Article and Interview by Mitch Gerson
Retrogaming Goes Small Time!
Cell phone gaming is white hot right now with some estimates indicating that by 2010 it will most likely surpass the $8 billion mark for game downloads. This will easily eclipse the present revenue winner for cell phone companies, ring tones.
There’s a good chance if you’re reading RetroBlast.com, you already have a game or two downloaded to your cell phone. Personally in the past I had downloaded Ms. Pac Man on my older LG phone from 2003, but with my recent upgrade to a Motorola RAZR v3 I have already downloaded Namco’s Ridge Racer and Time Crisis which both run in full and fast 3D on my handset through Verizon.
I admit, I have some issues with playing these games on a cell phone. Everyone phone is physically different and quite frankly it’s challenging to get a real game play “experience” on a handset. But when you’re waiting for a bus, you’re on a train or just waiting for that special someone in your life who’s trying on clothes at Ann Taylor….. it’s great to kill a few minutes with some arcade gaming.
Within only the last 5 years we’ve gone from boring black and white LCDs to full color 3D gaming on the latest and hottest phones from all of the major providers and carriers. Some say the PC market was driven by games and one has to wonder if the same may be true for gaming on phones.
While cameras have steadily improved on hand sets, the processing power of the latest crop of phones surpasses the power of early 90’s desktop computers in most cases. With the recent trend toward providing micro SD card slots on phones you can now also add as much memory as you can afford to the phones, as well, further expanding their capabilities and functions.
Furthermore many cell phones now have high-resolution screens that can display over 260,000 colors and possess improved external speakers for music and gaming sounds making the whole experience richer and more enjoyable.
The most important new trend? Phone networking.
Namco has recently announced their new pool table game, Pro Pool Online that can be played in real time (the lag is virtually non existent I’ve seen the demo!) head-to-head with anyone in the country.
Games that you can play across networks seem to be the next natural evolution as handsets, processing power and games continue to evolve.
The Players- Competition is Fierce
Most of us would likely assume that Namco with such marquee games as Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, Ridge Racer etc. they would be the number one cell phone game producer but that’s actually not the case.
JAMDAT mobile is not only #1, but it is estimated that they have nearly 33% of the total gaming marking locked up! Have you ever tried their bowling game? I’m sure you have at least once. While they weren’t the first company to create games for cell phones they were certainly the most prolific ensuring that the games they created were simple, fast and easy to port amongst carriers & phones.
Recently EA Games acquired JAMDAT MOBILE. Shocked by that?
You shouldn’t be. EA has been struggling with the transition from current generation console to the next generation of machines and mobile gaming is relatively cheap to design for and fast to pay off.
Consider this, with cell phone gaming there is no packaging, distribution, printing of instructions or any other items that generally go along with releasing a game. EA is obviously hoping that the majority acquisition of JAMDAT will not only put them at the top of the cell phone gaming food chain; it will keep them there.
So who comes in second? Namco with approximately 10% of the market and a company called Mforma close behind them with less than approximately 5 %.
While Namco has a wealth of history of games to fall
back on, including all of
MForma has an agreement with Marvel and you’re sure to see a slew of comic book character inspired games as they have access to characters such as Spider Man and the Fantastic 4.
Problems Problems Problems
With about 2 billion cell phones in the US it seems like making games is a natural no brainer that’s sure to be an easy moneymaker right? Well, not exactly.
First off there are the obvious issues of dozen of phone styles, makers and brands. That of course is in addition to the various carriers themselves. This brews up a difficult situation for game developers who are struggling to develop across phone capabilities, phone styles, processing power and carrier relationships.
Then there’s also the “minor issue” of the fact that a PSP, DS or even a GameBoy Micro can outclass any of the these games no matter what phone or carrier that provides them. But the fact is most games are for the casual user, considering that Tetris and bowling, are two of the most downloaded games to date.
Price for Admission
Most games run from $3.00 to $8.00 to purchase with $6.96 or there about seemingly to be the sweet spot. Some providers offer trials or monthly subscriptions for a game, but really the pricing model is such that it’s much more cost effective to just buy the game outright for your phone.
The downside to this? When you upgrade your phone in some instances you may lose the games that you’ve paid for. Some cellular carriers will “transfer” your game to the new phone, but more and more carriers are charging a fee for this service. Either way, you’re most likely going to want to start with the newest and games if you’re going through the bother of upgrading your phone anyway.
At the recent Digital Life Expo that took place in NYC, from October 12th through October 15th, I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Rubin of Namco Networks to find out about their latest strategies and his personal thoughts on the direction of cell phone gaming in general.
Their booth was absolutely stunning and in my opinion one of the most fun at the expo as it was totally retro with Ms. Pac Man, Pac Man and Galaga Machines all around and inside their pavilion.
Namco Networks was one of the primary sponsors of the expo and they had a special gaming tournament that day with folks vying for various prices from the Namco On Line Store and a massive gift main prize basket containing all sorts of goodies including a Motorola Slvr phone (Motorola was their co-sponsor at the event).
To win, the player had to get the highest scores on either Pac Man or Galaga but the catch was that the player had to get that high score playing on the Motorola Slvr cell phone!
The tournament went very well with young and older contestants both male and female participating. From my perspective this is proof that cell phone games has crossed over from us hardcore “retro” geeks to the mainstream market.
The game is unique in that you can play the original arcade mode or enhanced mode that includes 4 new mazes and power ups!
The power ups allow for all sorts of neat new functions including the ability to hit a button and warp randomly in your maze, just like asteroids, along with other features that include—
Cell Phone Game Carriers
As a consumer I wondered what the challenges were for creating games on cell phones. Apparently the obvious and immediate problem is the fact that amongst all of the carriers there are dozens of phones out there with varying capabilities making creating games challenging to say the least.
Scott told me that Namco Networks has to ultimately create games as per the carrier’s wishes and they only have limited ability to make changes, as they need to adhere to various physical constraints of either the phones or the networks themselves. But they are well supported by the carriers in this to try to make the playing experience as high quality as possible.
As screens and resolutions get better games will get better and Namco Networks is very excited about the possibilities. Presently the 3D games such as Ridge Racer are very much at PS1 levels on your cell. This is obviously going to improve over time.
Scott was very excited about the possibilities with the new on line options (now featured in Pro Pool Online) including abilities such as tracking your competitors profile and stats such as number of wins, loses, number of times they have played the game etc. Your avatar is also highly customizable allowing you to change the look/feel of your character. This to me is all very similar to Xbox Live and similar on line gaming…..and really neat stuff!
I asked if there could be a “GameTap” like model for cell phones where perhaps you could pay a monthly fee for unlimited gaming options. Apparently this is already available in countries like Japan, but Scott believes that the model in the U.S. is better suited to purchasing the games outright…..at least for now….and this is a carrier decision ultimately, not a Namco decision.
When talking about the lack of demo downloads (at least on my carrier Verizon), again Scott pointed out that this is really a carrier decision, but suggested stopping by your carrier store as you can download games to your hearts content for no cost on the demo phones. I thought this was a great idea as a try before you buy.
What’s next for Namco Networks?.....gaming on the video iPod. If you have one of the new video iPods you can download a very playable version of Pac Man to it with more games coming soon to iTunes.
Mobile gaming is hot. It’s really that simple and gaming companies are going to continue to push though with more powerful games and I’m sure more original gaming is just around the corner.
Thanks to Scott Rubin of Namco Mobile for taking out time to talk with me and share the latest information about Retro gaming going small time!
If you would like to learn more about Namco Networks and gaming options please visit their really fun Retro looking site at- http://www.namcogames.com/
Mitch Gerson, 38 years old, resides in Manhattan with his wife of 5 years. He discovered the magic of MAME™ around November of 2002. Two years and two complete arcade cabinets (one stand up and one cocktail, both built by the author) later he’s still going strong coming up with various custom peripherals for his arcade cabs with no end in sight. His, home arcade has now expanded into Pachislo machines and now includes Metal Slug, Jet Set Radio and Tekken as his favorite new toys. His most recent acquisition is a Sonic the Hedgehog Pachinko.
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