Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

It's a mobile Marvel

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday December 13, 2004

How can you get Wesley Snipes on your mobile phone? With the Blade: Trinity download game, available now, explains Kate Bulkley

Thank goodness for superheroes. Just when mobile gaming was looking for a boost, in swoops the comic book giant Marvel - home to Spider-Man, the Hulk, Blade, the X-Men and Elektra - in a deal with one of the mobile publishing industry's rising stars, Mforma.

Mforma has signed a multimillion dollar, multiterritory contract with Marvel

Mforma has signed a multimillion dollar, multiterritory contract with Marvel that will mean its 5,000 comic-book characters will be available for the creation of new mobile games, a majority of which will be developed in the UK. Some of the first Mforma/Marvel offerings will not only involve some of Marvel's best-known characters, but they will launch on the back of mega movies.

Blade: Trinity - the third film in this superhero series, which stars Wesley Snipes - is in the cinemas from this week and the Mforma role-playing game will launch on all the major UK mobile phones at the same time.

This is followed in January 2005 by the movie/mobile game launch of Elektra and in July by a Fantastic Four film and related game. Most of the mobile Marvel games will be co-developed by Mforma with Activision, a large software publisher that has developed games based on Marvel characters for the PC and console games markets.

"This is an industry-breaking deal because it is multititle, multiterritory and multiyear," says John Brimacombe, president and chief operating officer of Mforma. "And it's also important because it is not just games. Under this deal we can develop screensavers, images, animations, mobile comics and really anything to bring the Marvel franchise to mobile audiences."

Mobile gaming is just a small part of the $18bn (7.9bn) PC and console games business, but it is already worth nearly $2bn worldwide and is set for big growth in 2005, according to the Ovum consultancy.

Strategy Analytics, in Cambridge, estimates that the business will grow to $8bn in revenues by 2009 on the back of increasingly sophisticated mobile phones and better-designed content. In the UK mobile gaming revenues will nearly double to $63m this year compared with 2003; UK revenues are estimated to reach $190m by 2009.

The UK is also becoming one of the prime development hubs for mobile games because of a strong base of console and PC games developers. The UK is the biggest market for console games in Europe and mobile content already commands higher prices than any other European market, says Nitesh Patel, a games analyst at Strategy Analytics. "The UK is quite a sophisticated consumer mobile market. Ring tones have been very big here and games are likely to be similar but with higher prices, especially for branded games," says Patel.

Mforma is based in Seattle but has recently added to its UK production base with the purchase of Manchester games developer Blue Beck, while rival UK-based mobile games publisher/developer Digital Bridges raised $18m in additional funding last month from investors, including Apax Partners, to help fund its expansion into the US and Asia. Digital Bridges also recently hired the ex-MD of Nintendo Europe David Gossen as its chief operating officer as well as another ex-senior executive of Nintendo Europe, Shigeru Ota, to lead its efforts in the Japanese market.

"What you are seeing emerging is consolidation within the mobile games industry," says Paul Maglione, senior vice president of publishing and marketing at Digital Bridges. "We are going from dozens and dozens of developers a few years ago to maybe four or five super publishers who are becoming the privileged content part ners for the mobile operators."

Mforma's deal with Marvel has helped push the company into this developing super league. It is hoping that the success of Marvel PC and console games, which have sold 14.5m units in the past two years globally, will translate to a similar success in the mobile world.

Other emerging mobile gaming powerhouses include Jamdat and THQ of the US, Game Loft of France, which is owned by console game developer Ubisoft, and US-based Sorrent Inc, which earlier this month bought London-based games publisher Macrospace. Macrospace's Who Wants to be a Millionaire? mobile game, developed for owner Celador, will be available on UK mobiles this month.

The sheer number of titles launching in the next 12 months is immense, driven in large part by a rapidly growing base of mobile phones that are Java-software enabled, which means they can run more sophisticated mobile games such as the Tiger Woods golfing games from PC and console games publisher Electronic Arts (EA). Zelos, a consultancy in the US, estimates that there will be 24m Java-enabled handsets in the UK by the end of 2004, double the number at the end of 2003. Similar growth trajectories are happening in markets around the world.

EA Sports Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005

The latest version of the EA golfing game Tiger Woods 2005 is being released this week in the UK and was developed by Digital Bridges in a deal with EA. "The premise of the mobile games market was always to be for the mass market. But new games developed for the new handsets, like Tiger Woods, have a lot of functionality and cool stuff like 3D graphics and dual-screen modes and connectivity, so you can download extra stuff," says Digital Bridges' Paul Maglione.

EA Sports Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005

Mobile gaming is seen by mobile phone companies such as Vodafone and MMO2 as a key driver to help grow new revenues. Gaming is already the second most-important non-voice service behind music - specifically ringtones - for mobile operators, but more and better games are needed. "I don't think we are complaining that there aren't enough Java games out there but there is work to be done on the quality of the games and also from our side on the marketing," said Graeme Ferguson, Vodafone's director of global content development. "We want to work with publishers that have scale so they can spend the right kind of money on development."

According to mobile operators in the UK there have been some "shocking abuses" of premium-content brands by mobile games developers. Three games singled out by several operator sources include the Harry Potter game developed off the back of the Warner Bros movie, as well as the games developed for Shrek 2 and Finding Nemo, from Disney. The problem, according to mobile operators who did not want to be named, is that not enough money or attention was put into the development of these games so they were impossible or uninteresting to play.

It was in order to avoid such a bad result that Marvel decided to work nearly exclusively with Mforma and Activision on developing its stable of 5,000 characters for mobile devices. "We felt that the best way for Marvel to work in this emerging wireless world would be through one provider who would put together the resources to create a holistic programme for our properties," says Bruno Maglione, president of Marvel International based in London (no relation to Paul Maglione of Digital Bridges).

The cost to develop a mobile game is significantly less than the $10-15m it costs to develop and market a PC or console game. A mobile game can cost as little as $300,000 to develop, but the trick is having the skills to make it work across the hundreds of different phone platforms. "The mobile games business is cheaper in terms of development but it is more about getting it distributed to all the different carriers," says Maglione of Marvel. "This is the year when wireless goes from theory and potential to reality because there are now a number of games producing serious download figures and significant revenues."

One market that Marvel has held back from Mforma is Japan, because it is the "most evolved mobile market" and Maglione says he is looking for a local publisher to champion Marvel there.

The Japanese market may be excluded from Mforma's plans for comic book/mobile gaming world domination - but they are certainly well set for battle to become a key mobile publisher with the the likes of the Hulk and Spider-Man on their side.

Top 10 games ELSPA Chart for October 2004

Top 10 mobile game downloads (developer)

  • 1 Tetris (Ifone)
  • 2 3D Pool (Digital Bridges)
  • 3 PacMan (Namco)
  • 4 Swat Sniper (Elkware)
  • 5 Mafia Wars (Sumea)
  • 6 Alpha Wing (Macrospace)
  • 7 Racing Fever 2 (Sumea)
  • 8 EA Sports Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 2004 (Digital Bridges)
  • 9 Bomberman (Living Mobile)
  • 10 EA Sports Fifa Football 2004 (Digital Bridges)

Source: 3, MMO2, T-Mobile, Orange and Vodafone


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