Editor's Corner

Connected Mobile Gaming

This week I'm reporting live from the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. It's still early, but GDC Mobile seems be particularly upbeat this year. A new Telephia report that shows mobile gaming revenues were up 61 percent Q4. I also notice less whining about the carriers' paternalism and stringy revenue sharing deals, and more talk about the good stuff: creating scalable technologies to support games as they grow, games that span platforms from mobile to console to desktop, and creating new development tools to support the next-generation multimedia capabilities coming in the next round of high-end handsets.

One theme I'm particularly excited about is multiplayer gaming. Nealy everyone I've talked to at the show, from ARM to Nokia, has been enthusiastic about network-connected gaming.

SNAP Mobile is one of the first names that comes to mind for multiplayer gaming. This Nokia division offers a Java API that accompanies a server-based infrastructure that make it easy to create multiplayer games and takes care of many of the mundane details like presence, instant messaging and locating other gamers. I wrote about SNAP Mobile a year ago at GDC 2006, and I have to say that it's a bit disappointing to see that it doesn't look like much has changed, however I still think it's an amazing bit of technology. (And, in case you were wondering, SNAP Mobile is Java based so it is not really part of the new S60-based N-Gage platform.)

The real gaming innovation may be coming from a much lesser known name. Kyu Lee, general manger of South Korea's GAMEVIL, yesterday presented a case study on Path of a Warrior, GAMEVIL's most successful title and one of the most successful massively multiplayer mobile games available anywhere. The sheer volume of interest in Path of a Warrior is impressive on its own. Lee said sales in most of his company's titles trail off after a year, but Warrior is still going strong nearly two years later. There are currently 80,000 monthly subscribers paying at least $4.90 per month. Of the $4.90, 85.5 percent goes to GAMEVIL, the VM developers gets 5 percent, and the carrier gets 10 percent. Warrior also requires a near constant data connection to play the regular version of the game, so for customers without a flat-rate data plan, GAMEVIL negotiated a special $9.90 monthly rate ($5 goes to the carrier, the remaining $4.90 is divided as above) that includes unlimited data packets for this game only. As far as I know, nothing like this has been attempted before; it's a really innovative way to make the game more accessible to customers and create value for the carrier.

Lee's lecture was very well attended and most of the questions focused on translating GAMEVIL's success in Korea into other markets. In other words, this is the sort of thing that developers from around the world are interested in.

A stand-alone version of the game is available now from Verizon Wireless, and Lee is hopeful that his company can convince a North American carrier to launch the full multiplayer version.

The draw of these types of multiplayer, "connected" games is clear: multiplayer features make use of the data network, which is a unique feature of the mobile phone. Some handheld gaming devices has networking capabilities, but hardly any of them have access to a network that is nearly always accessible. Casual multiplayer gaming is one of the few areas of video games in which mobile phones really have the potential to drive innovation. - Eli