The Games People Play -- Wirelessly


Last April, the seven-year-old wireless gaming company known as Digital Bridges changed its name to I-play and launched a more retail-driven business strategy. Until then, the London-based company had focused on wholesale relationships with big wireless companies like Britain's Vodafone (VOD) and Verizon Wireless (a joint venture between Vodafone and Verizon Communications (VZ) in the U.S.). While I-play is still a wholesale business, it also operates a new consumer-oriented Web site at www.iplay.com. The site allows consumers to learn about I-play's games lineup, and it directs them to other Web sites where they can purchase ones they like.

On Aug. 22, BusinessWeek Online Senior Writer Steve Rosenbush spoke with I-play Chief Operating Officer David Gosen about the future of mobile gaming and the outlook for wireless communications. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: What's the potential in mobile gaming?

A: The gaming console industry has sold 500 million consoles over the last 25 years. Last year, 600 million mobile phones were sold worldwide. There's a lot of room for growth. Only 5% of mobile users have downloaded a game. Mobile gaming will be a true mass market.

Q: Are mobile games mostly played by men and boys?

A: Half of the people who play mobile games are women. The gaming console business has struggled to unlock that market.

Q: What will determine the winners in this market?

A: People often go wrong in the gaming console industry because they believe if there's a technology, you have got to use it, if there is a hole, you have got to fill it. We believe you have got to keep games simple. That doesn't mean they can't be challenging. But the average mobile gamer doesn't necessary want two to four hours of game time. The average playing time is 15 to 20 minutes. You have got to keep things simple.

Q: How important will the mobile phone be in a few years?

A: I believe the mobile phone is the device of the future. People have said that about the PC and about the TV set-top box. But I think the most important device is going to be the mobile phone.

The technology is a true enabler. I carry around a phone that takes 2-megapixel photos, records video, works as an MP3 player, and plays games. It works because there's no compromise in quality from one application to another. It doesn't mean that people won't use gaming consoles to play elaborate games. But the mobile phone will become more and more important because all the applications are so logical and so strong.

Q: What is the scope of I-play's business?

A: We have relations with over 80 carriers globally. That gives us access to 600 million global subscribers on three continents, Europe, Asia, and North America. In the U.S., I-play is a top-five mobile game provider to Verizon Wireless, Sprint (FON) and Cingular [a joint venture between SBC (SBC) and BellSouth (BLS)]. In Europe, we're the No. 1 provider of games to Vodafone. We have broad relations with tier-one and tier-two wireless carriers around the globe.

Q: I-play is a privately held company. But are you willing to discuss its financial profile. Can you say what revenues are, how fast they're growing, or whether the company is profitable?

A: No, I can't discuss any of that.

Q: How large is the market for mobile gaming?

A: Globally, the mobile gaming business generates about $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year. IDC says the market is growing at an annual rate of around 50%

Q: Can you say what your market share is?

A: No, I can't say.

Q: Do you market your own content or sell games created by others?

A: We create and develop our own games. We also license ideas from other people and create games around that. We have partnerships with other companies such as Electronic Arts (ERTS). We also develop our own games such as 3D Pool. And we worked with the BBC to produce a mobile game based on Weakest Link. We worked closely with iWin to bring a mobile version of Jewel Quest to market.


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