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Mobile gaming gets its skates on

A $1bn industry and growing

Mobile games platforms

There are many ways to get a game on to a phone. The qualities of these platforms determine the gameplaying experience - which is why some work and some do not. Text games work because they are easy to understand. But their technical limitations reduce their potential. Browser-based (WAP) games don’t work because they are slow and static. Downloadable games have taken off because they play like conventional handheld games.


SMS games have been eclipsed by downloadable games - for obvious reasons. Downloads look like most people’s idea of an electronic game - colour, graphical, interactive. SMS games are really text-based quizzes. But they still fulfil a role.

As the name implies, SMS is ideal for sending individual short messages, but pretty hopeless when it comes to creating compelling multi-turn experiences. The user interface is clumsy. However, when WAP was failing during 2001/02, text games were the industry’s only viable platform.

SMS games are generally a ‘dialogue’ between the subscriber and his/her own network. For this reason, developers and publishers have sought close partnerships with individual operators. In general, operators share between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of premium SMS revenue with games providers. In Europe operators bill with a so-called ‘0 and 10’ model, where all ‘Mobile Terminated’ or incoming traffic is free to the user, while ‘Mobile Originated’ traffic costs $0.10/£0.10 to send. Elsewhere a ‘2 and 10’ model remains. Here, the user pays around $.02/£0.02 to receive an SMS message and $0.10/£0.10 to send one.

Generally, SMS games pay the content developer based on Mobile Originated revenue share deals. Networks pay between 10 per cent and 30 per cent. Premium priced SMS

Premium pricing simply means that the cost of an SMS transaction is variable based upon the message’s contents and/or where it is sent. In Europe, premium SMS is commonly used as a download billing system and it’s become a fairly lucrative way for game developers to earn revenue.

Premium SMS is also used as a payment method when charging directly for downloads is not possible. For example, off-the-page retailers and web portals will use it to charge for Java games that are free to download (excluding airtime costs).

Developing for SMS

For obvious reasons SMS games have evolved along certain common lines. Player messages have been made quick and simple (more complex responses reduce the number of messages they will send) - one word or even a single letter. Good SMS games are as much about narrative as they are about technology. The best games of this type can generate around 200,000 texts a day.


During the heady, early days of WAP some aggregators enjoyed isolated success. Perhaps the biggest of all was that of US developer Jamdat, which created a variation on ‘scissors paper stone’ called Gladiator for subscribers to the US carrier Sprint PCS in October 2000. By December 2001 over 2.5m games had been played by nearly 1.1m users and generated over 14m minutes of usage. A sequel to this game was then developed for wireless networks operated by Alltel Wireless - including AT&T Wireless, Qwest Wireless, Sprint PCS, Telus Mobility and Verizon Wireless.

But it was to be a brief burst of successful activity. WAP was flawed as a protocol for gaming. Essentially, WAP-enabled phones are small browsers that connect to the server just like an Internet browser connects to web servers on the Internet. The processing power is held completely on the server side so users can really only make choices and be progressed to a choice of further WAP pages. The games are implicitly turn-based and often very slow. So WAP never caught on as a games platform.

There is no long-term future in the ‘format’ as a stand-alone gaming platform, although many operators still offer WAP games for those who know how to find them on their browsers.

Mobile games platforms: Java, BREW, ExEn, Mophun

For years, downloadable gaming was the nirvana of the mobile games industry. Downloadable games permit animation, can be played offline and can be monetised so that consumers play the game along the lines of a traditional retail model - ie, they pay once and play offline all they like.

Of course, downloadable applications are only possible when a technology is developed that enables a program such as a game to run, to be transmitted over the air and to be understood by the user device. And these are just the basics. Other requirements include the ability to handle graphics, sound, different screen sizes and user interfaces, security, digital rights management and so on.

The most widely adopted downloadable technology is Sun Microsystems’ Java variant for small devices called J2ME. However, the perceived shortcomings of J2ME - as well as the precise demands made on mobile devices by games (as opposed to other downloadable applications)- has led to rival technologies being developed. They include BREW, ExEn and Mophun.

These platforms had achieved varying levels of market penetration. Java has been adopted all over the world, BREW in the US, China, Taiwan and Korea; ExEn in France and Germany; Mophun in parts of the Nordic region.

Copyright © 2004, Screen Digest

Screen Digest the Newsletter is the international media business's leading news & market research journal. It has been published for more than 30 years and is read in over 40 countries. Subscription details here. It is published by Screen Digest, a research company which produces a rapidly growing number of major business reports on media markets.

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