Going Mobile: The Smartphone Revolution

The smartphone revolution is changing the way we consume and play games. In this extensive feature, Kotaku speaks to the major players in the Australian mobile gaming sector to discuss the impact this rapid growth has had on the games industry, and if the pioneering moves made in this area will transfer into the console space in the coming years...

We’re in Melbourne. We’re couped up in a small room, alongside a desk and a couple of chairs. The air conditioning is cranked and it’s bloody freezing. We’re ready to conduct an interview, fiddling on our iPhone, fumbling for the voice memos app so we can record. On the other side of the desk is Tony Lay, head of Iron Monkey, the developer responsible for bringing a number of huge EA franchises to the Smartphone market.

A year ago, or even six months ago, this scenario would have been unimaginable. There’s no way we would have flown all the way to Melbourne just to check out a new iPhone game, and there’s little chance that EA would have asked us. But now? The landscape has changed. Dramatically. Mobile gaming is at the forefront of the industry, at the cutting edge. And it’s impossible to ignore.

“I think it’s great overall,” says Tony Lay thoughtfully, “because we’ve grown the market. The market is everyone now. Back to the way it was. Back to the Pong days when it wasn’t a niche culture, it was just an entertainment device. And I think it’s a great thing.”

How did we get to this point so quickly? Why is the mobile space so dominant, and what does this mean for videogames as a medium? These are all questions on our minds as we sat down to speak with the men and women driving the Smartphone revolution in Australia.

Getting Mobile The growth of mobile gaming, over the last two years in particular, has been prodigious. What began as an offshoot, a mere distraction, has become one of the major outlets for how we engage with interactive content.

“I think, when you look at it,” claims Mark Fordham, Sales and Marketing Director for EA Mobile “the mobile gaming space has evolved considerably over the last 2 years.

“Even in the last 6-12 months. You look at Android, you look at Windows 7, you look at Blackberry and what they’re doing now, I think anything’s possible in the future.”

The iPhone, however, and the App store, has clearly driven the Smartphone revolution. The ease of use, confidence in the service, the ubiquitous nature of the iPhone as a product - all these factors combined assure that Apple, and their App store specifically, is the major driver of mobile gaming.

“I think the iPhone has done a tremendous job of getting the everyday consumer into product,” agrees Mark. “And not just games, but just in terms of using the capabilities of the device and accessing things they may not have accessed before. You’ve got to look at the Telco space and the changes in data plans. Now you get a device and you automatically get a gig of data minimum – before that never happened.

“In Australia we use the word ‘billshock’ a lot, but that’s changed now – users understand what’s going on with their own mobile phone. You’re in total control of your own account so therefore you’re more willing to go and explore on the app store.”

Control, ease of use, and consumer confidence have all been paramount, but the iPhone has rapidly become the gamer’s mobile weapon of choice – is it down to convenience? Is the iPhone the modern manifestation of the age of convergence? Tony Lay certainly thinks so.

“Everyone carries it around, claims Tony. “All the time. Now if you were to go out, what would you put in your pocket? Your DS, your iPhone, and your PSP? Probably not.

“People are just choosing one thing and a phone is the most convenient. It has become a convergence device. If you watch everyone, they surf the web, play games, listen to music – all on this one device. Now it’s hard to justify carrying four things around. But you always need your phone, so it’s always with you, and the chances of squeezing game time in is huge.”

The Mobile Microcosm But it’s not just the mobile market that has exploded into relevance - the quality of the games, and the level of development has increased just as dramatically and, in many ways, has been equally as important as technology and convenience in driving the Smartphone revolution.

“The growth has been rapid,” claims Matt Webster, Lead Producer at Criterion Games. “When I started the average application size was about 500k. You have emails in your inbox right now that are bigger than 500k! That was your graphics, UI, sound - everything!

“Not too long after I started it became possible to do 3D rendering on mobile phones, so that’s when we started moving in that direction. Barely a year later it became possible to do old generation console stuff on phones. And then, of course, the smartphone revolution kicked off. And it was possible for us to do so much more.

“Ultimately the iPhone applications we create are more like mini-console games than the old mobile games we used to make. We don’t hold back. You were always restricted by the tech in the old days, but now the technology allows us to push it to the limit. We shoot for the stars on every project.”

The evolution of mobile gaming exists like a microcosm, like a self evolving bubble, and changes in technology have allowed for rapid design leaps the likes of which took decades in the home console space. You get the sense that those with the intuition to anticipate and adapt quickly to this mobile gaming boom are best placed to profit from it presently.

“The only constant is change,” agrees Tony Lay, “and change will take people out if they haven’t adapted.”

The Tortoise and the Hare If we were to speculate a little, we might argue that it was change that caught up to the bigger studios in Australia, like Pandemic and Krome, continuing to work for hire while smaller Australian developers were beginning to latch on to the possibilities of working unencumbered on digitally distributed mobile titles.

“We needed to get into this space,” claims Phil Larsen, Marketing Director at HalfBrick. “But not just the iPhone - we’re not specifically an iPhone developer - we’re doing all kinds of digital distribution.”

The Halfbrick success story has fast become the model for making the right choices as an Australian developer. Fruit Ninja is one of the most successful mobile games ever made, and the game’s success has afforded Halfbrick a real sense of freedom and hope for the future.

Part of this success was planning and great decision making, but even Phil would agree that a modicum of their success was down to blind luck.

“We were in the right place at the right time over the last 24 months, begins Phil. “We made the right decisions. We have ways of prototyping games, and Fruit Ninja was just one of many. We looked at Fruit Ninja and said, ‘this needs to get done now’, because the market was changing.

“You can prepare for success as best as you can,” continues Phil, “but it’s still going to work or it doesn’t. We were confident with Fruit Ninja that it would do well, but we had no idea how well. We did so much research and so much prep just to make sure that everything we had learned about iPhone was taken care of. There was the ‘X’ factor, the random stroke of lightning, but we did prepare very well for the launch of Fruit Ninja.”

Being successful on the iPhone - and we’re talking Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, and Cut the Rope successful – does require that flash of lightning, that tipping point that transfers the game from one hit wonder to the word of mouth phenomenon that Fruit Ninja became. In a sense, finding that niche is a risk that companies like Halfbrick have to take – EA, with a bundle of household name franchises at their disposal, are obviously more averse to taking such risks because, simply put, these are risks they don’t necessarily need to take.

The 800 Pound Gorilla “I can’t comment on how our competitors approach mobile gaming,” starts Matt Webster. “I mean I love the product and I love how innovation is driving the industry. But at EA, being the 800 pound gorilla, we do tend to take the more traditional approach when it comes to what works - what we know works historically.”

But that doesn’t mean that EA isn’t pushing the boundaries of what is possible in mobile gaming.

“Small companies,” says Matt, “they don’t have those franchises so they depend on just the innovation, and that’s great for the mobile industry.

“But because we do have these big franchises, we’re split focused. On the one hand we’re trying to bring in these new experiences to the users, but on the other hand we have these great franchises and we have the opportunity to tie it into all this historical value the company has. People see the Need for Speed logo and instantly recognise it, people see The Sims and that big green jewel – they recognise it! Because of that we use the franchises, but we also innovate; try and bring in new content and experiment and do new things.”

There’s more than one way to skin the proverbial cat it seems. We asked Phil from Halfbrick about EA’s approach.

“We understand the model that EA has,” claims Phil. “If you have big licensed games, that game will generally generate a lot of revenue when it’s released, and they’re actually normally higher priced than other games. And you know that works.

“Our take on mobile, and what we’ve had success with, is just the simple, casual games. The gameplay and the theme is 100% paramount. That’s what really makes it stand out. And it’s such a word of mouth, viral thing – that’s the key. You can make a lot of people play your game in one really big hit with a franchise, which is what we did with Age of Zombies, and we did pretty well, but it’s just a different approach and it hasn’t stayed in the charts as long as Fruit Ninja has.”

So does EA have ambitions to move into the more disposable, viral games market – are they prepping to move away from solidly performing franchise spin offs to something more akin to the Fruit Ninjas of the mobile gaming world?

EA’s purchase of Chillingo, publisher of mega hit Angry Birds, suggests the answer is yes; and EA’s mobile specialists Iron Monkey also seem keen to broaden their horizons, whilst remaining true to their own particular specialisations.

“I think there’s a space for both, and the market is reflecting that,” claims studio head Tony Lay.

“As a creative person, our studio has ambitions – we want to do everything! But I think you have to pick your niche, you have to pick your specialisation and for Iron Monkey that is premium quality products. That’s where we’re staying. We look at the skill of translating the console experience to an accessible market. That’s where we are. A lot of our guys have come from working on larger games. It is sort of a conflict for us.

“But, you know, you always want to dabble in the smaller stuff because everyone has that idea for an iPhone game! We’ll be getting the freedom to explore that, hopefully later on.”

It may be the case, however, that being entrenched in the corporate world of EA may make it difficult for smaller ideas to flourish and find their space. Phil Larsen believes that the tight knit nature of Halfbrick contributes heavily to their style of development.

“You know, we can try things out and prototype and throw all these things out at the same time,” says Phil. “I don’t know what the structure of EA is, but I’d imagine there’s a lot of management and not all of the developers are fully aware of the overall vision – I’m speculating here, of course – but at Halfbrick everyone knows what everyone is doing. We can communicate easily.

“We’re still intelligent about it, we do make educated choices, but we have a lot of freedom. We have the ability to run with a few things and, more importantly we have the ability to fail. We can try all these different steps because we have the option to with the teams all being so close”

As we said before, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Spreading the Revolution But what’s next? Mobile gaming has traditionally been seen as a secondary source of income for major publishers. Undoubtedly EA’s major revenue stream lies in AAA home console franchises such as FIFA, Madden and Need for Speed - but how long before mobile gaming takes over? And how long before the App store model, which has been so successful for all involved, is transferred wholesale to the next generation of consoles?

“I honestly don’t know,” claims EA Mobile head honcho Mark Fordham. “There may be some blurring in there. Ultimately EA is one company and we’re focused on delivering gaming experiences however consumers want them. If they want to play on consoles, if they want to play on PC, on Facebook, on a mobile device – whichever way they want to experience those franchises, it’s completely up to them. But we want to have a content offering for them.

“There are questions around that, of course,” continues Mark, “like will there be convergence, and all those sorts of things. I mean there are definitely interactive components that you can take across all consoles, but whether that will ultimately become one seamless interactive experience, I couldn’t say.”

Phil Larsen from Halfbrick is similarly cagey.

“I don’t know what the next generation of consoles will be like,” begins Phil. “I assume they’ll be focused on digital distribution, and each one will have its own online marketplace, so it’s going to be interesting. I guess it’ll be some sort of hybrid. Xbox already has LIVE but that’s a managed relationship – it’s going to come down to the relationship between the platform holders and the developers.”

More than any other service – Xbox LIVE, PSN, even Steam – the app store, and to a lesser extent the Android store, has shown how digital distribution can work on a global mainstream scale, and there’s little doubt that platform holders like Microsoft and Sony are watching closely.

Time will tell, but the roles are destined to switch, and in some respects they already have. Whereas mobile gaming has always been seen as a medium lagging behind its bigger brother, Digital Distribution is the one realm in which the iPhones and the HTCs of the world are truly pioneers. What Mobile Gaming is doing today will undoubtedly inform and transform what console gaming does tomorrow.

Ultimately the mobile gaming revolution will be televised – and that’s an interesting turn of events.


Comments

    Games like Fruit Ninja are fun in short doses, I should know, I was playing it this morning, but I truly hope the big players like Nintendo and Microsoft don't follow too closely. I'd gladly stop all support of mobile gaming if I thought I was contributing to a future of watered down, simplistic console games...

    I only wish EA took the same high quality approach to their major releases as they clearly do with their iPhone games. I was a massive skeptic of iPhone racers until I played NFS Undercover. Needless to say, they keep delivering, and in some cases, outdoing their major system and PC releases!

    I've recently come to accept that I'm in denial and will forever oppose phone-gaming. Keep away from my consoles, phones - you 'ear me!

    Great article, Dark Squirrel..

    Call me small minded.. But the success of mobile gaming and DD is absolutely terrifying me.. I don't want all my future games to be download only.. i like hard copies, which is why i'm in no hurry to get a swank phone or iDevice (or iLand).

    As a matter of fact, if DD and mobile gaming become so successful that all future consoles will be DD, i may stop being a gamer all together... well, that is i won't buy future DL only consoles/devices.

    I know the success of mobile gaming and DD are completely separate topics, but i know those that sell us these things like to see dollar signs in their eyes and may actually do such a thing, which just chills me to the core...

    ...Is it still a collectors edition if there is nothing to collect and all the bonus' are in .pdf format?

      Pretty much how I feel - don't worry, I'll join your resistance against smartphones in the near future, Chuloopa Connor.

      I agree Mr Choops, DD is great for smaller titles but I don't want to be forced to download all my future games.
      I can see brick and mortar stores dwindling but there still should be the option of ordering a physical copy.

        Phew.. i was waiting for people to release the hounds on me! lol

      While I do understand your point, I must comment that today's "collector's" editions are absolute rubbish. The kind of stuff included with these editions is either garbage or stuff that used to be included in the game manual, like artbooks and backstory. Pay $50-100 extra for a stack of crap...no thank you.

        Agreed. Now i must say to give up on gaming just because it will eventually wind up completely digital dist. is crazy. People are downloading music off itunes, not giving up their interest in music. It's The same with movies, tv, comics, ebooks etc. Do the pretty pictures on the cover matter that much? We don't even get a half-decent manual anymore, just a rundown on TOS and basic controls, and ZX_64DOS covered the collector's edition issue.

        The only issue i can see for the majority of consumers and retailers is the inability to trade back or sell, even lend games to friends. However i hear steam is pondering a credit system??? Coupled with the ability to re-download beats having to fork out for a new disc (if damaged) is huge positive. In the end we spend 99% of the time looking at the screen, not the box which holds the disc.

      What is a hardcopy? It's code burnt onto a disc, wrapped in pretty plastic and paper, shipped and sold for premium price. You could in essence just backup all your DD games onto DVDR/BDR/harddrive and have the same thing. DD for music, movies, books and games are all going through the same transition and in the end the story will be how Digital Distribution killed the DVD star.

      Don't worry. It won't be until after fibre is firmly established.

    "The market is everyone now. Back to the way it was. Back to the Pong days when it wasn’t a niche culture, it was just an entertainment device. And I think it’s a great thing.”

    Absolutely nail on the head. 'Gamers' and those enamoured with 'gaming culture' have owned the medium for two decades and now there is a distinct uneasiness.

    Mobile gaming has reminded the world that everyone can play games and is helping removed the horrible stigma of the 'gamer'. Its the revolution that the Wii started. Truem there are heaps of people out there in the world that play games, but there are heaps more that don't - why not? Let's engage with them.

    If you feel so strongly about a particular piece of hardware that you will or will not not play a game on it, or a particular physical method of delivering and running a game that you will or will not play it - then you are in fact not really that into games themselves, but rather the ecosystem and culture that surrounds them.

    Gran Turismo 6 on Xbox? Sure, sounds good. Gears of War 3 exclusive to Nintendo, bring it on. The next GTA only for iPhone and Android? Cool, I'm in. Fruit Ninja 2 for Kinect? Sweet. Well... okay maybe not Kinect...but you get my drift :P

    I really don't care for phones. If people want to get a hold of me, they can leave me a message at home.

    Besides, 3DS has twice the processing power of the iphone4. So much for that "as good as the pros" attitude everyone keeps rattling on about.

      The 3DS will be awesome because it will have amazing games designed by Nintendo, not because its processor speed. It has a unique user experience (3D) that obviously requires a particular set of hardware to create, but who cares how the underlying hardware 'compares' with other devices that are built to produce a different experience?. It's the end result that matters. Do people really give a shit about processor speeds and the amount of memory a console or phone has?

      As for still living in the 80's, gotta respect that! :D

    I really want to replace my iPhone with the Playstation Phone when it comes out. Its definitely going to be my ALL in one device for on the go. Music player, Portable games, internet surfing. Hopefully it'll have 3g or 4g connections or better (up to date) tethering than the PSP GO for downloading PSN games on the go or online multiplayer.

    I've tried many games on the App Store. Most of them are too simple for my liking and the hardcore ones are toned down in gameplay such as Doom Resurrection being on rails.

    I prefer my PSP and DS titles.

    I find it ridiculous when people say "phone games are better because they are smaller for on the run and you don't need to commit to lengthy game play" Errr... so are hardcore games really if you think about it, its depends on how you want to look at it.

    God of War has a save point after every battle or so and they only take a minute or two. The PSP GO has that handy pause game function. You can turn off any PSP model with the game paused and it will be instantly playable when you turn it back on. I found myself doing this a lot with Ratchet and Clank when I had to go into hospital often.

    Also, Races on Wipeout only take a couple of minutes. You can't tell me you play phone games for less amounts of time, otherwise whats the point. Look at the trees or something instead for the 30 seconds.

    mobile gaming is a part of our daily dose of gaming these days, but it'll be never more than "a dose"

    I normally play games on my iPod to kill time, but not as much as PC.

    This would be considered old news in Japan, if you think about the fact that PSPs and DSs sold more than PS3s and 360s in Japan...

    Nice work again Mark, I like the meatier features you are producing.

    Are we conflating the notions of mobile gaming and casual gaming a bit here? Of course, they can overlap quite neatly: a short bursty game like Fruit Ninja or Bejewelled are both, but what about those DS RPG titles? They're quite mobile. And as Michael Barnes pointed out above, the PSPs have the pause game feature, making any game possible, technically, to play in bursts. That said, I'm not sure Fallout 3 or even Mass Effect 2 would be well suited to that kind of burst play, which is a feature of 'casual' gaming, because they are designed to suck you into another world and keep you immersed for a while--not to fill in gaps while waiting for a train.

    Anyway, what's pretty clear to me is that virtually everyone is going to be carrying around a mobile-phone equipped computer of some kind in their pocket within five years. What kind of software they put on that phone computer thingy will really be up to them. Some will go for Angry Birds where others will go for Elder Scrolls 5. But those are likely to be just as different people as those who buy and focus on the Wii and a PC or XBox.

    Someone pointed out above that the niche, hardcore hobbyists have had control and basically sole interest in videogames for the past twenty years. Its been at least that long, I agree. Now many of us (yes us, anyone who participates in this community regularly) are at LEAST unsettled, sometimes outright hostile towards, the mainstreaming of 'our' medium. Did anyone ever seriously believe that the whole world was going to really get into games like Fallout, GTA, or even Halo? No... not everyone likes the same movies, why would we all play the same games?

    A long while ago, I purchased Street Fighter 4 for the iPhone. It had 8 characters and functioned quite well for a touchscreen device. It cost me like 12 or 18 dollars or something like that. I was fairly satisfied.

    Then, out of nowhere, I download an update and another two characters were available. What? Did I pay extra for this? Nope. It was just a gift, a gift that really could have warranted a DLC purchase but was instead just given to me for no extra charge.

    You'd think that was enough charity on Capcom's part but no... months later and 3-4 more software updates the character roster is at 14 and they've implemented a gamercard/achievement system.

    There are still two more slots on the character select screen... fingers crossed for Akuma!

    And Capcom: Bravo. F*ing Bravo.

    Meh, I'm totally uninterested with the Smartphone Wars. I hate Apple, and it's impossible to have an educated discussion with pretentious Apple fans about the realistic pros and cons of the various phones.

    Also, in response to Choopa, I feel fine with non-physical games...as long as Steam never dies and my games always remain accessible.

    All my physical games are cracked anyway, as I'm too lazy to insert the disc into my drive.

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