There’s been a pretty good follow-up to my post criticizing quality of some mobile phone games I’d bought. Some of the comments came from mobile phone developers, generally agreeing that current quality is poor, but pointing out that the phone I’m using is mediocre, and that given time for Moore’s Law to kick in, quality will improve.
I generally agree with that, but still see mobile phone gaming as being pretty limited for the foreseeable future.
Sure, processors will get faster and screens sharper, which will at least mean the games will show prettier pictures and animations. But that’s only part of the problem.
I see several remaining issues where the primary purpose of a cell phone (for the user – making calls, for the carriers and publishers – making money), conflicts with the goal of making good games.
1) Small screens. Physically small screens are not much fun for games, even if the resolution gets better than it is now. This is not only true for cell phones – the GBA lite (the little keychain-sized GameBoy) is a failure, I think, largely because those of us over the age of 9 have thumbs too large and eyes too old to work a device so small.
2) Poor buttons/controls. To play any but the most limited games, you really need some kind of D-Pad, that’s raised up at least 1 and preferably 2-3 millimeters from the underlying surface, plus 1-4 secondary buttons, also raised and easy to locate with your thumbs. But this conflicts in a major way with the numeric keypad layout, and also with the best-case form factor for a cell-phone (flat, tightly spaced buttons, allowing for a thin, small phone).
Yes, there may very well be “gamer’s phones” (like the current Nokia N-Gage), willing to sacrifice cell-phone mobility and utility for a better gaming experience. But these will likely remain niche products. The other 98% of the audience, who want a good small cell phone, and if it plays good games, maybe they’ll try them too. But these consumers won’t buy an inferior phone just for those gaming capabilities, and as a result, their gaming experience will be poor.
There are too many people taking a bite of the revenue stream, resulting in too little money actually reaching the developers making the games. (Warning, I’m no expert on mobile gaming standard royalty rates, so somebody can comment and fill in my fuzzy/erroneous details)
Start with the low price for cell phone games – $5.99 seems to be standard. That’s the smallest standard price, by far, in any area of gaming. There’s not much money for anybody in the value chain unless the volumes are huge, and because of the poor game quality, that seems ulikely.
Now you’ve got the carriers taking their bite at the apple. Because the carriers have nearly complete control over what games the user can see, they have complete negotiating power with the publishers, and presumably take the lion’s share of the revenue. I’m gonna guess that a standard deal is something like 60/40 (carriers get the 60).
Of that remaining 40% (i.e. ~$2.40), publishers need to pay a developer and a licensor. Cell phone games are small, well suited for entrepreneurial small teams to make, but again, with a limited number of major publishers, I suspect the developers get hosed and only get a fraction of the money.
But the publishers are not the only ones taking a cut of that $2.40 before the develop sees it. The market for mobile games is VERY heavily driven by games coming in from other sources – either PC casual games, console games, or movie licenses and such. Here’s a top 10 list from this past November (source):
1 TETRIS ® – JAMDAT
2 EA SPORTS TM TIGER WOODS PGA TOUR ® GOLF 2005 – IPLAY
3 DOOM RPG – JAMDAT
4 PACMAN – NAMCO
5 BLOCK BREAKER DELUXE – GAMELOFT
6 3D POOL – IPLAY
7 MONOPOLY – IFONE
8 EA SPORTS TM FIFA FOOTBALL 2005 MIE – IPLAY
9 THE WEAKEST LINK – IPLAY
10 MIDNIGHT BOWLING – GAMELOFT
Seven of the ten appear to be licensed. The licensor will certainly want a significant cut, too.
So, you’ve got 3 parties (publisher, developer, licensor), slicing and dicing $2.40 per game. There’s just not much money in the pot, and therefore not much to develop ambitious, high quality games.
And a lot of that money has to be spent on porting and testing across the myriad handsets.
So, yes, the cell phones may improve in technical capability (as consoles did from PS1 to PS2 to PS3). But I wonder if developers will have the budget to exploit that power.
Limited Incentive For Quality
The current business model does not provide much positive feedback for high quality games.
In console gaming, the developer must create a high quality game to generate buzz and favorable reviews – the primary drivers of sales in that segment.
In casual downloadable PC games, the developer must create a high quality game to ensure a good conversion rate – the primary driver of sales in that segment.
But in mobile gaming, I doubt many users read reviews, and most games right now must be purchased outright (i.e. no ‘try and buy’), so overall, there’s not nearly as much incentive to create a good game. Rather, the emphasis is on a recognizable license of some sort.
So a developer/publisher is not strongly rewarded for any particular game being good, thus encouraging quickie ports and such, that aren’t much fun for the user, thus ‘burning’ the user on the experience and discouraging them from trying further mobile games.
OK, that’s an overly long essay already. I had some further points about the concept of digital convergence being a bit of a fallacy (disproven by the iPod and the strength of dedicated game consoles versus do-everything PCs), but I’ll save those for another post.
I welcome comments from everyone, especially those in the mobile games industry. I am admittedly not well versed in the technology or business models at play, so please correct my analysis above where I’m way off-track.