing tool to create pre-buzz in anticipation of a film. The Iron Man 2 mobile game is an extension of the consumer experience with the film and will be available on carrier's decks around the release date of the movie."
For some companies, creating mobile content is all in the family. mDisney, part of the Disney Interactive Media Group, has released mobile games in 2008 based on Toy Story Mania, Pure, High School Musical and Bolt. All mDisney games are sourced from Disney properties, and the Bolt mobile game (based on the new animated 3D movie) allows players to control Bolt and his super power moves -- Super Bark, Super Bite and Super Speed -- to defeat the evil Dr. Calico and save the world.
An Expansive Touch
Glu Mobile also offers original content such as Super K.O. Boxing!, Stranded, Brain Genius, Food Fight Public School and Get Cookin'. "With Get Cookin', the advent of the touch screen has been instrumental, because you use touch to select different food elements," Zemke says.
Indeed, the advent of the iPhone, iPod Touch and other touch-sensitive telephone devices have created new opportunities for mobile game developers, whose constant challenge has been to produce good graphics and sound -- a good gaming experience -- on a portable device.
"These new devices have transformed the mobile gaming experience by raising the bar with new technologies such as Touch, Accelerometer and Rich Graphics," comments Gameloft's de Vallois. "Traditional mobile games are usually 1 MB in size whereas the iPod Touch/iPhone mobile games are around 100 MB in size, the difference in size enables us to create PSP/DS quality games for these devices."
Electronic Arts (EA) game developers were challenged to produce the expansive Spore videogame universe as the mobile game, Spore Origins. In this game, designed specifically for the iPhone and iPod touch, Spore Origins uses the platforms' motion-sensing technology to let gamers navigate a primordial tidepool on a quest to evolve.
"The iPhone is first and foremost a communications device that has unique capabilities such as the accelerometer and touch screen to greatly enhance mobile game play," says Travis Boatman, VP, worldwide studios for EA Mobile. "The iPhone has some similar game capabilities as platforms like the DS and PSP, but is unique because it is not a dedicated gaming device."
"There was a great deal of collaboration between EA Mobile and the Spore team," Boatman says. "The unique capabilities of the iPhone and iPod Touch offer a new mobile gaming experience through the use of their touch screens, motion sensors, and high-definition graphics. Spore Origins uses the iPhone accelerometer to move through the primordial ooze and the pinch and poke feature in the creature editor."
As for other EA mobile games, Boatman notes, "Scrabble leverages the touch feature to move tiles and the accelerometer to shake up your tiles and help you discover words on your tray. The WiFi feature allows two players to battle it out via a WiFi connection. Tetris leverages the touch feature to drag, flick and poke pieces into place on the game board. Shake is also used to launch the wrecking balls. Games previously announced but not yet launched will also take advantage of these unique capabilities."
EA Mobile has several other titles in development for the iPhone and iPod touch. These include Yahtzee Adventures, EA Mini Golf, Lemonade Tycoon, Mahjong, Monopoly: Here & Now the World Edition, SimCity, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09, Need for Speed Undercover and The Sims 3.
However, it's not just touch phones that are offering better graphics and game play. "Actually, I think the key surprise is how much we can do in terms of graphics with the mobile phones that are already in the marketplace," says Nokia's Järvilehto. "If you look at some of our latest games -- like the recently shipped game One from Digital Legends and Nokia Publishing -- I'd argue that this game really sets a new benchmark on high-quality graphics on mobile platforms. In fact, this is probably the most visually compelling game ever created on mobile phones. So I think we're heading into the right direction."
For One, Järvilehto comments that Nokia used motion capture. "This is very similar to what you see on console or PC games and it's amazing that mobile games really are this sophisticated nowadays," he adds.
"In general, I'm convinced that hardware acceleration and OpenGL ES 2.0 (shaders, programmability, finally!) really is going to be key for new radically better visual user experiences," Järvilehto says. "We'll get there in time, and I'm really looking forward to that."
Another feature mobile phones are offering is game accessibility. "You can order right through your phone," says Glu Mobile's Zemke. "It's really easy. You just follow the menu keys to download."
For gamers who like to play on the go, an average Glu Mobile game lasts two to four or five hours, according to Zemke. "Mobile gamers enjoy smaller increments of game play," he says. The games ordered can range from $5.99 to $7.99 depending on the carrier, and players can have the game as long as they have the phone. "There is also a subscription service that costs $2.99 and players can cancel once they're done playing," Zemke says.
Gameloft's de Vallois reports that Gameloft games range from $1.99 to $9.99 and can be purchased through their carriers' decks or through a digital distribution interface such as iTunes. "Mobile games are available anytime from 12 to 18 months or longer on the carrier's decks based on the popularity of the title," he says. "Once downloaded, the mobile game is available throughout the lifetime of the handset."
Nokia's Järvilehto notes that N-Gage games sold through Nokia channels cost typically between 6 and 10 euros depending on local taxes and can be bought with a credit card or charged to an operator subscription where operator billing is available. "N-Gage titles are premium priced, so higher than your typical Java game -- but ultimately the pricing is up to the publisher/operator/retailer," Järvilehto says. "The application itself is free and is embedded on select Nokia devices and available for free download on the N-Gage site. Once you purchase the game, it's yours to keep."
Attracting customers is another matter. When it comes to mobile gaming, new promotional venues are being explored.
"We are doing a lot of new, innovative stuff to promote the games," Järvilehto continues. "As a couple of examples, there's a Flash-based web demo of Dirk Dagger and the Fallen Idol, which is available at
Kongregate or almost any other flash portal. Another good example is Reset Generation online presence, where we've gone so far that you can actually play the game on a widget, which can be incorporated to any web page, blog, Facebook and so on. This is really cool, because the PC players can play against the mobile N-Gage players."
"There's a ton of other things starting from advertising, retail, events, SMSs, competitions, realtime tournaments and so on," Järvilehto adds. "Of course, a really effective way to do promotion is in-box promotion, where we include many of our games to new N-Gage compatible phones."
"When it comes to promotion, we work with our carriers," says Glu Mobile's Zemke. "We utilize banners, sweepstakes, and we also do our own advertising to grow the audience. In addition, when we launch a [licensed] game, we partner with the studio to hit a wider audience. We take advantage to coincide with a movie release."
It is now fairly typical to see videogame partners immediately associated with new movies. EA's Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince game is being touted as an interactive extension of the film, and it will be available on multiple platforms. In the game, players return to Hogwarts to help Harry survive a fraught sixth year. They can engage in wizard duels, mix and brew magical ingredients in Potions class and take to the air to lead the Gryffindor Quidditch team to victory. Developed by EA's Bright Light Studio, the Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince game is scheduled for release summer 2009 for the Wii, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, PSP, Nintendo DS, Windows PC, Macintosh and mobile devices.
"We believe the user is playing our games on multiple platforms and each platform helps promote another," says EA Mobile's Boatman. "If you look in the iPhone games, some already have links to learn more about the other platforms within the 'more games' section. The console, PC and Mac versions continue to carry messaging about the availability of the mobile counterpart. Cross-promotion also goes both ways on our websites."
While next-generation videogames are moving toward using movie music and name actors' voice-overs, mobile games again have a different approach. "The challenge with mobile games is that we have sound size limitations," says Glu Mobile's Zemke. "While we don't use voice actors, we do use music a lot. We have to think about what will take up the majority of space. We have to think about the visuals and the sound -- what will create the richer experience."
When a licensed product is involved, Zemke says, "we will use music from the license or, if not, we will compose in consultation."
"Sounds and voices in a mobile game enhance the gaming experience for player especially as more consumers plug into their handsets using ear buds," notes Gameloft's de Vallois. "Some titles are also music-specific such as Guitar Rock Tour, which is a rhythm game that replicates all the feelings of playing guitar and drums like a rock star."
Overcoming limitations means that mobile gaming developers are invested in innovation. In April 2008, Nokia launched The Mobile Games Innovation Challenge to encourage the development of innovative game concepts and to help propel mobile gaming with handheld devices into an exciting future. The Challenge called for mobile game developers to submit concepts that will help drive mobile gaming to the next level, relying on the advanced features and functionalities of N-Gage-compatible devices, and Java- or Symbian-based Series 40 or S60 devices from Nokia.
Nokia recognized Ghostwire, by A Different Game from Sweden, in October 2008 as the top prize winner of the Challenge. Ghostwire is a casual collection and adventure game, where players use the unique features of the mobile device to communicate with the world of ghosts. Ghostwire also features an augmented reality-powered mini-game, where players can use the camera on their mobile device to find ghosts.
"The judges were all impressed by this 'made for mobile', refreshing game, using augmented reality in a surprising way," says Järvilehto. "Your mobile device helps you to discover and actually see a hidden world of mysteries and ghosts, to communicate with them, to collect them and to, as the makers state, give them peace."
"One thing which we typically should avoid in mobile games it trying to copy the 'living room experience' to the mobile environments," Järvilehto comments. "This just isn't a lot of fun. Concepts like Ghostwire, concepts which do something genuinely new and innovative, really are the ones which have a chance to win over the hearts and minds of consumers."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a Ginger Cat, Heidi.