Following The Frog

Legendary games publisher Konami ("Metal Gear Solid," "Contra," "Castlevania") has an interesting way of researching the viability of a new platform. They throw a frog at it to see if it sticks...or croaks, as the case may be. "For us, 'Frogger' is a very stable bellwether," says Jim Bradbury, Executive Director of Mobile Operations, Konami Mobile. "You will see 'Frogger' come out first on the mobile side. It generates a huge amount of revenue for us. After it has been live we get a sense of what sales will be like and we can project [other titles] based on the performance of 'Frogger.'"

While my game playing goes back to ColecoVision and the first '70s arcades, I admit that I am not a "Frogger" player. I can't take the pressure. The Terminator-like relentlessness of navigating even this cute amphibian across a busy roadway is just too much tension for me. For some reason, a "Halo 3" bloodbath is more manageable. "Guitar Hero" gives me that same "Frogger"-like anxiety. Maybe it has to do with the mechanical nature of incoming challenges, that conveyer belt feel. Maybe I had trouble crossing streets as a kid. I'll ask my mother. Or make a special appointment with my therapist.

Clearly I am in the minority. "Frogger" is a hit on most platforms, especially mobile, because it is perfectly constructed for handsets. A single directional pad is all you need to control the thing. Graphics are simple and unambiguous, CPU load is low, and the rules are immediately understandable to at least two generations. "It has been in the top ten for five years," says Bradbury. "It accounts for a large amount of our revenue on mobile devices."

"Frogger" and a careful approach to releasing new games on mobile are the main reasons Konami can make a rare claim in the mobile gaming market, profitability. While many dedicated mobile gaming companies and divisions of larger firms report steady losses as everyone waits for the platform to hit its stride, Konami makes money, according to Bradbury.

He also sees that mobile gaming is not for the faint of heart. It is getting harder, not easier, to make a serious play here simply because of fragmentation. In just the last year, the emergence of Windows Mobile and Blackberry as important markets, new touch screens, and other development just make the economics of publishing tech-sensitive content like games more challenging. "Execution is extremely important," he says. "It is a lot to manage when you have one title and 800 SKUs just in North America. For a content provider, if you don't have the infrastructure set up to execute on those levels it is a tough world to live in and justify from an investment standpoint."

Having been at the business of game publishing across platforms that come and go over the past 30 years, Konami is not easily dazzled by newcomers. Bradbury didn't jettison his usual checklist of criteria when the iPhone opened the doors to third-party development. He stuck with the tried and true tactic - send the frog first. See what he tells us. While others clamored to ride the Apple coolness vibe, Bradbury kept his cool. "In the run up to the launch of the App Store, there were a lot of question marks out there. We have had the SDK for a while but no idea how the marketplace will work, what the business rules are for promotion, how to dialogue with Apple." The App Store may have a search engine and a PC-based interface that opens up discovery more than the usual phone deck, but placement and merchandising remain important here. "How long does something stay in the 'What's New' are or what are the business rules for getting into 'What's Hot?' You have to have an understanding of how the channel works," says Bradbury.

In other words, despite the hype and the new openness of the App Store, it is a mistake for publishers to think that somehow all the old rules have been rewritten when it comes to investing in and merchandising mobile applications. And it takes a larger company with a longer history to bring some perspective to the actual scale the iPhone represents, relative to the other platforms. "Frogger" has done well and generated enough revenue to encourage Bradbury to develop further. "Compared to off-deck [games] sales, it blows that out of the water," he says. Nevertheless, when it comes to planning overall investment of resources, hype and coolness still take a back seat to the realities of scale. "It is at the top end of the mix for what we call second tier carriers."

Like most big companies and legacy brands, Konami thinks that even in the more open platform the App Store represents, marketing heft and production values will out in the end. Bradbury seems to give a nod to the grassroots creativity of indie developers here who now get to share a storefront with EA, Konami, and SEGA. They bring new ideas to a games market that can get stale on classics. But it is only a nod. "The ability of one-off content is probably going to move away a little bit and you will see more of the top selling content controlled by the companies that have the resources to put big budgets into development. Whenever you have an open platform, this is the life cycle you are going to see."

Well, we will see if that is what we see. I am encouraged that openness will breed a greater diversity of creative content, and mobile gaming is one place where the playing field evens out well. I continue to think that mobile gaming is a low-priority item for most mobile users, which is why we still see consumer indifference to sophisticated game design and big marketing pushes. Generally, the recommendation engine built into the App Store should help interesting titles float to the top regardless of big media muscle. Only a few branded games are in the top ten right now. Perennials like "Frogger" and Scrabble are not among them. At least so far, the bestseller list in the App Store seems more fluid than typical deck hot lists. And we still don't know how the co-existence of free and fee-based content shapes buying behavior. The rules of the game have changed. We just don't know how.

Tags: mobile
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