Developers look to expand mobile games market

A number of technical and business hurdles need to be overcome before gamers see a wider variety of titles on mobile devices, according to developers and online games-site executives speaking at the Games and Mobile Forum conference in New York Monday.

Much of the talk at the conference centered around how, at a time when the economy is curbing revenue particularly for Web- and telecommunications-based businesses, the electronic games industry can expand its market and find the revenue needed to develop new gaming concepts.

A new generation of handsets based on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java and Qualcomm Inc.'s BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) application development software will help spark developer interest in building specifically for mobile devices, panelists at the conference said.

"Every phone on the mass market by the end of the year will have downloadable game capability," according to John Grotland, director of business development for games developer Digital Bridges Mobile Entertainment, based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. "In three years everyone will have Java-capable phones, taking into account the turnover rates for phones."

Developments in hardware and software, meanwhile, are helping to lift memory limits in mobile phones, conference speakers said. But although devices capable of handling more sophisticated games will be on the market, developers need to be more creative to pique the interest of a wide variety of gamers, some games executives said.

"The real issue is that there are not a lot of compelling games out there," said Brad Zutaut, chief executive officer (CEO) of Xingtone, a company in Los Angeles that offers technology for user-defined telephone ring tones.

Developers need to think about the unique qualities of mobile devices, conference speakers agreed.

"Everything coming out now has been a console game shrunk down for the cell phone," said Harry Kargman, CEO of Kargo Global Inc., a mobile services technology company in New York. "A network provider in Seoul ... lets you play hide and seek in real time; this is something that differentiates the types of games that can be played on mobile devices."

Wireless carriers need to make their networks more reliable, however, for real-time gaming to really work, Kargman noted. Nothing would be more frustrating for a gamer engaged in a real-time, multiplayer game than having an opponent drop out in the middle of play because the wireless signal was lost, he said.

In addition, network operators need to make it easier for game companies to access their billing systems, Kargman said. Right now, telecommunications companies control the mobile games market, conference speakers agreed. However, if game developers could directly bill users for real-time gaming, for example, they would feel more in control of the mobile games business and might be more willing to spend money developing and marketing games for wireless handsets, they said.

To help expand the market for mobile gaming, phone manufacturers need to do their part as well. They should experiment with design to find an optimal form factor for multiuse devices that are equipped to handle more sophisticated games, conference panelists said.

Nokia Corp.'s N-Gage device, expected to be shipped by the holiday season at the end of this year, looks more like a GameBoy than a traditional cell phone and has a variety of features, panelists noted. It can be used to make calls, to play multiplayer games over a GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) cellular or Bluetooth network, and will support rich media games on Multimedia Cards (MMCs). However, take-up of the device may be limited if the price exceeds US$200, panelists said.

Panelists at the conference also examined ways that developers could expand the market for the games industry as a whole. While much attention in the industry is given to the young male gamer, several speakers pointed out, there is an untapped market for other players -- particularly older women.

The notion that most avid gamers are male teens is a mistaken one.

For instance, Doug Lowenstein, president of industry group Interactive Digital Software Association in Dulles, Virginia, pointed out that the average age of serious gamers is 28 years.

Though the average user in this group is male, developers should pay more attention to female gamers. About 50 percent of gamers trying out games at the AtomShockWave Corp. site (hhtp://www.shockwave.com) are female, noted the company's vice president, John Welch.

"The people who have the money are developing for 16-year-old boys," he said. "The 35-to-50-year-old female market is a demographic we haven't sunk our teeth into yet."

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