GDC: Mobile Operator Spotlight Panel

First day of GDC down, four to go. I was bouncing like a pinball between the workshops, Serious Games Summit, GDC mobile, and meet-ups with friends. What a great conference.  :-)

The session that most caught my attention today was the “Mobile Operator Spotlight Panel”, moderated by Seamus McAteer of M:Metrics and packed with executives from Sprint, Orange, Virgin, Cingular, Vodafone, and Verizon.

First, some interesting facts revealed during the panel:

  • Orange is currently reaping the highest average price for games ($7.32, as opposed to $5.62 for Sprint and $6.27 for Verizon). No word on volume.
  • M:Metrics research shows a huge disconnect between mobile game offerings and projected consumer demand. Current supply of sports and action titles exceed projected demand by a factor of two. On the other hand, the supply of games in most other genres meets half (or less than half) of projected near-term demand. That includes: arcade puzzle, board, card, casino, FPS, quiz, word, and retro arcade games. Quite a list! And this isn’t a “low demand / even lower supply” thing — the arcade puzzle, card, and casino game categories had the highest projected demand of all categories on the list. That’s 150-200 games worth of demand for each category, as opposed to just 75 games worth for the saturated action category.
  • In 1/06, Jamdat controlled ~25.4% of all US mobile game download volume. No real news here other than “Jamdat is still the gorilla.”

Second — I was struck by the universal agreement among the operators that brand / franchise power was all that mattered in the mobile games space. Along these lines, Jason Ford (from Sprint) claimed that if he cut his offerings from 435 games to 50, sales would probably remain the same. Tim Harrison (Vodafone) spoke passionately about bringing major game brands into the European market. Ken Ruck (Virgin Mobile) quipped: “Pitfall came out before my kids were born; it isn’t relevant to them.” It went on and on like this.

Ironically, in a previous session, Mitch Lasky of Jamdat/EA said “It’s crazy that games like Tetris and Madden are getting the same attention from carriers as some Chinese whack-a-mole game.” You’d think that the across-the-board operator fascination with franchises would be enough for Jamdat. (One also wonders if Mitch registered the irony of comparing Tetris to some “crazy Chinese whack-a-mole game” — after all, Tetris was a crazy Russian block game not too long ago.)

To me, this all seems like a pretty serious failure of imagination. Recognizeable brands are powerful, yes, but they blow everything else away in part because, quite frankly, purchashing systems for mobile games are terrible! It’s difficult to find anything worthwhile outside of the top games displayed by a carrier. Users are given almost no ability to quickly and conveniently demo and rate games (which would permit obscure but enjoyable titles to bubble up and get noticed by other users, creating a virtuous cycle). And mechanisms for viral marketing are still in their infancy; most games / platforms don’t make it terribly easy for a consumer to quickly share a game with many other consumers.

Part of the problem has to do with the many different handsets on the market, of course. When it takes 700 versions of a game to cover the majority of the phones out there, everthing becomes dramatically more complicated than it should be. But you can only blame so much on the handsets. Bad shopping / rating interfaces can’t be blamed on handsets. Lack of cooperation between operators (to better enable viral marketing across the population) can’t be blamed on handsets. “Long tail economics” is not a pointless cliche. When you facilitate it, it works. When you bury content underneath a mountain of bad UI, it doesn’t.

(BTW, sorry if this reads a bit rough. I need sleep badly.)

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