Publishers unsure over mobile gaming
China, with its 300 million mobile-phone subscribers, presents a big opportunity for video game developers, but not everyone agrees on how best to approach the market.
In one camp are those who believe the multiplayer role-playing games popular on the internet will also be big hits on the handset.
In the other camp are those who see the handset as essentially a console but without the piracy concerns as games can be downloaded for a fee. While mobile-phone networks make online games possible, this is but one option available to game developers.
Frank Ying, game portfolio director at French developer In-?Fusio, said publishers were shying away from online mobile games because they were more expensive to produce and market.
InFusio plans to release six new games later this year, including casual and multiplayer role-playing games that allow users to play against one another. It might initially offer online games for free and charge for play later once critical mass was reached.
'We are trying to grab more share of the market. A lot of companies don't want to do online games because the cost is huge,' Mr Ying said.
The company has about 12 game titles available in China, distributed primarily through handset partners such as Ningbo Bird.
United States-based Electronic Arts plans to release 20 mobile games worldwide over the next two years, making up to 15 titles available on the mainland.
The company's approach is to extend established franchises such as Sims 2 and Fifa Soccer from the computer and console platforms into the mobile arena.
John Batter, general manager for mobile games at Electronic Arts, said the developer would put emphasis on the content and compelling game play for which the company is known.
'I agree that multiplayer gaming is important, but I think undifferentiated multiplayer gaming is not that interesting,' Mr Batter said.
'By that I mean you get online and you are playing against someone you don't know. You beat them or you don't beat them. I don't think people really care. One of the thrills of playing within a community is playing against people you know. That's what we are really trying to get to.'
Yet Electronic Arts and others are exploring ways to integrate the mobile game experience with console and personal computer-based gaming.
'In the case of the Sims, you will be able to take your Sim out of the PC game and download it to your handset,' Mr Batter said.
Norbert Chang, chief executive of Beijing-based developer Enorbus, said some game publishers were creating special virtual weapons available solely in the mobile versions of multiplayer role-playing games.
These exclusive items could then be exported from the handset to the online game and used against foes. This helps to generate additional business, because gamers who normally would not consider playing the mobile version seek out the weapons in the mobile game.
The online model for mobile games is interesting because it allows operators to earn recurring revenue by charging for play, but Mr Batter said there were other ways to generate add-on sales. This included charging for additional content - such as an extra course in a golf game - or offering tournament play.
The crux of Electronics Arts' strategy, however, will be to offer its stable of games across of range of handsets - from low-end models to more expensive phones that support 3D gaming - while still offering a rich game experience.
'What we will try to do is offer the Fifa experience to all consumers at a high quality level, but that quality level will be be determined ultimately by your handset,' Mr Batter said.
He also believed handset titles should immerse the player in robust gaming environments, just as console and PC games do. 'I think you'll see that similar evolution in mobile where the kinds of experiences are deeper and richer,' he said.