Commentary

Mobile Gaming Goes In Two Directions At Once

Some interesting data from comScore yesterday demonstrates both how critical smartphones are to the future of mobile marketing and how much more penetration is needed for critical mass. Despite the apparent resurgence of mobile gaming in the past year, fueled principally by touch screens, the number of people playing games on their phones actually declined between February 2009 and February 2010 by 13%. This seeming dip in the market was driven entirely by a 35% drop in gaming among feature phone users, even while the number of smartphone owners who game escalated 60%. That stat shows at once how powerful gaming has become on the next-gen devices -- but also how 80% of the market remains on feature phones.

We can't get into the heads of feature phone owners, but I am guessing that their gaming is plummeting in part because they can see how limited and inferior the gaming experience is on their phones compared to the dazzling experience now possible on touch screen. I am also not sure how much new game development and promotion is going on for this market, now that so much energy and focus is on smartphone software development.

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The good news for marketers is that smartphone gaming is just going through the roof, not only in expanding reach but frequency and depth of usage. ComScore reports that 47.1% of smartphone owners play at least once a month, with 13.3% gaming every day and another 16.4% playing at least every week. By comparison only 15.7% of feature phone owners play at all each month. Of smartphone owners, 27.3% have at least one title installed on their phones, and 9.4% have six or more.

One thing continues to be a constant in mobile gaming, or at least it has for the decade or so I have covered mobile and portable gaming: casual rules. Despite all of the hype and dev dollars pouring into more sophisticated game designs, the most-played genres by far remain arcade/puzzle, card and word or number games. For all the games I have on my phones, the simple and free Word Warp is the one I use at least once a day.

Surveys in the past have shown that people come to casual games for a therapeutic fix of relaxation. This is something I think many game designers overlook or choose to ignore. The best casual games effect a delicate balance between challenge and reward, and they get the player into a kind of rhythm that is itself soothing. I love my Nintendo DS Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks game. I really do. But it has me stuck on a boss I find impossible to kill. At 12:30 at night, I don't want to end the day frantically swiping my stylus only to feel my blood pressure rise in another frustrating defeat. I haven't played the thing in months now -- but Word Warp is my nightly companion.

The beneficiary is the advertiser and gaming ad network Greystripe that powers this particular game. I get hit with full screen interstitials after every few rounds. The ads are extremely effective, at least in terms of branding. I am well aware now that Bing has an iPhone app (enough, already, Greystripe), although I have not clicked through on the interstitial to download it. Within the context of gaming in particular, I think the user is more receptive to multimedia ad units, because they are in keeping with the formats of the game experience. Moreover, the value exchange is unmistakable to the user. If a game has a real role in my life (relaxation), then I attribute a value to the experience that is above and beyond typical content. The advertiser who underwrites that experience is earning my attention.

The comScore numbers suggest that gaming for smartphone owners has the kind of regularity and reach that make the genre more than a novel one-off for ad experimentation. There seems a real opportunity developing to align brands with a valued part of everyday life and experience. Gaming is a fascinating evolution in modern media. We know how passionate users are about their interactive gaming, whether it is hard core controller mashing or the hours Mom spends with Luxor. And yet marketers are still struggling to figure out how to leverage this new kind of relationship we have with gaming media. At the very least, gaming forces both media makers and sponsors to think harder about the complex ways in which we consumers actually relate to media as an experience, not just as a product we consume.

3 comments about "Mobile Gaming Goes In Two Directions At Once".
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  1. Darrin Dickey from Passport to History, April 16, 2010 at 9:20 a.m.

    I wonder if the survey includes iPod Touch. Since I got mine over a year ago, I haven't played a single game on my cell phone. And the iPad is going to cut into those numbers even further.

  2. Karen Albritton from Capstrat, April 16, 2010 at 10:58 a.m.

    Darrin raises a good point. The iPad and other tablet devices may also cut into gaming on mobile phones. But regardless of device, I think mobile gaming, including serious gaming for learning and informational purposes will likely increase.

  3. Steve Smith from Mediapost, April 16, 2010 at 12:38 p.m.

    @Darrin and @Karen: Since the Touch is using the same apps as the iPhone, I don't know if it matters either to the developers which of the two people game on. I guess it might impact dynamic ad serving into the apps for those who are playing while unconnected to WiFi.

    As for the iPad, there is no killer game for it yet. But just from playing a few small games on it, I think there is a very different experience available here. Gaming on iPad really could be on an order much different from the rest. Touch screen gaming for one or more people at this form factor could be amazing.

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