Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Despatches: Mobile phones Time to play numbers game

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday April 4, 2005

The mobile games market is set to increase more than tenfold in Europe in just two years, but new research out today confirms industry expectations that this may only be the tip of the iceberg. That is because as many as a quarter of mobile phone users in the UK do not even know that their handset can download games, while only a third of users have actually done so.

The new figures come from Skopos, an independent research group, on behalf of Digital Bridges, a UK mobile games company. The UK results mirrored findings in several other European markets (Italy, Spain, Germany) as well as the US, but UK users (32%) did lag behind both the Italians (36%) and the Spanish (40%) in attempting to download games, a deficit that Digital Bridges thinks can be remedied by educating customers about the capabilities of their phones.

"We are moving from an early adopter market where there are a core of people who will try anything, to a more mass market where people are saying what am I getting before they are willing to pay 5 for a game," says Paul Maglione, senior vice president of publishing and marketing at Digital Bridges, which is rebranding itself as I-play to capitalise on the shift in the market. "It's about making the games more accessible to people through free trials and better branding."

Mobile gaming is a small subset of the $18bn worldwide PC and console gaming business but it is crucial to the future financial health of phone operators looking to diversify beyond their dependence on revenues from voice calls. Today 15% to 20% of mobile operator revenues come from so-called data services led by texting. Sending pictures from your phone and gaming are still very much incremental to operators, but as mobile handsets become more sophisticated there is more opportunity for game usage to mushroom.

"Certainly as displays get bigger and brighter with colour and bigger processors there is the opportunity to deploy more advanced games on phones," says Ben Wood, a mobile phone analyst at Gartner in the UK. "But the jury is still out on whether the market will grow as much as some of the research suggests." Wood cites the reluctance of phone operators like Vodafone to equitably share revenues with mobile game providers as one major hurdle to growth.

Skopos also found that the most popular time for people to play mo bile games is while commuting or when they are alone at home. UK respondents to the survey said that getting a free trial (18%) or better priced games (19%) would encourage them to download more games to their phones. US respondents were more price sensitive, saying a free trial (26%) or better prices (21%) would spur them to download more. Some 20% of UK respondents and 27% of US respondents said that having access to better games would also make them download more.

Taking its cue from the research, I-play will today announce several new games, including one featuring 2004 Wimbledon tennis champion Maria Sharapova, that it believes will attract new gamers. The company also plans to market its new I-play brand to create a destination for quality mobile games content. Screen Digest, which has forecast that European mobile game revenues will reach 426m by the end of this year, says that the key to making mobile gaming grow is to make the "experience as simple and transparent as possible".


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