Redial III: Pass The PSP

I was going to devote this installment of my series of mobile content check-ups to cell phone gaming. But then I realized that there hasn't been much excitement at all in recent months over this once-promising category. The last mobile game I played with any enthusiasm was last year's Doom RPG, because it turned the classic shooter into a novel turn-based system. There have been precious few mobile titles that excited anybody, even the PR guys who are supposed to flack this stuff. From what I could see, the usual gusher of press releases surrounding each and every title started drying up earlier this year. Man, when the kids in PR lose interest, you know something is up.

It's not that mobile gaming is in trouble. In fact, Telephia reports that revenue for mobile games jumped 63% in Q2 2006 over the same period in 2005, although the number of actual downloads only increased 15%. M:Metrics reports that in September about 3.4% of mobile users downloaded a game, which is not the sort of take-up game developers anticipated. There was a lot of hand wringing this year about the platform not living up to expectations, tied to the idea that game companies were not marketing well, that they were choking the deck with too many titles, and that the market wanted less ambitious and more casual games.

After years of hyping the sophisticated game play possible on newer handsets, consumers just yawned. Tetris and Pac-Man remain far and away the bestselling titles on handset. It is not that these familiar and rudimentary titles are particularly good. It is just that users don't much care whether their mobile games are all that evolved.

My theory about the current blandness of the mobile game market is that U.S. users (the situation is different elsewhere) just don't care enough about playing games on phones. A lot of people do play phone games here and there, but they just don't expect or want to be dazzled by what a developer can do here. Let us just match the damn blocks and eat the bloody dots, and go off and make your 3D RPGs for some other two-inch screen.

One study this year found that product involvement in this category is so low that even hard core console/PC gamers have much, much lower expectations of their handset games and like to keep it simple and quick on phones. It's as if all of these talented game developers are hitting their heads against a brick market. In the traditional console game market, fan boys salivate for months over upcoming bleeding edge titles, and their tight buying cycles burn through a dozen titles a year. On phones, many of us still play whatever game came free on our year-old handsets. The marketing and consumption cycles are completely different here.

A few companies like GameJump want to make a model around consumer indifference to mobile game development by wrapping ads before and after free games. When I tried it again recently, I found the mobile ad network technology works well enough. Now you get two ad spots fore and aft. But the direct-to-consumer Web-based model has the same hurdles now it had ten years ago for Web start-ups--finding an audience in a field of countless choices.

I am still not convinced that pricing is the real issue for consumers with mobile games. True, most of us don't value mobile games enough to pay for them, but then again, most of us don't value mobile games enough to hunt around for them online even if they are free.

Of course, a little bit more imagination in casual game design might help. How many variations on swapping jewels and shooting marbles can the market stand? If mobile game developers want to wake up consumers, they might look to their cousins on the handheld consoles. Games like "LocoRoco" on the Sony PSP and "Brain Age" on the DS are genuine innovations that keep it imaginative and simple. In "LocoRoco," you rotate the game world to move a gelatinous blob through the levels, with background music that sounds like "It's a Small World" on helium. "Brain Age" is a series of quick brain teaser puzzles that you can drop into for a few seconds at a time. Why can't mobile game developers try novel designs like this and grab a little free press simply by being different?

The handheld console segment seems to have slipped under the radar of in-game and around-game marketers, but I think it is time they started taking notice of the other mobile gaming world. I can't recall seeing in-game product placements on a DS or PSP, although millions of these addictive handhelds have been sold. The best thing that marketers can do is not get in the game so much as around it--to enable and extend the gamer's passion, not interrupt it. Both Heavy.com and GameSpot offered sponsored PSP movie clips and game trailers for free downloading, but Sony itself is only starting to ramp up its wireless portal strategy for the device. Now you can download demos directly over the PSP's WiFi collection, and PS3 owners (all three of them) can buy some older Playstation title that have been ported for the PSP and then transfer them to the handheld. There have got to be many opportunities for sponsors to offer free game add-ons and demos.

There is a lot of room for marketing creativity when it comes to people's passions. Nintendo, which does with finesse and creativity what Sony usually does with sheer marketing throw-weight, is hitting home runs galore with the DS. Last year it partnered with McDonald's so DS owners could use the restaurant's WiFi free in order to play online multiplayer titles. So where do you think most kids want to go now for dinner out... and then linger... and linger?

I would love to sit here this time next year and discuss something new and interesting that happened in 2007 in mobile gaming. Game publishers, developers, and the carriers don't really have to look far to see fresh ideas in design and marketing. Just look over the shoulder of the kid sitting next to you on the train.