MIT BIG Conference Recap Part Three: Where are Mobile Games… Going?

Last week TriplePoint attended the 3rd annual MIT Business in Gaming conference in Boston. This series will break down some of the biggest and best ideas into tasty, digestible morsels.

Diehard gamers are eagerly awaiting the Nintendo 3DS and Sony’s next PSP, but in the past few years, portable gaming has undergone a huge shift towards the mainstream via cell phones. While mobile gaming technically can refer to tablet PCs, handheld consoles and wild cards like the Kindle and Blackberry, this panel focused on the two game systems most likely to be in your pocket at this very moment: Android phones and iOS devices. Here are the key takeaways.

  • State of Mobile Gaming – The iPhone and Android markets are diametrically opposed. While Apple is master of media attention, Android is larger (thanks to the wide range of handsets) and is a bigger global player, due in part to the lower cost of their phones. Industry veteran Tom Dussenberry bluntly stated, “iPhone users are bound to buy more apps; they were already willing to spend hundreds of dollars on their phone.” While Apple maintains strict control over their app store, Android development is like the Wild West. It’s every developer for themselves in this open-source world with dozens of phone models, each with their own hardware capabilities, screen size and operating system version.
  • Life’s a Game! – Gamification, arguably the industry’s biggest buzzword today, is creeping into more apps and websites every day. The term simply connotes game mechanics like points, achievements and leaderboards in non-game applications. While apps like FourSquare are a fun distraction, developers are seeking ways to keep them from plateauing. Devs are streamling check-ins to minimize the antisocial nature of fussing around with your phone while out with friends. Strategies include group check-ins; tagging everyone in your party at once can reduce user frustration. This cuts engagement time but also encourages repeat check-ins. For more on gamification, view Jesse Shell’s DICE presentation.
  • Where you at? –Location services like GPS, once reserved for the military and adventurous hikers, are now in most mobile devices. Location is a growing factor in mobile games like MyTown and SCVNGR, but serious technology hurdles prevent them from entering the mainstream (and making that FarmVille money). The approximate nature of GPS is great for identifying a highway exit for a favorite fast food joint, and sufficient to get party-goers from one bar to the next. But in the US, the technology may never reach South Korean levels, forcing developers to design location-appropriate apps that know more or less where you are.
  • Going global – Affluent consumers enjoy AAA mobile titles like Infinity Blade, but simpler games like those built around text messaging are big in other parts of the world. As a result, systems are in motion for players to spend fractions of a cent on freemium games – these are truly “micro” transactions, but can add up quickly at scale. Other issues affect the global marketplace like the aforementioned variety of handsets and service providers.
  • More bumps in the road –The panel sited a wide range of potential problems for mobile gaming. Small screens make it difficult to display a lot of information at once, and require new input methods. Flat glass touchscreens lack tactile feedback, and while there have been attempts at innovative solutions for text input, some game genres just don’t work with a virtual d-pad.

A truly console-like mobile experience is still on the horizon. In the meantime, cell phone gaming has some key strengths; location data can define each player’s competitive landscape. I may never be the world’s best Orbital player, but I stand a chance of breaking the Top 100 in southern Manhattan. The infrastructure does not yet exist for my iPhone to know which isle of a supermarket I’m browsing. And that’s just fine by me  = ]

Speakers included:

Eric Goldberg – Crossover Technologies

Nick Herbold – SCVNGR

David Bisceglia – The Tap Lab

Mike Oldham – Infared 5/Brass Monkey

Tom Dusenberry – Dusenberry Entertainment

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