CES - IPhone hurt mobile gaming, expert says

Mobile gaming executives discussed at CES reasons why the market for mobile games has been growing so slowly.

While it would seem that the growth of smartphones, with their bigger screens and faster processors, would be good news for mobile gaming, handsets like the iPhone are in fact hurting the mobile game industry in the short term, one expert said on Sunday.

Apple's iPhone is a capable phone that holds promise for the future of gaming, said Travis Boatman, vice president of worldwide studios for Electronic Arts' mobile division, speaking during a panel session at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "But it's a replacement for someone who had a Razr before. They still want their content but there's no distribution platform in place so there's a negative impact on the industry," he said.

Because Apple so far hasn't allowed iPhone users to download just anything, iPhone users may be giving up games that they played on a phone they previously owned, he said. "These devices are capable and powerful," he said. "They'll be great in the long term but it will take some time as people adapt to devices."

The problem of transferring games to new phones has actually plagued the mobile gaming industry since its inception. When users upgrade to a new phone, they most often can't bring a game that they bought for their old phone along with them.

Mobile virtual network operator Helio is one of the few operators that has taken steps to solve that problem. Because most of the phones that Helio sells have similar specifications, games usually will work on a new phone a customer might buy. Helio stores the games for users on its servers and users can re-download games to a new phone, said Leo Jun, senior manager of games for Helio.

That's a more difficult situation for other operators that sell a much wider variety of phones, each with differing capabilities that may not support all games. It's not realistic to expect that a game publisher make their games re-downloadable to people who upgrade their phones, said Boatman. He compares it to the game console market. "If you bought a PlayStation 2 and you buy an Xbox '790' four years later, do you think EA games is going to redevelop that game and not charge you for it?" he said. "It's not inexpensive."

But other even more basic problems also plague the mobile game industry, which has had stagnant growth. The percentage of mobile phone users who have ever bought a mobile game increased from 10 percent in 2005 to just 12 percent in 2007, said Michael Cai, an analyst with Parks Associates. One reason for that very slow growth is that there are simply too many games and often no good way for end users to trial games before buying them, the experts said.

Helio users can try out a game for a week for US$0.99. "It emphasizes the importance of quality content," Jun said. Helio expects that the service will encourage developers to release fewer but more quality games.

But in most cases, end users only have the option of choosing games based on their titles. Unlike five years ago, most mobile users now know that they can play games. But they clearly aren't buying games in volume, perhaps because many of them may already feel burned after taking a chance and buying a game only to find that it's low-quality, said Jun. Many may be unlikely to try again. "The preconception is that mobile games aren't that good," said Jun.

Still, the panellists were confident that mobile gaming will pick up in the future. Because smartphone use is growing, users are also becoming more accustomed to the idea of downloading software to their phones. "Google is training people to install Gmail and maps to their phones," noted Matthew Bellows, general manager and vice president of marketing for Floodgate Entertainment, a game developer. "That could be a game changer from the consumer expectation standpoint."

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Nancy Gohring

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