mobile mutliplayer games – challenges and opportunities ..

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This blog entry(acticle) is derieved from a forthcoming version of OpenGardens . I welcome comments and feedback.

Introduction

This blog entry (article) is derived from a forthcoming version of OpenGardens (www.opengardens.futuretext.com). I welcome comments and feedback.

Multiplayer games are a natural fit with mobile devices due to their inherent potential for communication such as buddy lists, messaging, chat etc. Because they bring so many elements together (gaming, Bluetooth, location based services etc), they are, by definition, more complex than mobile single player games.

While single player games have been popular on mobile devices, I believe that the real potential of gaming on mobile devices lies in multiplayer games – simply because a mobile device is all about communication and successful multiplayer games are based on user interaction(hence communication)

However, firstly, what is a mobile multiplayer game? Obviously, from the name itself – the game must be ‘mobile’ and ‘more than one player can play it’. But, that definition hides many more aspects as we see below – for example – is a game which spans the Internet and mobile – a ‘mobile’ multiplayer game or ‘an internet based game with a mobile component’? Mobile multiplayer games also have some unique issues such as latency, the involvement of community, the impact of IP charges and so on.

Gaming, in general, originates from the video gaming industry. The video gaming industry is already mature and rivals the movie and the music industry in terms of revenue. Traditionally, there have been three ways video games have been played – Console gaming (PS2, Xbox etc), PC gaming and handheld games (Nintendo gameboy device). Mobile games were seen as a fourth platform for video games.

Most mobile games today are single player games developed using Java or BREW. The game is downloaded on the mobile device as an application and costs under £5/$5. Many popular games are based on brands such as ‘Harry Potter’/’Lord of the ring’ etc. Popular genres include arcade games, sports games and fast action games. Similar to gaming on console and the PC, the players are predominantly male. Many mobile games seen today have been straightforward conversion of more popular games such as the older arcade games. The industry model is also similar to that of console gaming – aim for a few big hits but also include a large number of titles selling modestly.

Within the mobile applications industry, mobile gaming is a relatively mature segment. There are well defined channels to market, distribution models and aggregators. As the industry matures, it is undergoing consolidation with a spate of recent takeovers (for example infospace taking over www.iomo.com and sorrent merging with www.macrospace.com).

In contrast, the market for mobile multiplayer games are still nascent – even in mature markets like Japan and Korea. In comparison to single player games, multiplayer games also require a much higher rate of initial investment. Inspite of these two factors – I believe that mobile multiplayer games offer potential for new entrants because of the following reasons:

a) Although there are still many limitations in place, mobile multiplayer games could benefit from the network effect

b) The potential of creating communities around multiplayer games offers competitive advantages to the early entrant

c) Localised gaming via Bluetooth is possible which overcomes many of the problems associated with deploying a game at an operator(although Bluetooth introduces it’s own set of problems like the lack of an integrated billing system, dependence on location etc)

d) Many mobile multiplayer games also have a ‘web’ component. Thus, the game itself could be distributed from the Internet with the mobile component as an addendum

e) Unlike the PC and console gaming models, mobile gaming has a much larger player audience. In fact, simple, casual games targeting a large section of the population offer the best chance for success as we discuss below

In the following sections, let us consider some key factors that influence the industry at the moment and the opportunities for new entrants. We discuss mobile multiplayer games in greater detail because they combine many different facets of mobility for example community, location etc.

A separate category?

Is the mobile multiplayer game a separate category or is it an addendum to the existing gaming platforms on the web?

Certainly, many mobile multiplayer games also have a web component. Adding a strong web component enables the game to be far more interesting and potentially targets a large user base. In addition, the combination of mobility, location based services, multiplayer games and social networking has the capacity to produce a new type of game which utilises a virtual environment mapped to a physical environment (often a city). Typically, the virtual environment comprises players using a combination of a mobile device and the web.

One of the best known examples is the mogi game (Japan) www.mogimogi.com .

The basic idea is simple – It’s a game ‘on the move’. You pick up ‘virtual’ items. You trade them with other players. It also uses a combination of the web and mobile experience. The web is used for functions such as chatting.

Mogi is also unique in the use of the web to differentiate between casual gamers and hardcore gamers. Essentially, the casual player is the one on the move while the hardcore player is the one who ‘directs’ the casual players from the web console. Effectively, this brings a greater number of players into the game.

I believe that the mobile multiplayer game is not a distinct category. It will be an offshoot of gaming on the web. This categorisation is important because it determines the channels to market and also the relative importance of the mobile operators in the equation. The combination of the web and mobility will be beneficial to all players in the industry.

Next generation portable gaming devices

While we have discussed mobile multiplayer games as an evolution of existing mobile single player games, a whole new class of games are entering the market. These originate from the console industry and include portable gaming devices like the Sony PSP and the Nintendo Gameboy DS (we will call them ‘portable gaming devices to distinguish from mobile phones used to play games).

Benefiting from the experience of the console gaming industry, portable gaming devices already have a rich interface and a catalogue of games that they can draw on. Crucially, they use WiFi for the multi-user communication (as opposed to the telecoms network). This allows them to bypass the vagaries of the telecoms network but at the same time they are hampered by the limitations of WiFi because they can only operate within short distances of the WiFi access point.

It’s difficult to say how the market will evolve. My view is – these two classes of games(i.e. mobile multiplayer games and portable gaming devices) will end up serving different classes of customers. Mobile multiplayer games will lean towards casual games whereas the portable gaming devices will attract the more hardcore, immersive gamer.

Operators and mobile multiplayer games

Operators have a love / apathy relationship with mobile multiplayer games.

On one hand, mobile multiplayer games could generate a lot of traffic. But the operators want to keep all traffic charges. But developers would like to share a portion of that traffic. Currently, since developers do not get a share of any IP traffic, they try to get an upfront fee from the customer. As a result, the uptake is lower.

Secondly, the increased use of the web means that the role of the mobile operator is reduced when it comes to the multiplayer game. Bluetooth gaming also has the same impact on the mobile operators.

Hence, overall, you don’t see many in the mobile operator community too enthusiastic about mobile multiplayer gaming.

The impact of technology

In this section, we discuss three ways in which technology impacts the mobile multiplayer games industry

Critical mass: Single player mobile games differ from multiplayer mobile games in their emphasis on technology. For single player games, the rich user experience is important. For multiplayer games, the community/interaction is important. Thus, the winner of the game in multiplayer mobile applications – is the one who achieves critical mass. In general, simpler technologies lend themselves more to a critical mass application. In Europe and USA, at the moment, that is SMS/WAP.

Latency: Latency is the time difference between the time a machine makes a request to the time it receives a response. Latency is critical in fast action games. Many successful PC and console games are fast action games. When the request/response occurs over the air network, latency is high i.e. the amount of time is longer. This means, fast action games are not suitable for mobile multiplayer gaming – with the exception of Bluetooth based games. In case of Bluetooth games, latency is acceptable enough for mobile multiplayer games. Other genres are not affected by latency such as turn based games.

Devices: Briefly, the key issue is – will players buy ‘gaming only’ devices? A gaming only device (which may or may not function as a phone) would appeal to the hardcore gamers. Hardcore gamers have traditionally driven the console gaming industry setting off a virtuous cycle of richer features and more expensive hardware. It’s too early to say if this would play out on mobile devices

Hardcore gamers vs. casual gamers

Hardcore gamers have always driven the uptake of console gaming. Cinematic, immersive, richer games have led to better hardware.

However, the mobile device does not lend itself well to immersive, extended gameplay. In the section on the impact of brands, we also pointed out that casual gamers are becoming more important and popular.

The casual games model is much more suited to mobile gaming due to its simpler learning curve, familiar concepts etc. By extension, we believe that casual gaming will also be popular with multiplayer games. Multiplayer versions of casual games are already popular on the web and can be easily extended to the mobile device.

Specialised mobile gaming devices

The console gaming industry is driven by the hardcore gamers who are increasingly more demanding in their desire for richer, more impressive games. This sets off a virtuous cycle with more powerful hardware, richer graphics etc.

Most handsets are not mobile gaming devices i.e. they are not built ground up for the purpose of playing mobile games. The first serious attempt to create a mobile device whose goal was primarily to play games (rather than as a phone) was the N-Gage from Nokia.

Gizmondo is another such device. Other devices such as Sony PSP and Nintendo GameBoy are handheld gaming devices but provide connectivity through WiFi and not the cellular network.

The console gaming industry is well defined and predictable with hardware upgrades every four years and well defined channels to market (mainly retail). With richer interfaces and powerful hardware, the play times for console games are increasing. They are also becoming more immersive and cinematic. In contrast, the mobile multiplayer games are more suited towards the casual gamers. Currently, the companies displaying an interest in mobile multiplayer games have their roots in PC or console gaming. The initial single player user base for mobile games is also familiar with PC/console gaming.

The N-gage from Nokia was the first attempt to create a ‘gaming only’ device. N-gage received a lot of negative press at its launch – mainly due to its awkward ‘taco like’ shape and its requirement to change game cards. However, the N-gage was an experiment at many levels – and a worthy one! The N-gage introduced many features for the first time – Bluetooth gaming, multiplayer gaming, a different channel to market(retail), richer device capabilities needed for a good gaming experience etc.

We believe that there are two separate market segments here – the hardcore gamer who could be attracted to the specialised devices and the casual gamer who will use their phone to play simpler games.

The lack of ‘unlimited use’ priceplan

The lack of ‘unlimited use’ pricing is hindering many applications especially mobile multiplayer games. Indeed in many markets we do have unlimited use pricing today but the price point (monthly fee) is very high for general consumer adoption. Operators are playing a delicate balancing game here. Clearly as 3G becomes more prevalent, the available bandwidth exists. But, allowing people to use all the bandwidth they want at a cheap rate may lead to totally disruptive applications such as mobile VOIP, which can cannibalise existing revenue.

Thus, unlimited use data pricing is a critical issue and should be watched carefully. The market in which we see unlimited data use at low cost, is going to see a hockey stick effect in mobile data usage and applications such as mobile multiplayer gaming.

Multiplayer gaming platforms and standards

There are some companies who offer mobile multiplayer gaming platforms (just like location management platforms, SMScs etc). Mostly, these are targeted towards the mobile operator but some also have developer programs.

The companies offering platforms targeting mobile multiplayer games include:

Provision X technology from glu(formerly macrospace) , Kayak interactive , Terraplay: and Nokia’s SNAP platform – used for N-gage.

The mobile games interoperability forum is creating standards for mobile multiplayer games.

Mobile multiplayer games examples

Some well known mobile multiplayer games include

Samurai Romanesque: NTT DoCoMo’s first mobile massively multiplayer online role playing game

mogi mogi : – A mobile multiplayer game from Japan combining location, web interaction etc

Ultima Online Mobile :The mobile version of the popular online role playing game

Botfighters : popular SMS based mobile multiplayer game

Pocket kingdom for N-gage: – The first mobile multiplayer online role playing game

Conclusions

We have covered many aspects of mobile multiplayer games above. As an application, I find it very interesting especially because mobile multiplayer games can span both the web and mobile. They also offer scope for new entrants and any company who can get mobile multiplayer games right stands to make a lot of money especially if they can create a successful community (which offers a strong barrier to entry).

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