HomeMobile EuropeNot playing games

    Not playing games


    The market predictions are there, but the phone capabilities and routes to market still need improvement, the experts say. Keith Dyer takes a top level view of mobile gaming, and the steps that are being taken to fulfil its potential.

    In all the broad world of mobile applications that mobile operators hope will drive up data revenues, mobile gaming stands high as a target application. Phones are produced and marketed specifically as gaming phones, and gaming is always mentioned in the list of things mobile customers will be able to do better on third generation networks.

    The analysts certainly still feel that more sophisticated handsets will fuel some pretty fat revenues. Frost & Sullivan reckon that revenues from the European mobile gaming market will grow from just under $800.79 million back in 2002 to just below $7 billion in 2006. That’s a staggering amount of growth, although it should be noted not everyone agrees with the number. The Wireless World Forum puts the global mobile games market at only $540 million this year, and sees that climbing to “only” $1.93 billion in 2006. Graham Brown, the forum’s research director, says the forum’s estimates are on the conservative side, being based on the growth of the electronic games industry over the last 20 years.

    So what gives the more bullish analysts such confidence? Jan ten Sythoff, industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, notes that the most potent driving force behind growth in the European mobile gaming industry is the increasing number of people with games capable devices, as well as the increasing availability of quality games titles.

    These twin drivers are affecting every sector of the mobile gaming industry, from chipset design at the hardware level, to software that resides on handsets, to the growth of mobile games publishers and service providers at the customer-facing end. Until now the media gaming sector has been dominant. This is an industry term for the physical delivery of games onto consoles and terminal. But increasingly, the development of Java has injected life into the over the air (OTA) sector, delivering games to the phone over the mobile network. By the end of the 2006, Frost & Sullivan thinks the OTA sector will account for 88.3% of total sales.

    So who are these people who are hoped to drive this extraordinary growth in revenues from gaming? Frost & Sullivan divides the European mobile gaming market into hard-core gamers, the true game fanatics, and casual, occasional gamers. Casual gamers are filling in time while travelling, waiting and other such spare moments. Hard-core gamers are those that will make time for gaming specifically in their day. Typically, a media game will cost between $25 and $45, while an OTA game can cost between $15 (for a branded Symbian game) and $0.25 for a simple SMS quiz.

    Not that it is quite as simplistic as this. Ten Sythoff agrees that this analysis is simplistic. “These two segments will increasingly converge, particularly with OTA gaming moving closer to the higher end media games, facilitated by the technical improvement of handsets, increasing network bandwidth and competition driving the quality and capability of mobile gaming,” he adds.

    By the end of 2006, mobile gaming is expected to represent around five percent of total operator wireless data revenues, equating to around 30% of total video gaming revenue. Around 50% of devices sold in 2003 are download-enabled, while all operators have invested into offering gaming and other content services. “Operators have also set up revenue share agreements such that games developers and publishers have a solid business model, and are therefore motivated to continue developing quality games,” ten Sythoff continues.

    However, mobile gaming is and will be a way of filling in time for most subscribers. As such, there is a limit to how often users will download a game, and how much time they have to play it. To drive uptake, interactive capabilities, a wide selection of gaming types to appeal to a wider user base, as well as other elements which mobile technologies enable, must be integrated to expand interest in mobile
    .Perhaps one of the biggest question marks hovering over the mobile gaming (and indeed many other mobile content) industries, is which channel to the subscriber will ultimately reign.
    Will the end-user choose to order a mobile game through the operator owned portal, or will other channels win?

    Network operators are the predominant channel to market at present for mobile gaming, and will remain so, but other channels such as independent portals and interactive TV are emerging as strong alternatives and will drive market growth.

    The strong grip that operators have had on the market is of a concern to Martin Forsling, ceo of Synergenix. Synergenix is a company that sits on both sides of the handset vendor, mobile operator divide. Its Mophun gaming engine is integrated in many mobile phones, and the company is also a gaming publisher and service provider for mobile operators.

    “So far the introduction of games services has been due to the operators — and it takes time for an operator to introduce a service,” Forsling says, “We’ve only seen the start so far. In the future we will see far more community type games being more and more important.
    Also there will be a greater demand for games with more dynamic data and behaviour.”

    Forsling sees the payment and business models changing, so that perhaps a customer pays once he has passed a certain level on  a game, to download the next ten levels, for example. “On the service level it will be all about introducing a more innovative way of using the mobile game,” he says.

    But it is in the handset itself that the real advancements are yet to be made. Forsling says that manufacturers have as yet not really shown the potential of embedding high quality games in phones. “Handset manufacturers’ chief concerns at the moment are the feature of 3D and specialist multiplayer content.”

    The problem for handset manufacturers is that such features are very power-hungry on the phone. Forsling says that engines such as Mophun are all about “squeezing juice out of the hardware.” “We have to maximise hardware power to the game developer on top of security and all the  other necessary applications, etc. Where the phone has limitations, games will always be hungry for performance,” he explains.

    “Screen acceleration is really needed for MPEG encoding and decoding on phones — gaming is actually sort of a parasitic function,” Adrian Sack of Ideaworks3 concurs, speaking at a recent games conference, says. Sack thinks that 3D accelerated handsets will be the norm by Christmas 2006, although he also warns that “3D is a dangerous development in some ways, because it will push development budgets through the roof.”

    Forsling says that at the moment customers are not quite so savvy as to the quality of games — saying that there is yet to be a real mass media community around mobile gaming. But he says awareness is beginning. “Users are beginning to look for more quality from games. At some point memory capacity will become better and better so game quality will be more of an issue.”

    Forsling says this is where companies such as his, who rival the standard J2ME platforms in most phones, will be able to add value. “It’s better to have a ‘Java Extreme’ where we can differentiate on quality. In a phone a high performance engine can make quality superior,” he says. The big step forward will come when the hardware itself, the chipsets, is embedded with the functionalities such as support for 3D. Forsling himself says, “It’s what we are all waiting for. Hardware applications will be used as soon as they have a benefit in the phone. They’re not there but the gaming industry is waiting for it to happen. Also they will help to distinguish a handset in one area  — and it is very important for handset manufacturers to find a niche and cater specifically for a specific group of users.”

    In recent weeks and months Samsung, Nvidia, Qualcomm and the other big chip makers have started to “announce” chips which support 3D graphics. Nvidia has teamed up with HI Corporation to incorporate HI’s (J2ME API equipped) 3D acceleration solution on Nvidia’s GoForce architecture.

    Samsung has said a chip that can provide the bandwidth needed for 3D gaming will be available in the second half of 2004.
    “Samsung is aggressively addressing the challenges presented by the new mobile frontier,” said Ivan Greenberg, director of strategic marketing at Samsung Semiconductor. “3D gaming on handsets is expected to become commonplace by 2006 and Samsung’s new Mobile DDR x 32 solution will enable handset designers and game developers to unleash the full potential of their mobile 3D pipelines and gaming applications,” he proclaims.

    Qualcomm, which is targeting Europe heavily with its BREW development platform, has already targeted gaming as one key area for European application developers. Integration with its chip solutions is all part of the plan to open up the European market. It’s going to be some ride. And for gaming, it’s only just begun.