For two days London was the epicentre of the mobile games industry, as the 9th annual Mobile Games Forum took place at the Hilton Tower Bridge hotel 25th and 26th of January.

An event like this is a good indicator of where the industry is at, and more importantly, where it is heading. Last year’s focal topics were whether or not to go freemium, what to do with location based services, and which platforms to embrace. This year’s event showed deeper signs of maturing as speakers were presented more forward-looking plans and showed concern with external adoption from both consumers and businesses alike. Of special interest were discussions around design convergence that have greater console-like experiences; the role of games in mobile transmedia; and the introduction of key performance indicators for stimulating transparency.

Design Convergence

An unscheduled but welcomed panel discussion explored what makes a quality social mobile game. Henrique Olifers, former studio director at Playfish and founder of the social games studio Bossa Studios, offered interesting insights. Across the board, a psychological and emotional drive to play a game is what defines quality, regardless of platform or genre. This intrinsic motivation leads to “thinking about the game while not playing it”. It is exactly this drive that makes players coming back to their favourite games.

The methods used in social games are rather simple. A game like Farmville offers little narrative background and its retention techniques, such as harvesting crop, are not particularly fine-grained. The sophistication found in console games is not required since social mobile games cater to an audience of non-game players who are looking for low entry barriers to play. This audience however, is becoming increasingly acquainted with games and with this increased knowledge comes higher thresholds. As a consequence, the panel foresees an “arms race” in technical, narrative and game-play design advancements. With marketing expenditures already rapidly increasing, the social games ecosystem will not be unlike its console counterparts in the near future.

Mobile Transmedia

The advent of linkages between mobile games and non-game properties or real-life brands was a recurring subject during the conference and seen as good business practice. Interesting insights came from Ray Sharma from XMG Studios, Canada’s second largest development studio. While cross (mobile) platform endeavours were the topic of last year’s discussion, Sharma was looking ahead by exploring cross-media, or transmedia, strategies. XMG’s mobile game for the somewhat forgotten animated TV series ‘Inspector Gadget’ spun-off a range of side products including best-selling ringtones, up to the point where the game “reinvigorated the TV series”. Indeed, a new season of the series is currently in the making.

Sharma took this transmedia perspective one step further by drawing the analogy of the mobile phone being a remote control, or hub, for various interrelated mobile media. XMG’s pinnacle of this approach is the recently released Totally Amp’d, the first interactive sitcom for smartphones and tablets. Spread over ten episodes, the player follows a group of teens on their road to stardom and while doing so the player decides on the content of the teens’ video clips, records tracks in a karaoke studio, and decides what the stars-to-be should wear.

Totally Amp’d trailer

Transmedia efforts are pretentious to say the least, and require a lot of coordination between companies with various specialities. Furthermore, like any pioneering or innovative service, profits are far from given. Having said that, if these efforts do work out, the return on investment is likely to be very high.

Increasing Transparency

The first two topics, convergence with console experiences and cross pollination with other media industries, point towards increasing maturity for the mobile games industry. Whereas the console games industry is dealing with signs of decline, signs of growth in mobile abound. For example, 15% of last December’s retail shopping activity in the UK came from mobile. In spite of these staggering figures for the mobile games industry to enjoy greater recognition from consumers and businesses the industry needs more established metrics on effectiveness and quality.

Michael Schade CEO of successful advergaming studio Fishlabs highlighted the importance of generally recognized measures of effectiveness. Brands and other media might still be reluctant to partner with mobile games studios since there is little knowledge on what constitutes success and how to measure it. The same applies to measures of quality. While there are many analytics to be used, there still is “not a lot of knowledge on analytics”. According to the previously mentioned panel on quality, mobile games are in need for a unified key performance indicator of quality (like Metacritic for console games). Whether this is done through retention, featured by the platform owner, or daily active users, institutionalizing such metrics will help amplifying the success stories and leads to an ever bigger market opportunity.