Develop sits in on Nokiaâ??s mobile gaming roundtable

Connecting People

To those who adore it, the smartphone platform is an exalted gadget, industry saviour and technical marvel. Its apparent radiance often blinds the public and press alike, and subsequently it has been heralded as the exclusive redeemer of mobile gaming.

And yet there are a wealth of smartphones and operators sketching out a less monopolised plan for the future. As Apple charges off into the distance on a tangent of its own, the rest of the industry is beginning to come together, and take a long look at where mobile gaming needs to go, and what needs to be done to get there.

Two buzzwords currently dominate the dialogue of the industry’s leading companies. The first is ‘context aware gaming’, and the other is of course ‘social gaming’. These are the concepts on which mobile gaming has pinned its hopes, and as a result Nokia recently decided to gather together a number of key figures in the sector to separate the wheat from the hyperbole.

The usual garland of bottled water, coffee and biscuits adorns the centre of the expansive meeting table at Nokia’s chosen venue, but those who surround the display are far from ordinary.

Along with the discussion’s moderator, IMGA’s Maarten Noyons, are Konami’s head of mobile business development Florian Stronk, Digital Legends CEO and director general Xavier Carrillo Costa, FishLabs’ technical director Marc Hehmeyer and Orange Games Services partnerships and services director Dan Keegan. They are joined by Ideaworks3D vice president of business development Julian Jones, Glu managing director for EMEA, Frank Keeling, and Nokia’s director of games publishing Mark Ollila.

If you aren’t familiar with context-aware gaming, you aren’t alone. While anybody directly involved with mobile phones understands the term, there’s still some way to go before its exact meaning is agreed upon. “I think we should ask for common ground in definition,” suggests Konami’s Stronk. “How do we define this from a usability perspective, and from a technology perspective?”

“When it comes to a definition of context aware gaming, it comes to looking at some sort of gaming experience that understands or interacts with the social context of where you are or what you’re doing,” adds Nokia’s Ollila. “Be it that it takes into account the time, the weather, the location, the number of contacts you have in your handset, maybe your weight, your height, or even your sex or the amount of alcohol in your body.”

Ollila’s final detail is greeted with laughter, but the idea in general is something the panel take very seriously. A product that takes into account the context that the user is in, and uses that data to provide an actual gaming experience is seen by many as the way mobile games can reinstate their reputation. The first step towards that goal, the panel agrees, is an awareness of the new ways in which people understand gaming, mobile applications, and the ever-present shadow of social networking.

“We need to understand the phenomenon itself and what is actually happening and what we’re seen over the past few years, and actually have a look at what direction we’re going in and see how we in the industry can help facilitate those trends in terms of mobile gaming,” says Ollila. “It’s important for us to understand what’s happening and what’s available.”

 “Also, we need to look at how social networking is going to merge with mobile gaming in the future,” adds Glu’s Keeling. “I’m interested in the kind of trends people are looking for and the direction they are going to go in. What are people going to use these services for and what are they using them for now? That’s important.”

The enthusiasm in the room is impossible to ignore, and at this point the panellists are itching to speak, as Keeling continues to elaborate: ”Looking at it from another angle it’s difficult to know if customers actually realise they are playing social games, as opposed to traditional games. It would be interesting to see if we could categorise it and if they saw it as a natural extension of the platforms.”

There’s a lot of hopes, a number of broad questions and a great deal of fervour and optimism, and again and again the age-old issue of merging of technologies is brought up. As games take a footing with the likes of Facebook, and as applications continue to woo consumers, the focus of the industry is still unclear.

That is the very reason many of the people at Nokia’s roundtable are here, and as they continue to pursue shared understanding, again the talk turns to definitions. Things have rapidly moved to gaming in a social networking context, and it’s quickly apparent that while the leading mobile companies are not outpacing web-based social networking, the popularity of the concept is something of great interest to the sector.

“Socially networked gaming is something I see as defined by the ingrained competitiveness, and that’s the appeal,” says Orange’s Keegan.

“Just the ability to be ranked, to see where all your friends and peer groups are in the ranking. That’s such a compelling feature, and while it’s only one feature of social gaming, it could be the most interesting aspect.”

There’s lengthy discussion of what Facebook has done to get it so right, and key words that it seems mobile developers should bear in mind are generally simple concepts: sharing, networking, rewarding users, communication. There’s little doubt that anybody considering the creation of a mobile game has to move way beyond traditional playability if they are to hope to capture the imagination of an increasingly savvy public, and it’s clear there are also more complex matters to consider.

“On Facebook right now pretty much most of the games are asynchronous,” points out Keeling. “In fact the big attraction is that you don’t have to worry about someone being there. So perhaps competition is not the thing to focus on. But asynchrony gives games a competitive advantage.”

“I think social games should generate systems of competition, cooperation, and actions and interaction,” adds Ideaworks3D’s Jones. “There are so many player communities all over the world on consoles and PCs, and they are all separating themselves from the outside world. People there are looking at their local lists and friends list before the global rankings.”

As the conversation develops, Digital Legends’ Costa is keen to discuss a broader issue, and one of utmost importance as mobile developers are forced to bear the burden of innovation more than most: “I think we need to understand that the very concept of what counts as a game is changing. We would not really consider the idea of, on Facebook, who has the most contacts as a game. I think with social gaming we need to look at something different from the traditional industry and redefine what could be the substance of a game.”

“In terms of contextually aware gaming and applications, it is the next walled garden,” adds Jones. “It’s time to break down the boundaries between what is an application and what isn’t. Education of the consumer is the barrier to progress of social gaming – education about adoption, and about how to use the technology. It’s a group responsibility which involves operators, involves developers, and involves publishers.”

Jones’ point is well taken, and suddenly talk turns to the mobile ecosystem that is the industry’s Pandora’s Box.

Issues such as the problems the numerous mobile formats cause developers are well documented, but there are more specific problems related to a stable platform including workable standardised monetisation that emerge as pressing issues.

 “We also need to be very cautious because the technology opportunity is immense, but as Julian says, the immense effort to educate the customer as to how to use these services, not just at the beginning, but to maintain it and sustain it, is a massive marketing investment, and very few companies can do that,” says Glu’s Keeling. “If at this stage a young company is looking to what the new mobile technology and category is, maybe social gaming as a stable platform on a mass market basis is most prudent.”

Showing where their professional hearts are, next the gathered executives come over a little creative, and several ideas are put forward for games that may be best suited. One thing that unites all of their suggestions is an emphasis on concepts with a practical function or real-world connection. A contextually aware dating system is greeted with the most nods, and typifies the kind of game that the experts seem to be willing to put their faith into. Titles built around real world data are hardwired into the psyche of those sketching out the future of mobile games.

“I think the future will be that even data more will be digitised, such as Google Maps and Street View, and every kind of data will be made available to gaming,” reveals FishLabs’ Hehmeyer. “Of course, the handsets will move on with various upgrades. You will have a device so everywhere you are connected with everyone, and there will be the possibility to connect every kind of data and get involved with your environment, and there will be no boundaries city-wise or even country-wise.”

Meanwhile, Keeling has an observation from another angle, which takes things back to the troubled mobile ecosystem: “I think a change will come when, with these kinds of games, it’s as easy to play and buy them as it is to make a phone call. Right now buying the game is a pretty horrendous experience.

Next, the focus turns to the importance of established brands in the marketplace. Everybody agrees that customers don’t talk about social networks and contextually aware games. Rather, the public refer to their Facebook accounts and MySpace profiles. Social networking brand successes are of course notoriously hard to predict, as are a number of other communication phenomena.

Texting was a huge sensation without any kind of ecosystem, but the successes often outshine myriad failures, which is a point that fascinates the panel.
“I think that’s true about things that get picked up, but it’s possible to stimulate it by giving information and giving interesting ideas,” suggests moderator Noyons, before asking his participants to try and concentrate on the downsides of social gaming.

”To be negative about social gaming is really hard – it’s just a great product,” admits Keegan. In general, the group agree that distribution channels do need some work before the industry can take mutual benefit from the new forms of mobile gaming, which is an issue that the iPhone model has changed forever.

Just how open distribution channels should be is certainly a contentious issue, as Hehmeyer highlights: “You will have those small applications that get there. It’s true that now, if you provide better access to the channels, you will have to compete against garage teams that can totally break a market in terms of pricing, which I would say is a threat and a strength.”

The day ends with talk of the desktop computer disappearing all together, and people using their mobile in the future as much as they use their PC today. It’s an ambitious dream, but one these industry leaders take very seriously. Furthermore, it’s a process they hope will accelerate. They’ve come a long way to doing it to the landline phone, so why not the PC?

 “The PC should be eliminated,” concludes Hehmeyer with a smile. “When the PC is banished, everything you need will be in your pocket, and then everything you do with the PC nowadays will automatically come up in your pocket device.”

If that vision becomes a reality, then mobile gaming will have done far more than salvaged its reputation. It will hold the world’s attention, and completely change the games industry as we know it. After all the furore, maybe Apple’s attempt with the iPhone is just the beginning.

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