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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.

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