Has Mobile Gaming Lost Its Way?

Has Mobile Gaming Lost Its Way?

Last week a friend and well-respected recruiter in the gaming industry asked me to send over an updated resume for his files. Immediately I received a reply which counseled me that, if I’m ever back out into the job market, I’d need to remove the mention of “mobile” from my CV and find suitable replacement terminology. “Use terms like ‘apps’, ‘casual games’ ‘DLC’ and ‘social’ wherever possible,” he recommended.

Having been a fixture in the mobile games space since the late ’90s, that would present a problem, and I felt relieved that I wasn’t currently seeking employment.  I still make my living in mobile gaming and, while I understand why there might be some mild aversion to the term “mobile,” particularly outside pure mobile-centric gaming companies, I still have the same passion and optimism that I did back when I got into this industry. But it did get me thinking about the brief and bumpy history of mobile games in the West – its decade-long highway littered with mobile game company roadkill – and what seems to be a resurgence of optimism about the industry. Mostly I thought about whether I’d actually have to make those suggested changes should that time come or whether this new decade will finally bring to fruition the promise and optimism about mobile gaming that was so prevalent in the last.

A Quick Look Back

When you think about early mobile gaming in the Western world, what comes to mind? Is it side scrolling sprites gunning and jumping through ten levels of simple brain-dead enemies, or endless blocks, gems and androids dropping out of the sky? Back in 2000, these were the .jars that ushered in a new millennium of anytime, anywhere gaming. “Cell phone” games were the 3-by-5 (three minutes at a time, five times a day) entertainment fix that would be embraced by the masses and raised up to the level of game deification occupied only by set-top boxes and the Game Boy. Every research firm worldwide couldn’t wait to out-forecast the next, spouting about the double-digit billions mobile gaming would be generating by, well, 2010.

What happened to the amazing promise of ‘mobile’ gaming that so proliferated the last decade and has, almost suddenly, become a dirty word?  The full answer encompasses many reasons and takes up pages. The simple answer, in my opinion, is “Discovery.” From the very beginning, finding good mobile games has been a major pain in the ass.  Carrier ‘decks’ – those mini, pre-app store WAP destinations accessed through the phone – have generally been a mess with little information about the games offered there. In most cases, the only information upon which a user has been able to base a buying decision has been a few sentences and a couple of screenshots. Few reviews and even fewer free demo downloads or try-before-you-buy capabilities have been offered. As a result, users almost always ended up buying a game based upon a brand or license with which they were familiar: Jamdat Bowling, Tetris, Bejeweled, UNO, and so on. Even original games with great licenses attached were generally passed-over in favor of the tried-and-true. If Pac-Man and an original adventure game carrying the Harry Potter license were featured products on a carrier deck, you can bet Pac-Man won 9 out of 10 times. So how was a truly original game, something with absolutely no familiar license or brand or life-before-mobile expected to compete and sell? It wasn’t and it didn’t.

Lack of adequate discovery led to lack of innovation. Because developers couldn’t effectively describe their new, cool, innovative mobile games, no one would buy them. Because no one would buy them, the carriers decided that they would stop selling original games and soon you couldn’t get a carrier to take your call unless you had a game based on a game show, a board game, a Hollywood film (even those were iffy), or a classic arcade license. It wasn’t worth trying to come up with something cool or unique in mobile gaming. (There were tremendous exceptions like Surviving High School, but those were very few and far between.) All of this led to the core gamer staying away in droves. And because the true casual gaming market had yet to really emerge and take root, the mobile gaming business suffered.  And mobile games, for the most part, suffered, too.

Evolution and Opportunity

Is mobile gaming finally poised to meet the levels of revenue expectation and promise it so valiantly worked towards? Are the games getting good enough to rope in the core gamers? Or is this medium of entertainment destined to remain an impulse buy for loosely-supervised executives, bored housewives and tween girls? The answer is a resounding “yes” to the first two questions if things continue to move in the current direction and some of the problems inherent in the ‘old days’ can be fixed. And, again, the issue of discovery heads that list.

App stores are great. They’re a virtual swap meet o’ gaming fun. For the gamer, casual or core, the App Store is a great place to troll for your next bite-sized entertainment purchase. Loads of descriptions, screenshots, links to videos and free trials abound. Basically, if you buy a game that sucks, it’s your bad. The buying process is not hit-or-miss anymore. Not surprisingly, this has encouraged innovation and sparked creativity from a new generation of game developers not faced by obstacles like needing direct carrier deals, porting to hundreds of devices or spending thousands of dollars on certification fees.

App stores are also not so great.  They’re crowded and, no matter how many review, recommendation, or search features are available, the prospect of working through that sheer mass of apps can be daunting if you’re looking for that singular gem of gaming innovation and creativity. Developers face the same problem. That unshackled freedom from carrier walled gardens has created the Wild West of game development. No matter how creative and innovative your new tower defense game is, you’re up against a whole truckload of competition, way more than you would be on the comparatively bare virtual shelves of AT&T, Vodafone or O2 decks. So now not only do you need to make a killer app, you need to have the killer marketing to go along with it if you’re going to rise above the morass and get your game on the all important ‘best’ lists.

But these issues and others will eventually be worked out. The important thing though, is that the industry has evolved to where original game ideas can thrive. Where small developers can create break-out hits and get rich being gobbled up by large publishers. Where design meetings centered on creating the ‘killer app’ are scheduled regularly. Sound familiar?

Past Optimism – Future Reality

When I received that response about removing the word “mobile” from my background, I asked around to see what others thought.  I got back replies ranging from “strongly disagree” to “change ‘mobile’ to ‘handheld’” to “I told you it was a mistake to get out of console!” No matter what though, I’m pretty confident that this form of interactive entertainment isn’t going away anytime soon and will, in fact, thrive through the next decade to reach those optimistic forecasts of the distant past. Some predictions why:

  • Discovery will continue to improve; innovation and creativity will be rewarded.
  • Convergence will occur and “mobile” will become the new handheld. Whether it’s referred to as “mobile” or “handheld” gaming doesn’t matter because there won’t be any difference. Soon, the processors in the phones will equal and exceed what’s available in the dedicated handheld gaming devices and the distinction between each will blur. In fact, the dedicated handhelds need to work hard or they’ll get surpassed by the mobile phones.
  • Because of the above, the core gamer will finally embrace the mobile platform.
  • Finally, the Holy Grail, the Killer App, the ultimate game will be developed with mobile as a key component. Let’s face it, there are a lot of arrows in the game designer’s quiver for those brave creatives willing to venture outside the (X)box. Location, augmented reality, even real-time connectivity from a mobile device into an online world are all pieces that could play a role in expanding a console or PC game beyond the current norm.

There are other predictions both good and bad, but I’m excited about what’s happening now as it’s within this environment that mobile gaming will thrive and the term ‘mobile’ can once again bring on that optimism and excitement from the ‘old days.’ And the best part is, I won’t have to change a word in my resume to enjoy it.

About Doug Dyer
Doug Dyer has been in interactive entertainment for 20+ years with time logged in the PC, console, online and mobile spaces as a consultant, founder and employee. He currently heads Oasys Mobile and recent start-up AFK Interactive, a platform developer connecting MMOs and mobile phones.


  1. Mobile gaming is still today something very tricky. Not only you have to face constrains in the form of hardware, being battery life the biggest chokepoint, you also need to overcome a huge deal of external factors (mobile internet and flat data consumption plans are still not proven as sustainable in countries with over 100% mobile penetration rates, for example). And, of course, you don’t get the legion of faithful hardcore fanboys that populate consoles.

    I think that if mobile gaming is relegated to a sub-par product of handheld gaming (PSP and DS) it will never deliver the Holy Grail. It will remain as a curiosity for App Swappers and geeks but with no critical mass to develop serious business models or revenue streams on top of it.
    On the other hand, if it gets the required support it can be positioned to compete on the handheld market, but that would be a complete different story.

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