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MGF 2008: Community and connected mobile gaming

Walking in a multiplayer wonderland?

MGF 2008: Community and connected mobile gaming
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The second panel on Thursday is the one focused on connected mobile gaming, which should provide plenty of food for thought.

It kicks off with Eric Hobson, until recently boss of Hands-On Mobile in Europe, who says that we're slowly getting the elements in place to run multiplayer and community games, even if we're behind the US.

"It will come and it will be massive, but it will be asynchronous multiplayer rather than synchronous multiplayer," he says, citing the example of trying to launch a multiplayer mobile racing game that cost Hands-On 34MB of data for every game.
This was in 2003, so technology has moved on since then. But suffice to say, Hobson thinks turn-based multiplayer games have more of a future.

Next up is Sven Halling, who until recently was the chief of multiplayer platform company Terraplay, and since it was bought by another mobile firm End2End, where he works now. He says Terraplay's servers process a few thousand sessions a week.

Now Fabian Seydewitz is up, from 3 Austria, which has been running multiplayer mobile games since 2003, using Terraplay's technology. "

To be honest, it wasn't a big focus in 2007 due to internal reasons, but I see growth in 2008," he reveals. "We might shift some of the high games users into the connected gaming."
Now Rob Unsworth from Digital Chocolate is talking. The company has been pushing connected games for some time now, most recently with its DChoc Cafe games.
"The shift has been dramatic in the last quarter of 2007 as we rolled out the Cafe games," he says. "35 per cent of our games were socially orientated, and that will continue to be the case in 2008, and probably grow towards 50 per cent. Of course, in terms of revenues it's a totally different story, because we have a long tail of older games that are still selling well."
Now it's Neil Holroyd from Orange, who says that when he was at T-Mobile, connected games made up 5 per cent of the titles on the portal.
"It was fraught with problems to start with, which is because we were first, but we learned the lessons and put flexible processes in place. The more operators and publishers work together on these community areas, it will grow even bigger," he reckons.
Moderator Kristian Segerstrale points out that last year, publishers trying to put connected features in their games often encountered suspicion from the operators, as well as finding it an expensive thing to do.
Hobson replies: "You'd be crazy to make every one of your games connected at this point regardless of the genre or anything else, because the costs are significant," he says. "There is a hellish cost when you come to post-production. You have to test on every handset, and then test the connectivity across every operator, so your testing complexity goes through the roof. So you have to be confident that adding connectivity will generate the extra revenues to cover those costs."
He says at Hands-On it made perfect sense for a poker game like World Poker Tour 2, and in Korea for the company's connected versions of Heroes Lore. But he says publishers should carefully choose which games to make connected.
Unsworth agrees: "It's got to be a logical service that the customer wants, so there's no point in making every game connected for the sake of it. People play Tetris on their own for a quick fix: there's no point in turning it into a massive league-table thing. Whereas poker is intrinsically connected." "But there are huge costs involved. The Cafe games had fairly basic connected features, but it required 18 months of intensive research, working with the operators."
In the US, Digital Chocolate charges a monthly subscription for the Cafe games, but in Europe Unsworth admits that mobile users aren't used to subscriptions (or think they're a Crazy Frog style rip-off), so the publisher doesn't. "We'd like to [charge subscriptions] but we can't," he says.

Holroyd chips in with a question for Unsworth about Facebook.

"Something that is happening with Cafe and our other social products, is that we feel there is a convergence between web and mobile," Unsworth says. "So we can leverage Facebook, MySpace and many others, to provide some true value-added to those existing communities. Tower Bloxx has been a surprising success for us on Facebook, so if we can build up a huge community on Facebook and then offer a premium service on mobile that supplements that, then I think that provides the customer with a reason to download the mobile game. It's a very valuable way out of this low penetration rate and low awareness the mobile games industry faces."
Got any numbers on that, mister?

Unsworth is slightly cagey, since it's early days. He does talk about trying to launch Tower Bloxx as a Flash game with online games sites, and the company was effectively told to go away and come back when they'd created a 100MB supercharged edition. So DChoc launched it as a Facebook application, and within six weeks, there were over 300,000 people putting the Tower Bloxx app on their Facebook profiles. In terms of active use, 30 per cent of those are playing it on a regular basis.

Hands-On hasn't done any Facebook apps yet, but Hobson points out that the company did launch web-to-mobile features for World Poker Tour 2, allowing people playing the web version to compete against mobile players.

"I would argue to some extent that mobile is somewhat over-regulated at the moment," he says, pointing out that some operators won't let publishers put live chat in games.
Holroyd replies, saying the reason unmoderated chat isn't allowed in games is protection of children. "We've got no way of ensuring they're not being groomed," he says. Pre-defined chat is allowed though – so in a poker game, saying set phrases like 'Nice hand!' or 'Get a move on!'

Someone asks from the audience about flat-rate data. On T-Mobile, all connected games have their data zero-rated – so if you're playing one, you don't pay for the data. 3 Austria operates a similar policy. Meanwhile, Hobson points out that developers don't have to push huge amounts of data over the network in a connected game, if they design it properly.

Unsworth says 50-60 per cent of the operators Digital Chocolate deals with have either introduced flat-rate data tariffs, or zero-rated traffic for their connected games. And they've seen much bigger take-up from those operators than from the ones who haven't.

How much mileage is there in the Xbox Live style community, where all games fit under one community, sharing things like achievements, friend lists and so on?

Hobson points out that Nokia is pursuing the idea with N-Gage, but he's not keen.

"Obviously Nokia believes in that, but from a publisher point of view you want to manage your own community and build critical mass," says Hobson. "You want to own the consumer, but so does the operator. If you want to build a long-term business, you don't want to be part of somebody else's community. You want to be building your own community."
Holroyd says the UK operators have agreed that they will work together to build a unified community.
"It's key, there's nothing worse than having a limited audience to play with," he says. "The more people you have, the better."
Unsworth chips in, saying that users may wish different profiles for different games, in the same way they have different profiles on Facebook, Skype, Instant Messenger and so on. "I don't think people necessarily want a unique sign-in that covers every community," he says.

What's the business model? Do people pay extra for these community services, or does offering them for free mean people buy more games?

Holroyd says the costs are wrapped into the game price – for example, the arcade model of 50p for three lives, or the rental model.

"I'm not a big fan of charging people 10p to upload their score and so on," he says. "That's taking liberties."
Unsworth says the cost should be contextual to the game.
"We feel an item-based economy is the utopia for mobile social games," he says. "People can play the game for free and have limited access to all the features, but to go deeper, they pay. That is a healthy model for the industry as a whole. By being free to the customer base, we'll have a much larger pickup, and if 5-10 per cent of people eventually pay for items or features in the game... if we launch for free and get 6-7 million users, then 10 per cent of them are paying, that works!"
This is also the theory behind Facebook games, incidentally. Get loads of people playing for free online, then if even a relatively small percentage of them then buy the mobile version, you should still be quids in.