Mobile Gaming Is Different

Gaming was already huge way before the likes of the iPhone and Android started to conquer this market segment. However, with those new forms of hybrid devices, the landscape has started to change. Gaming is no longer something for nerdy kids. Serious businesspeople have been caught playing the latest trendy game on their mobile phones in public, newspapers pick up stories of successful small game developers making a fortune on mobile phone application markets, and established game publishers have a hard time keeping up with the developments in the mobile space. We game developers must recognize this change and adjust accordingly. Let's see what this new ecosystem has to offer.

A Gaming Machine in Every Pocket

Smartphones are ubiquitous. That's probably the key statement to take away from this section. From this, we can easily derive all the other facts about mobile gaming.

As hardware prices are constantly dropping and new cell phones have ever-increasing computational power, they also become ideal gaming devices. Mobile phones are a must-have nowadays, so market penetration is huge. Many people who are exchanging their old, classic mobile phones with the new generation of smartphones are discovering the new options available to them in the form of an incredibly wide range of applications.

Previously, people had to make the conscious decision to buy a video game system or a gaming PC in order to play video games. Now they get that functionality for free from their mobile phones. There's no additional cost involved (at least if you don't count the data plan you'll likely have), and your new gaming device is available to you at any time. Just grab it from your pocket or purse, and you are ready to go—no need to carry a second dedicated system with you, because everything's integrated in one package.

Apart from the benefit of having to carry only a single device for your telephony, Internet, and gaming needs, another factor makes gaming on mobile phones incredibly accessible to a much larger audience: you can fire up a dedicated market application on your phone, pick a game that looks interesting, and immediately start to play. There's no need to go to a store or download something via your PC only to find out, for example, that you lost the USB cable needed to transfer that game to your phone.

The increased processing power of current-generation smartphones also has an impact on what's possible for us as game developers. Even the middle class of devices is capable of generating gaming experiences similar to titles found on the older Xbox and PlayStation 2 systems. Given these capable hardware platforms, we can also start experimenting with more-elaborate games with physics simulations, an area offering great potential for innovation.

With new devices also come new input methods, which we have already discussed a little. A couple of games already exploit the GPS and/or compass available in most Android devices. The use of the accelerometer is already a mandatory feature of most games, and multi-touch screens offer new ways for the user to interact with the game world. Compared to classic gaming consoles (and ignoring the Wii for the moment), this is quite a change for game developers. A lot of ground has been covered already, but there are still new ways to use all this functionality in an innovative way.

Always Connected

Smartphones are usually bought along with data plans. They are not only used for pure telephony anymore but actually drive a lot of traffic to popular Internet sites. A user having a smartphone is very likely to be connected to the Web at any point in time (neglecting for a moment poor reception, for example, caused by hardware design failures).

Permanent connectivity opens up a completely new world for mobile gaming. People can challenge other people across the planet for a quick match of chess, explore virtual worlds together, or try fragging their best friend in another city in a fine death match of gentlemen. And all of this occurs on the go, on the bus or train or in their most beloved corner of the local park.

Apart from multiplayer functionality, social networks have also started to play a huge role in mobile gaming. Games provide functionality to tweet your latest high score directly to your Twitter account or to inform a friend of your latest achievements earned in that racing game you both love. Although growing social networks exist in the classical gaming world (for example, Xbox Live or the equivalent PlayStation service), the market penetration of services such as Facebook and Twitter is a lot higher, and so the user is relieved of the burden of managing multiple networks at once.

Casual and Hardcore

The huge user adaption of smartphones also means that people who have never even touched a NES controller suddenly discover the world of gaming. Their mental image of a good game often deviates quite a bit from the one a hardcore gamer might have.

Given the use cases for mobile phones, users tend to lean toward the more casual sort of games that they can fire up for a couple of minutes while on the bus or waiting in line at their preferred fast food restaurant. These games are equivalent toall those small flash games on the PC that are forcing many people in the workforce to Alt+Tab frantically each time they sense the presence of someone watching their back. Ask yourself this: how much time would you be willing to spend playing games on your mobile phone? Can you imagine playing a "quick" game of Civilization on such a device?

Surely there are people who would actually offer their firstborn if only they could play their beloved Advanced Dungeons & Dragons variant on a mobile phone. But this group is a small minority, as evidenced by the top-selling games on the iPhone and Android Markets. The top-selling games are usually extremely casual but have a nice trick under their sleeves: The average time taken to play a round of such a game is in the range of minutes, but the games make you come back by employing various evil schemes. The game might provide an elaborate online achievement system that lets you virtually brag about your skills. But it could also be an actual hardcore game in disguise. Offer users an easy way to save their progress, and you are set to sell them your hardcore game as a casual game!

Big Market, Small Developers

The low entry barrier is a main attractor for many hobbyists and independent developers. In the case of Android, this barrier is especially low: just get yourself the SDK and program away. You don't even need a device, just use the emulator (although I highly recommend having at least one development device). The open nature of Android also leads to a lot of activity on the Web. Information on all aspects of programming for the system can be found for free online. There's no need to sign an Non-Disclosure Agreement or wait for some authority to grant you access to their holy ecosystem.

At the time of this writing, the most successful games on the market were developed by one-person companies and small teams. Major publishers have not yet set foot in the market, at least not successfully. Gameloft serves as a prime example. Although big on the iPhone, Gameloft couldn't get a hold of the Android market and decided to sell their games on their own website instead. Gameloft might not have been happy with the missing Digital Rights Managment scheme (which is available on Android now)—a move that of course lowers the number of people who actually know about their games considerably.

The environment also allows for a lot of experimentation and innovation as bored people surfing the market are longing for little gems, including new ideas and game play mechanics. Experimentation on classic gaming platforms such as the PC or consoles are often met with failure. However, the Android Market enables you to reach a much larger audience that is willing to try experimental new ideas, and to reach them with a lot less effort.

This doesn't mean, of course, that you don't have to market your game. One way to do so is to inform various blogs and dedicated sites on the Web about your latest game. Many Android users are enthusiasts and regularly frequent such sites, checking in on the latest and greatest.

Another way to reach a large audience is to get featured in the Android Market. Once featured, your application will appear to users in a list immediately after they start the market application. Many developers have reported a tremendous increase in downloads directly correlated to getting featured on the market. How to get featured is a bit of a mystery, though. Having an awesome idea and executing it in the most polished way is your best bet, whether you are a big publisher or a small one-person shop.

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