Like most 21st Century cultural phenomena, mobile gaming was kick-started by a celebrity endorsement. Ever since football’s squeaky-voiced fashion icon David Beckham stood in a supermarket queue playing PacMan on his Vodafone, mobile games have become a major revenue spinner in Ireland. After this advertisement was broadcast, hoards of teens and 20-somethings poured into retail outlets asking for “one of those Beckham phones”.

Last year a report from Analysys (a telecoms and new media analyst) predicted that by 2007, Western European consumers will spend €23bn on mobile content and entertainment services –17% of their total mobile service expenditure. Played less by dedicated gamers, more by regular Joes and Jills with a few minutes to spare on the bus, mobile games are proving a popular mass-market accessory. The console-to-wireless port – from primeval classics like Space Invaders to more recent blockbusters like Splinter Cell – is bringing plenty of tried and tested games to the small screen.

Meanwhile, an increase in technology and production values has led to the emergence of Irish development studios who are creating original mobile content. Eirplay, based in Dublin, was founded by experienced pros from the mainstream games and finance industries who first decided to dip their toes into the mobile market with the advent of Java games. Titles like Crazy Creche, Monster Madness and Toxic Terrors, have all sold well overseas – in fact, Eirplay has avoided Irish telecos altogether, and distributes its wares on the continent. Eirplay’s latest product, Curse of Khofu (which features ten animated characters), is evidence of skilled technical brushstrokes on the limited canvas of mobile phones.

Despite their quality of product, there is a consensus amongst developers in Ireland, the UK, and elsewhere in Europe, that operators must improve financial and working relationships with content providers. Are carriers striving to deliver services through their technology, or are celebrity endorsements simply slick (but vacuous) marketing tricks to sell platforms? Is consolidation amongst developers, aggregators and carriers necessary for the needs of mobile developers to be fully understood? After all, in order to harness the highly lucrative market of mobile gaming, it is in operators’ interests that they nurture developers.

One of the biggest hitches continues to be interoperability, explains Eirplay’s Peter Lynch. “A multitude of handsets with different screen sizes, combined with conflicting technology standards, makes it quite time consuming to port games to all the different handsets. We support the main handsets – Nokia, Siemens, Motorola and Ericsson – but even that can means dozens of different formats for a single game.”

Peter draws a contrast with Japan, a paradise for developers where mobile operators actively encourage content. NTT DoCoMo’s successful i-mode network allows content providers to deliver games to handsets custom built to NTT’s specifications. No faffing around there: the finished game plays across mobile devices. Under NTT Docomo’s i-mode model, 91% of revenue from applications goes to application developers – an enviable contrast to Europe where there remains no i-mode model for Java games and network providers will only assist developers in exchange for a large revenue share (ranging from 40% to 60%). In the United States, meanwhile, networks are emulating the DoCoMo model, offering J2ME game developers 80% of revenues.

Irish betting company Betdaq, owned by entrepreneur Dermot Desmond, decided to bypass telecos altogether and deliver its own mobile application. This remote gambling service is only available to Betdaq customers and does not fall under the auspices of any operator. The service runs on the XDA – a combined PDA and mobile phone,which Betdaq has customised and sells to customers – and is delivered via General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) networks. Might this betting tool provide a model that large game development studios might emulate?

“Our mobile application has been selectively distributed to higher volume users,” explains Betdaq’s Rob Hartnett. “The biggest stumbling block with the device specific solution is that you are asking your customers to use a mobile device they may not be familiar with, possibly at the expense of one they are. [With games] it would depend on whether the quality of the proposition, and the value you can derive from it, is high enough to overcome the reticence of the public towards device specific solutions.” The muted consumer reaction to Nokia’s N-Gage suggests that going it alone might be a tough route.

International steps have been taken to define mobile games interoperability specifications and application programming interfaces. The Mobile Games Interoperability Forum (MGIF), founded in July 2001 by Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and Siemens, was founded with the purpose of creating a global standard whereby game developers produce and deploy mobile games that can be distributed across multiple game servers and wireless networks. Steps are being taken to break down technical barriers although it is clear that the entertainment and gaming industry has not yet been fully able to exploit the great potential of mobile phones.

Distribution is often another sticky point in the relationship between content provider and network operator, although Irish middlemen like Trust5 are trying to make the process a little less stressful for developers.

“Trust5 have direct connections to mobile operators worldwide,” explains CEO Paul O’Grady. “It also provides its own IVR (interactive voice recognition) and internet services so we are a one-stop-shop for developers to sell their games in a country. We have partnerships with mobile operators, media companies (TV, magazines and newspapers) and retail chains. When you combine this with the fact that we produce millions of catalogues of mobile content each year, Trust5 is the ideal company for developers as we are much more than aggregators.”

Paul firmly believes that the future of mobile games lies in retail. A consumer currently orders a game by sending a text message and around €5 is then added to his or her account, but there will soon come a time when content will be packaged and sold from the shelf. “Retailing games will become more and more of a factor as phones get better and the quality of handsets improve,” adds Eirplay’s Peter Lynch.

As it stands, aggregators and developers require higher revenue shares from sales in order to develop better games and mobile gaming innovations, but Irish operators are not going to comply until technology standards behind mobile games improve. This Catch-22 is likely to remain until network providers are removed from the equation entirely and retail steps in.

“Right now Irish operators are not looking into the true demographics of the market and are just throwing games out there to see what sells,” concludes Peter. “PC and console developers receive their money upfront from the publisher. Mobile operators need to do the same thing.”

In order to increase consumer interest in mobile gaming, Irish telecos need to scale back their current business model and accept a type of revenue sharing along the lines of NTT DoCoMo. There are many ways to make money in a wireless world, but until operators and application developers cease to be at odds with one another then the mobile games market will inevitably stagnate.

Useful links:
Eirplay Games, an Irish mobile content developer
Trust 5, an Irish aggregator
BetDaq, an Irish betting company betdaqbetdaq
The Mobile Games Interoperability Forum
NTT’s DoCoMo USA with links to other offices worldwide

Author bio: Pavel Barter is a freelance journalist and member of Dublin-based guitar band the West Seventies( Both activities, he admits, beat working for a living.

Thanks also to Nicky Gogan in the Digital Hub for the montage of images from Eirplay Games which accompanies this feature.