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Mobile Game Conference – Panel Report

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The "Using the Camera and Other Phone Bits" roundtable at the MGC was based upon the premise that significant technological advancements lead to better games. While the console and PC segments of the gaming industry have reached a technological saturation point where development is more evolutionary than revolutionary, the immaturity of mobile means that we're set to see mobile gaming change in leaps and bounds over the next few years.

Moderated by Mark Pierce of Super Happy Fun Fun Inc., the roundtable looked to focus on what new game play future technology will bring.

Right now the mobile games industry is based upon a foundation of casual games with simple control schemes like Tetris and old 70s arcade games that are similar in a lot of ways to board game standards like Monopoly and Risk: games that people of all ages know and feel comfortable playing.

However, there are only so many times you can sell people games they've already played, and for developers who don't have a game like Tetris in their portfolio, they need to offer something innovative and different to stand out.

Super Happy Fun FunLuckily for the industry, the mobile phone has a lot of unique technical features that can potentially provide this innovation. For instance, Pierce demoed a game called Tilt that utilized the handset’s gyroscopic features to move a ball through a maze by tilting the phone; simple and efficient, it looked like a game that anyone could easily have a blast playing.

Other handset features like voice, touch screens, location based services and constant wireless connectivity also has the potential to offer experiences unique to handsets.

However, there are many roadblocks the industry has to pass before we start to see a flood of technically innovative mobile games. First and foremost are the handsets themselves: at the moment, very few phones feature things like gyroscopic controls, touch screens or location based services. Also, while we think that that the W600i is a great phone for gaming, most people want a phone that's a phone first, which means support for these features will come slowly.

For those handsets that do have these features, the APIs (Application Programmer Interface — basically what developers have to use to get the phones to utilize these features) are usually so bad that they’re considered "implemented but not supported" (which means they don't work). With no accountability on handset vendors at the moment to include better support for the features they provide on the phone, we're still some time away from them being commonly used.

All of this leads publishers and carriers to be vary cautious with attempting to innovate in their mobile games. To get around this, Pierce could really only offer one solution to this problem: elbow grease. Pierce's company, Super Happy Fun Fun Inc. pays the bills by porting other studios’ games, and then spending the rest of their time on developing their innovations.

Pierce seemed adamant that a developer can't sell a publisher or carrier on innovation in advance, but must put a working version in their hands and show them why it works. Pierce also added that independent developers are in the best position to do this: because they can't compete with larger companies in bidding for game licenses, they’re in an excellent position to make their name on innovation (quite similar to the film industry, where the big studios own Hollywood, while the independents own Sundance).

It's a shame that we're so far away from seeing more games like Tilt, because the industry really needs it right now. However, after each developer discussed whatever technological innovation they were working on (and there was some really cool stuff like push to talk functionality during multiplayer gaming, so you can talk trash while you rake in the cash during a mobile poker game, for instance) they usually replied with a vague "sometime in 2008…" when questioned when we'll actually see it in a released game.

Hopefully more developers will follow Super Happy Fun Fun's lead and start pushing for more innovation in their games. Like Pierce said during the roundtable, "You have to be a player for this to happen, you just have to start doing it. You can't wait for it to come to you."

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