Since I began covering mobile media back in 2004 or so, I seem to have been writing an annual rant that urges Nintendo to come in and "own" the mobile gaming market. For years, feature phone game design sucked so badly no matter how many big guns were aimed at it, mobile seemed the perfect place for this master of simple, clean gaming.
Nintendo's remarkable success on the dedicated handheld console should have informed any mobile game maker. But instead we got overwrought titles aimed at hard-core players who themselves would rather play a simple falling block game on their phone. There were tons of games designed for the DS especially that begged for translation to phones. Nintendo itself was not interested, and only a handful of its third-party designers ever bothered to port titles to phones. After all, most of them soon learned that more than half of a game design budget for the feature phone market was eaten up by platform porting costs. The economics of mobile gaming didn't make much sense.
Now that smart phones have simplified the games platform somewhat, and touch screens and accelerometers expand the possibilities, we really have a robust market developing. As Nintendo watches its market share in mobile gaming dwindle, its options for entering the market are much smaller now than they may have been. IPhone, Android and perhaps Windows Phone 7 platforms now pose such an obvious and direct rival for their audience's attention, porting Mario or the superb Prof. Layton series to smartphones would seem too much of a risk to their core platform.
And in some ways the developers for touch screen gaming have vaulted beyond handheld gaming as we have known it, and are playing with design ideas and interface techniques that are so new and refreshing they speak far beyond the gaming audience. Marketers who are looking to involve their users with touch-screen mobile applications might start playing more games. These game makers are thinking not only about interface but about the visual, tactile nature of engagement.
Take Telltale Games' "Puzzle Agent." The adventure puzzler is like the Prof. Layton series on the DS, in that it is merely a series of brain teasers knit together by some adventure elements and a distinct visual style. In this case, the developers channel the limited animation tradition of UPA Studios back in the '50s that made Gerald McBoing Boing and Mr. Magoo with a stylized, slightly abstract simplicity of line and layout. The puzzling is brought to life by the frustrated cubicle-dwelling character, FBI puzzle expert Nelson Tethers.
There are a couple of lessons from this game. First, design simplicity and even artful crudeness can work especially well on a handheld. Designing for every last pixel of these high-resolution displays is not always effective. But more to the point, mobile is the place to personify a brand. Best Buy's very good shopping app features one of its blue-shirted associates when the app loads, which is a very nice touch. It would be even better if brands followed through on that good idea. Why aren't there "hosts" to apps? Isn't the mobile platform (a person-to-person technology) the right place to revive the character trademark?
If you haven't already, run from this column to download the incredible "UFO on Tape!" game from Revolutionary Concepts. Wow! The brilliant and simple concept is that the phone becomes the viewfinder of a camcorder that you must use to track a flying saucer you and your friends see while driving. You tilt and swivel your phone to keep the UFO in frame, and your friends are giving you cues, kudos and snarky comments along the way. This is an amazing use of the smartphone environment to create a deeply engaging fun realism. The superimposed UFO changes from session to session, as does the verbal urging of your friends. Play it once and you will be hard-pressed to stop because the impulse to see what happens next is delicious.
The potential to tap into the basic use cases of mobile and create wholly involving experiences is enormous. These technologies engage us on a different level by leveraging kinetic interaction. As Nintendo found in its Wii-mote, getting people to move in order to control multimedia involves them in a new and deeper way. There is a good reason why Angry Birds and Skee Ball are atop the bestselling game apps on the iPad, for instance. They don't just use the touch interface. They use touch to involve the user in the physics of an imagined world.
What the best game designers already know, marketers perhaps still need to discover. The ways in which people ordinarily engage with their world, through personality and physical acts that affect outcomes, are the best ways to get users to invest themselves in any created environment -- including a brand.