At the Game Developers Conference (GDC) last week in San Francisco, a special track was devoted to online games. The market potential is breathtaking as we near the worldwide landmark of three billion mobile phones. But game publi

shers are aware they have so far failed to capture the interest of these users who are new to games. For the opening keynote speech, Game Developers Conference Mobile attendees were in for a treat with Trip Hawkins, the founder of video game giant Electronic Arts and now head of Digital Chocolate, a mobile game publisher whose titles include Tower Bloxx and MLSN Sports Picks. The gaming veteran was there to deliver a wake up call though. “We must create a new experience for a new customer. Hardcore gamers only represent 5% of players on mobiles, we must reach the other 95%,” he told a room packed full with fellow developers and publishers. To Hawkins’ regret, the current offering is far from stellar. “Of the top 20 games, only 15% are original. Another 15% are expensive property licences that do not create any value and provide an inferior experience. The rest are retro games like Pacman, Tetris and Solitaire. This is not the way we will expand. Every new medium has to find what it is good at,” Hawkins urged attendees. “Even though it has limitations, we must think of the mobile as its own platform and developers must have a craftsman mentality to embrace the challenge.” Figures about the mobile market by Telephia (click to enlarge) Figures presented at the conference by market-research firm Telephia showed that, during Q4 2006, more than 17 million Americans downloaded a game on their cell phone generating 151 million dollars in revenues. EA Mobile takes the lion’s share with 27,5% of revenue shares, followed by Gameloft and Glu Mobile who both have about 10% and a slew of about 90 other players trying to cash in on this lucrative market. Among the most popular titles in terms of the share of downloads are Tetris (EA Mobile), Zuma (Glu Mobile) and UNO Challenge (Oasys Mobile). Another finding from Telephia is that 65% of those who purchase games for their cell phones are women and 40% are users between 25 and 36. Not your average hardcore player. “We don’t know who are our customers are,” confirmed John Szeder, CEO of mobile studio Mofactor. “They are disappointed by their first experience because of the generic games offered by carriers and they will never come back.” Szeder has a few suggestions for developers: “Make games that can be played with one thumb, include tutorials, but quickly get into the game, think about mechanisms that encourage them to play again, hook them up with their friends.”   Taking advantage of the mobile Social networking and customization, two concepts that have been successful on the Net, were indeed buzzwords at GDC this year and mobile gaming was no exception. “Mobile games must borrow ideas that work from sites like YouTube and Twitter since this is your competition for people’s entertainment time: incorporate player-created content, social features and tools for sharing content,” advised wife-and-husband team Amy Jo and Scott Kim of Shufflebrain whose clients include Electronic Arts, eBay and Yahoo. Paul Coulton, a game developer and researcher at the Lancaster University in England, pointed attendees in another direction. Based on the advances of technology and his own experiments, he painted a picture of RFID-enabled phones being able to download games off a poster or use real-life objects for a mixed-reality gaming experience. He encouraged developers to make use of the integrated camera and cited the example of Buddy Bash where the player is boxing against an opponent whose face can be replaced by that of one’s friends. Another exciting development for game developers, he said, is the integration of motion sensors and GPS devices into cell phones. At the end of the first day, attendees gathered to attend the Mobile Game Innovation Hunt where 14 developers presented new games under the cheers or boos of the crowd. The two winners were Tornado Mania, a global warming-inspired game in which a tornado tears through a city, and Sil in which the player manipulates objects to make them fit shadows. None of the presenters seemed to have headed the advice given earlier in the day with the possible exception of a Danish developer whose game used the phone’s Bluetooth capability. Isabelle Boucq for Atelier