Technology

Gaming Goes Business Casual


Game makers capitalize on the office sensation BrickBreaker by bringing Monopoly, Tetris, and dozens of other titles to the BlackBerry

Time was, mobile games were distinctly aimed at younger users—cell-phone-toting teens and young adults with time to spare and a hankering for entertainment extras on handsets, music players, and personal digital assistants.

But lately a host of game developers have set their sights on Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry handhelds and the older, more affluent business professionals addicted to them. It began with BrickBreaker, a simple paddle-and-ball diversion that evoked classics Pong and Arkanoid preloaded on all BlackBerry models. Players earn points by volleying a ball against bricks and advance to the next level after clearing all the bricks from the screen. In some offices, executives began blowing off meetings or holding calls in attempts to shatter high scores, posted in online forums. The phenomenon was chronicled in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Targeting a New Demographic

Maybe mobile games could take off with an older demographic after all. "Business executives buy these devices because they have a business need that has to be met, but they live with the device itself intimately and it becomes very personal," says Douglas Edwards, co-founder and chief marketing officer for game maker Handmark in Kansas City, Mo.

In hopes of making headway with men in the 25-to-44 age range—a demographic that has shunned mobile gaming—Handmark made its first few titles available for Internet download in 2005, with impressive results. It markedly expanded that part of the business last year. It's not hard to see why: The market for mobile gaming is set to crack $1 billion before 2010, from $722 million in 2006, according to IDC Research.

Handmark now offers about 30 titles for the BlackBerry—everything from Tetris to Texas Hold 'Em—and is adding about one game a week to its lineup. The games sell for $9.99 to $19.99. Handmark, which also offers a variety of business and entertainment applications for Palm (PALM) Treos, Cingular (T) Blackjacks, and other popular PDAs, says that the BlackBerry games are by far the fastest-growing part of the business and now boast conversion rates about twice those of Palm and other mobile devices. The company won't say how many games it has sold but says retail outlets such as Target (TGT), Best Buy (BBY), and Office Depot (ODP) have helped it garner 43% of the retail mobile gaming market.

RIM's Open Invitation

Another game maker and vendor hoping to capitalize on the new demand is Magmic Games, which has developed an online storefront called BPlay dedicated to BlackBerry games, themes, and ringtones. BPlay Vice-President Nicholas Reichenbach says the site's demographic is about 90% male and mostly between the ages of 25 and 40. The market for BlackBerry gamers is currently about 650,000 strong, according to Reichenbach, and the number of games sold on BPlay last year was "in the millions."

There are about 8 million BlackBerry subscribers around the world. Getting many more of them to join the mobile gaming fray won't be easy, says IDC gaming analyst Billy Pidgeon. "Games are a hard sell in that particular group."

That's not slowing down game developers. Unlike Apple (AAPL), which handpicked a half-dozen game makers to bring games to its iPod (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/9/07, "Apple Embraces Casual Gaming"), RIM gave an open invitation to third-party developers that wished to build games using the J2ME library of code.

"Not surprisingly, we're seeing third-party developer interest continue to scale along with our customer base," Mark Guibert, RIM's vice-president for corporate marketing, writes in an e-mail. RIM welcomed software developers into its BlackBerry Alliance, which provides support to the vendors as well as sneak peeks at products in development.

Optimized for Gaming

As with games on the iPod, BlackBerry games are more an added feature than a selling point for the devices themselves. "Primary applications such as phone, e-mail, Internet and intranet access, and other factors…still rule the day in terms of purchasing decisions and loyalty, but gaming is catching on," Guibert says. Just don't expect to see BlackBerry touting its viability as a mobile gaming device any time soon.

Guibert declined to speculate that future BlackBerry design and technology might take gaming into greater consideration, but the game makers like the improvements they've seen so far. The new BlackBerry 8800 and Pearl models feature higher-resolution screens and a trackball, which create a better gaming experience (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/5/07, "A Sweeter BlackBerry"). "The screens have gone from being abysmal to fabulous. Now their screen technology is as good or better than anybody else's," says Handmark's Edwards.

The new Pearl, which also packs in a camera and MP3 capabilities, is ushering in a new demographic for RIM: younger consumers (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/7/06 "BlackBerry's First Stab at Fun"). So while game makers may have surprised even themselves at their ability to turn guys in suits into regular lunch-break gamers, a crowd of youngsters with a natural affinity for gaming and more time on their hands could be in the cards for BlackBerry.

Click here for a slide show of games available for the BlackBerry.


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