Irish wireless games developers face twin challenges from large publishers and cheaply produced games emerging from Asia, a talk digital seminar on mobile gaming business models was told. The publishers control many of the licences that are crucial for a wireless game to stand out and sell in a crowded market.

“Bigger publishers are moving into the market and licencing branded games, making if more difficult for small games developers to get a foothold in the business,” Michael Rogers, Creative Director of Selatra, told an audience at the Digital Hub on 11th May 2005. Electronic Arts is among the large publishers showing increased interest in the wireless games market, which is expected to be worth $4bn in 2006. The company has plans to set up a wireless studio.

Irish developers have to keep a tight reign on production costs and develop for proven mass markets. A top five selling game in Europe can expect to make €500,000 after deductions such as royalty payments. However, as in the PC and console games markets, only the top 10 percent of wireless games make money and they must subsidise the bottom 90% of titles.

“Margins are tight because publishers aren’t paying much to develop games,” said Will Golby, Managing Director of TKO Software. “We have to develop for the mass market. We won’t invest in a 3G game yet because it’s not the mass market.”

Rogers, of Selatra, had similar concerns over 3D wireless games. “3D is a risk because of higher development costs and the small number of handsets that are 3D enabled.”

The number of potential outlets for wireless games is booming, but as with games titles themselves, only premium outlets are likely to make a return.

“The market in Europe is fragmented,” said Rogers. “Hundreds of operators or portals are selling games. But it is hard to get into the big sellers, such as Vodafone Live, which accounts for 40% of the European wireless games market.

“In the early days of the industry, you could just send out an unknown game for download and it had a chance of success. Today it is hard to have a successful game unless you have a strong licence or marketing strategy, e.g. a movie tie-in or a branded game.”

Recognised brands that are suited to the small screen of a mobile phone make for premium titles, argued Golby. Tetris is the world’s best selling wireless game, with over 12 million downloads. Developer Jambat paid $170 million to Hawaiian based company Blue Lava for a 15 year use of the licence.

Author’s Bio: Anthony Cawley is a full time researcher working at the Centre for Society, Technology and Media (STeM) at Dublin City University.