GDC Mobile 2005: Maturation Before Innovation
By Justin Hall, Fri Mar 18 08:30:00 GMT 2005

Mobile games had a stronger presence than ever at the Game Developer's Conference, but hopefully, innovation will continue in spite of this legitimacy.

Sixteen years old, the Game Developer's Conference (GDC) is now the predominant yearly meeting to discuss creating digital play. Long-haired game developers still outnumber guys in blue button-down shirts who are buying and selling their ideas, except at GDC Mobile, where the crowd is unusually well-dressed. Perhaps it's the sense that there are great opportunities available in mobile gaming for those people ready to do business.

Mobile-phone gaming is a recent addition to the GDC conversation. Five years ago, mobile games were worth a single session; now two days at the start of the GDC are taken up with dozens of panels and discussions on mobile entertainment. As mobile games have evolved, mobile game discourse has broadened.

But not so broad to consider the looming challenges from Sony PSP and Nintendo DS, or the upstart Gizmondo, for that matter. These devices were seldom mentioned at GDC Mobile. If your PSP or DS has a Wi-Fi connection, isn't it part of the mobile Internet? Not at GDC Mobile; the twitching fingers of gamers there were tightly wrapped around phones. The PSP and the DS have existing console-manufacturer business models and development cycles from which to draw, while mobile phone games are still reaching for their routine.

The Medium of the Mobile

At least phones have widespread networks to work with, which brings up the old question of multiplayer play for mobile. GDC Mobile hosted a lively exchange on that subject: "Tales from the Multiplayer Frontier." For a mobile entertainment conference based in America, the session demonstrated just how far we've come, with actual examples to discuss. In years past, mobile multiplayer was something people were reaching for. This year, the problem seemed to be that many developers felt they had already arrived.

With racing games where you run against replays of your friends' races, and versions of the game show Family Feud for groups online, developers were proud of their ability to give people the chance to play together. But is multiplayer worth the extra development cost? Gary Ban of Summus pointed out that his company's Texas Hold'em Poker has been wildly popular in multiplayer mode; they've made back ten times their initial development budget of $175,000 in under eight months.

Notably absent from this discussion were mobile multiplayer developers from Japan or Korea, where the technology and networks support richer multiplayer experiences and real world/virtual world connections. SquareEnix presented its Final Fantasy: Before Crisis multiplayer game, which uses phone cameras in gameplay, in a separate session at the GDC Mobile. More innovation should be coming soon from East Asia, as flat-rate data plans there give rise to more sustained online gaming.

Online Family Feud or racing shadows of cars seemed less pioneering in comparison to the likes of Mogi or Final Fantasy: Before Crisis. Audience members lined up to ask questions, demanding some vision of multiplayer game design that might fire them up for the future. As Randy Angle, a designer with Pronto Games put it, "How can we make games that emphasize being more connected?"

Some promising signs were in evidence at the "World Tour of Mobile Games," where David "DC" Collier and Matthew Bellows played games from around the world on their native handsets. In their rapid-fire delivery, they demonstrated tantalizing bits of second-generation location-based games, including BotFighters 2 and UnderCover 2 -- both of which promised urban Europeans the chance to play against real people arrayed in cities and on computers tracking objects and people across locations.

New Distribution and the Rise of Mobile Games Marketing

During GDC Mobile and during the rest of the GDC, panelists decried the need for alternative distribution and marketing channels: other ways to get the word out and get games into the hands of players.

Bellows and Collier's "World Tour of Mobile Games" also shed some exciting insights in this area. Many game companies in Japan are eschewing the big production, $5 one-off games, offering instead a package of many smaller mobile games for a monthly subscription. Collier showed a mahjong game from Japan featuring racy cartoons. It isn't listed on the carriers' menus but has been able to use their mobile content payment systems. They've had 100,000 downloads at about $5 a game, for a relatively simple piece of software, proving that opening up billing systems can give some content a backdoor into viable distribution.

Also during the world tour, Collier demonstrated some innovative means of marketing games in Japan. There, the Flash media player is included on some handsets, providing a platform for short animations promoting mobile games. In addition, players can download demos and video clips of games to their mobile phones, with promotion and play taking place on the same device.

Collier was optimistic that these rich pre-purchase experiences of mobile gaming will cater more to players eager to learn about games before they buy them, hopefully bringing more curious but hesitant players to the market. So far, in most countries, downloading games has been through limited means, usually a menu of titles with a short text description at best. Japanese carrier KDDI has been addressing that problem by providing a BREW-based multimedia street interface called "EZ game Street" to stroll and browse through available games, using icons and images as well as text. In addition, the service will study gaming preferences and make recommendations to players.

Old Problems, New Solutions

Diverse business models and mobile phone games incorporated with buddy lists and location-based technologies -- there's plenty of room for innovation in the mobile industry. Developing methods for mobile marketing, and establishing a benchmark for basic multiplayer are both positive signs from this year's conference.

The mobile phone as a medium for games still has technology limits to push -- 3D graphics, audio processing. Hopefully the markets and mindsets will evolve as fast as the handset technology, giving game developers a broader platform for innovation.