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This E3 developer track session, subtitled "How the traditional Game Industry is Moving into Uncharted Territory and What it Means for Your Business", and moderated by Levi Buchanan of IGN Wireless, featured panelists including Tim Walsh of THQ Wireless, John Batter of EA Mobile, Ichiro Otobe of Square Enix, Larry Shapiro of Walt Disney Internet Group, and David Gosen of I-play, and started with an inalienable fact: the mobile market is expanding, a fact that any mobile developer, publisher, or carrier will be glad to impart.
This is largely attributed to the casual or "mainstream" gamers as audience - the hardcore console player has still yet to adopt the cellphone as a gaming device on a significant level. But the market is expanding in two main ways, as far as developers are concerned. Traditional console game developers are encroaching on the mobile space on one side, and on the other side, casual, Internet and game companies with mobile roots are making significant advances of their own. Is there a proper path? Do these different groups have anything to learn from one another? That's what this panel was out to discover.
The first question went to David Gosen of I-Play. Who is better equipped in this market, mobile companies, or established console developers? The answers to this were understandably cagey, with both parties well represented on stage, but Gosen did make some good points in spite of that.
He suggests that since mobile gaming is very much a casual market, you need to have a different approach to make these types of games - appeal to women, appeal to younger audiences. He gave a food metaphor: mobile gaming is a snack, whereas a console game is a three course meal, meaning different development philosophies. Even if a company does understand how to make these snack-like games, development is only one third of the problem. There are almost 200 phone systems to port to, and carriers to deal with. As such, you need specialists. These specialists can exist in either type of company, he maintains, but you can't get on in the mobile world without them.
Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding
Otobe's answer was a bit different. He's currently heading up Square Enix in the U.S., and is one of the parties responsible for the recent expansion of the Final Fantasy VII brand into the mobile space. We're in the middle of a huge industry change, he says. Game users are increasing, as the medium becomes a more mainstream form of entertainment. Everyone in the industry is looking at casual games now, as this is currently the main area of expansion. So this makes mobile very attractive.
But the ideal, in Otobe's mind, is moving the mobile audience from casual to hardcore eventually, which would open up the entire market. So the mobile developers are trying to figure out how to capture the hardcore, and the console developers are trying to figure out how to tackle the casual market. Both are coming at it from opposite directions, but neither is equipped with everything needed for success. So, it's suggested, it's less a matter of where the company comes from than the ability of each individual company in question.
The next question was directed at Walsh and Batter. As console developers, used to providing experiences for the hardcore gamer, how do you move into this casual space?
Walsh non-answered by saying that we're currently in the mobile and game generations. Mobile phones are now something of a right of passage for teens. This makes it natural for any company to move forward into that arena.
Batter was a little more specific. Yes, the cellphone market is casual, he suggested, but the way we all define "casual" may be different. He views the term as five to ten minute experiences, but more complex, deeper experiences are also important. People that don't have an emotional connection to a game won't come back and play again, and might not be repeat customers of games in general. He admits though, that there's a lot that console developers have to learn about this growing market.
The moderator then asked a question specifically to Otobe: with an immersive, text and cutscene heavy series like Final Fantasy, how do you compress for the mobile market, and still retain that experience?
Otobe's answer was that you need to play to the strengths of mobile devices. The new Final Fantasy (FFVII: Before Crisis) is a network RPG, in which you can ask for help from other players in order to fight monsters. This isn't an MMORPG, with full interactivity, this is just a light network relationship you can establish with other players, in which your only interaction is battle assists. The camera is also used, in order to create magic. Taking advantage of these unique capabilities creates a unique experience, which he feels will be just as immersive as a standard console RPG.
Linking PC and Mobile Content?
The panel was then pointed toward the idea of linking PC and mobile content. Some inroads have been made, but what is the future of this connectivity?
Batter mentions that you should be able to take a PC game character, put it on a mobile phone, level it up while traveling, then put it back in the PC game. But handheld constraints are tough. In the future they may have rebate programs for handsets that the game is not compatible with, but that's a ways off, he says. He ended by saying that in his opinion, true connectivity is a way off.
Otobe says that packaging PC and mobile games together is risky, but cross-promotion is the ideal. Making thematically connected games that are different experiences can enhance the brand, and cross-promote both the mobile and PC titles. This is what Square-Enix is doing with its Final Fantasy VII brand as well.
Walsh agrees that for now, connection is peripheral. THQ uses SMS messaging to unlock codes in PC games, and then there are ringtones, wallpapers and the like.
For his part, Gosen says he's always interested in growing the market. There is an established link between online games and mobile games, especially in the casual sphere. PC gamers are a key demographic for the mobile market, so if you create content that meets their needs, you can package mobile games with PC or console content. But Gosen urges developers to keep in mind that the casual market is still somewhat unsophisticated. The connectivity needs to be kept simple, basic, and understandable. Once that's been in place for some time, then developers can grow out from there into more complex applications.
Shapiro's Walt Disney Internet Group has been working in casual games for a while now, making the relatively smooth transition from casual net games to cellphone games in recent years. He says that you can combine the experience of PC and mobile, but more than that, it's useful to share resources and expertise from a single asset base.
Getting Mobile Games To Consumers
Though the medium is still in its infancy, moderator Levi Buchannan posed, there are still a lot of titles coming out. How do you steer people to market, and make software available?
Shapiro suggests that it's a carrier-centric universe. Navigation on phones is still primitive, and nobody has a fully working structure yet, but SMS and shortcodes can simplify matters, and push the medium into a greater ease of use.
Otobe says that in Japan , advances have been made with barcodes - simply take a picture of a game's barcode, and send it to the carrier to receive the game. Square Enix is working with carriers in Japan to create a mobile portal, making games easier to select. But the limited interface in the U.S. can be very frustrating for game creators, who are used to making fluid UI. Games are a balance of input and output, he says, and mobile has a lot more input methods. Output is the screen, sound, vibration, but input includes voice, text, controller input and photos as well.
Gosen maintains that the industry needs to embrace innovation. The EyeToy was a revolution for consoles, he says, bringing in the casual gamers like never before, including people who hadn't even considered buying a PlayStation 2 before. It's important to make sure that the development community understands the potential for the medium, but also give options for casual users. You can't force users to adapt to a new type of interface; the market must grow very gradually.
U.S. Turning Japanese?
A question was posed from the audience: will the U.S. market ever reach the ease of use found in the Japanese mobile market?
Walsh commented that it should be, but it will be painful. It's hard to convince carriers that something like this is necessary. Carriers develop decks based on technology, but game developers think about brands and experiences. You have to marry the two of those in order to create a meaningful, yet accessible experience. WAP portals are starting up, which would be controlled by publishers and developers, which should help increase ease of use.
Another question was posed by the audience; What can developers do to make the porting process more efficient, if there are so many platforms to take into account?
Shapiro points out that if you have the capability to port to multiple handsets, it's a huge advantage for the larger companies that can afford to do this. Middleware can be helpful, and in fact, Square Enix provides the middleware used by Shapiro's company. In turn, Gosen cautions that it's no good to port every game everywhere. You should meet the gamers' needs, but need to think up-front about how to port easily, through organization of code. Porting a game across multiple SKUs is pointless if the user doesn't feel that the game is a logical extension of the franchise they know.
The SpongeBob SquarePants mobile game
For the final question, the panel returned to the moderator, who asked if there is a temptation on the parts of console companies to use old licenses.
Walsh thinks that there is, but carriers don't really know who their users are, due to a lack of consumer data. Developers use game-side stats to gauge what will be popular, but it can still be a tough sell. THQ, for instance, hat a very difficult time selling the idea of a SpongeBob SquarePants mobile game to carriers. It sold well once they pushed it through, but it's always a battle.
Shapiro looks through the Disney library of assets to see what works. "It's not so much of a 'temptation,'" he says. "If it's there, why not use it? That's why a library is built in the first place."
The ultimate consensus of the panel, if it can be called that, was that both mobile and console development companies have a lot to learn from each other, in both the casual and serious games markets. The parties haven't always worked together, since some consider that they are vying for the same users, and technology has traditionally been quite different.