If mobile phones are the hallmark of our high-tech networked age, why do most of their games date from 1987? Check this June 2006 list of best-selling phone games (.PDF), compiled by Telephia, a performance measurement research firm in the mobile biz: Tetris, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, Monopoly, Frogger, Solitaire, Scrabble - hello, what year is this?
"Mobile gaming is the only game platform where backlist is often more powerful than frontlist," says Eric Goldberg, Managing Director of Crossover Technologies. "Tetris is arguably still the most popular game sold in the world, certainly the most popular in China. Tetris sales alone would make it the third or fourth largest mobile game publisher in the Western world. It makes it harder to introduce new titles."
Why do classic games rule our phones? "Because you have one tiny little screen to show your game," Eric says. "It's worse than Wal-Mart, where you at least have 250 visible shelf facings in the game section. A phone's entire merchandising area is less than one-sixteenth the size of a PC screen. It's 'the tyranny of 18-25 characters'" - the space for the game's name. Only strong, instantly recognized brands can dance on so small a pinhead. "And even if you're on the deck [the phone display], the question is, as with newspapers, whether you're above or below the fold." Eric can cite studies about how many phone customers see your game based on your location in the phone menu hierarchy. If your game is three screens deep, players locate it four times more often than at four screens deep. The deeper you're nested, the more you're hidden.
In years past, as board member for and advisor to publishers, Eric has worked to bring innovative games to the mobile platform, but for now, he's tabled that ambition. There's too much headwind.
"The first issue [for publishers] is making sure the carriers will place their game, so their first priority is coming up with a name people will recognize. The problem is that the market forces them to become very conservative. In 2005, I was asked on the E3 and GDC stages, what were the main issues determining success in 2005-06 in the mobile gaming industry. I said 'carrier relations and post-production.' They asked, 'What about creating innovative games?' I said, 'You'll notice I didn't say anything about that.'"
Even so, Eric believes the mobile field in the medium term "still has magnificent potential. I believe it has a good chance to become the dominant game platform." Before we get there, though, the whole system has to change. The questions are when and how. Eric has some ideas.
In the 20 years I've known Eric Goldberg, he has sounded persistently short of sleep.
A lifelong New Yorker, Eric started designing games in 1977, at age 16, at the legendary tabletop wargaming company Simulations Publications, Inc. I met him in 1984, when he was the hard-working R&D Director for the paper-game company West End Games. He co-designed (with his longtime collaborator, Greg Costikyan) the original edition of the satiric roleplaying game PARANOIA, then commissioned me to write one of its early adventures. In 1989, Eric started Crossover Technologies, an early - and impractically premature, it turned out - online game company. Crossover's biggest success was MadMaze on the Prodigy service, the first online game to gain a million players.
On a trip to London in summer 1999, Eric noticed people sending SMS messages by cell phone, a practice still unusual then in America. "At the time it cost 10P per message, roughly 15 or 16 cents, to do that," he said in a 2002 interview. "At the end of 1999 there were a billion SMS messages being sent in the British Isles each month at 10P a crack." After studying cell phone installed-base projections that predicted hockey-stick growth, Eric raised a million in venture capital and, with Greg Costikyan and Jonathan Zamick, started a "Silicon Alley" tech company, Unplugged Games. His timing was better here; Unplugged launched games with Verizon in December 2000 and Sprint in January 2001. However, Unplugged ran aground for two reasons: too little money and extremely bad luck. Unplugged secured new financing, but scheduled it for September 18th, 2001 - "which, as a date to be in New York City and trying to get things done was, shall we say, poor timing."