What's New In Mobile Games?

So, after being almost entirely disconnected from the mobile games industry for some quite considerable time, I'm back in - sort of. In a few days I will officially be CCO (that's American for Creative Director) of our new company. When I have something interesting to tell you about that I will. For now I'll just say that it's not really mobile games, although maybe it is. But mobile games is what I want to talk about now.

A few days ago the Develop Conference kicked off in Brighton (well it began; kicked off implies some sort of massive fight between two warring gangs - actually quite apt given the location). Day one is dedicated to mobile, and it was the first games industry conference I have attended for nearly three years.

Reading this piece is what prompted me to comment here. Jon's writing here is pure factual coverage, devoid of opinion (and I'm sure he does have opinions). I have opinions - here are some.

Chris White's keynote left me feeling like I was in a time-warp. His talk of handset fragmentation, porting difficulties, power disparity, circumventing operators and harnessing mobile's true strengths (connectivity, on-board cameras, ubiquity) were all things we spoke about at length at GDC in 2001. He then went on to say that developers must ensure that mobile's unique strengths are used to enhance the customer's experience, and are not just gimmicks. To demonstrate this we were shown a Hangman game that featured badly cropped camera phone photos. I rest my case.

I shouldn't be too harsh. Glu are an excellent organisation, one of the leaders in the industry. Chris was an eloquent speaker. I just felt so uninspired. Mobile games certainly haven't moved on much since I left IOMO, and to be honest they haven't moved on much since we developed some of the first all those years ago. The bottom line is: you're not going to see innovation from fully fledged mobile developers all the while that operators demand film licences and maximum handset coverage. And the smaller developers (those not having to worry about 20 man porting and QA departments) are unlikely to be entertained by the operators.

Mark Burk then gave an engaging talk which revealed some of M-Metrics' data from the last six months. This information could be useful in deciding how mobile games are sold and marketed, but what can developers do about it? Currently only the operators make those kind of calls.

Next a panel in which representatives from four UK operators were joined by one from a publisher. Unfortunately the operators had seemingly all taken a shot of horse tranquilliser and Fergus (the publisher) clearly had a gun held to his back. The theme was co-operative initiatives and they covered Unified Release Dates (wow), Handset Categorisation (why) and Enabling Cross Network Communities (it already exists, it's called the Internet). But maybe the only reason I'm down on them is because they misunderstood the gist of my question and left me looking like an opinionated fool (not hard).

Operators: You are selling a completely new type of product through an hitherto non-exist channel. Don't classify yourself as a shop and certainly don't say "We've tried all the standard retail methods, try-before-you-by, two-for-one etc.". See XBox Live, PopCap, Hangame.

After lunch Nokia revealed some more info about the new N-Gage platform. I was intimately involved with their first stab at N-Gage and looked on with keen interest. It's clear that they're trying to do XBox Live for mobile and their platform should certainly offer that opportunity (one thing Nokia does well is UI). However, I can't help wondering if they just didn't notice that Sony Ericsson seem to have stolen most of their thunder (and market share).

After a couple more sessions from Paul Gouge (very slick) and John Chasey (who?) the day was rounded off by Stuart Dredge who gave us 20 Hot Trends In Mobile Games. I think he was very astute and looking down the list I can see nine of the points are pretty central to our new company's plans. Now I'm sure that plenty of other people in the industry share our aspirations. I hope they do - if Develop Mobile has nothing new to say next year then I think this industry really will have missed its chance.

It's already in danger of being the next Virtual Reality.