Interview: Helio's Gaming Difference
We sat down with MVNO Helio to discuss why mobile gamers should be paying attention to their service.
Helio isn't the first (or even the second) MNVO (mobile virtual network operator) to target young consumers, but the company has a number of factors that set it apart from competitors Boost and Ampd. A joint venture between Korea's SK Telecom and Earthlink, Helio's mission statement is to "deliver cutting-edge services and exclusive devices," in large part by localizing Korean hardware and software for an American mobile market - a market that is in most ways years behind what is being accomplished in Korea.
The company only targets the high end, with its two handsets coming in at $250 and $275 respectively, and with the absolute cheapest plan beginning at $40/month (more realistic plans begin at $80). Still, the maxim "you get what you pay for" may have never before been more accurate. Helio's handsets are powerful and stylish, and its services include an exclusive partnership with social networking ubersite Myspace, as well as custom news feeds, reviews from IGN.com, music video streaming, and other high-end features.
Modojo spoke with Helio's Director of Media & Analyst Relations Rick Heineman, and Head of Games Leo Jun about how the company is specifically ahead of the mobile gaming curve, and what's next for Helio games.
The Korean Pipeline
SK Telecom's 50% stake in Helio obviously contributed to the network's focus on extremely high-end handsets, but it also gives the company an edge when negotiating the localization of some of Korea's hottest mobile games.
"Helio exists, in essence, to leverage Korea's cool stuff - to bring it over here first," Heineman explained.
"When Helio was first formed [last year], some of SK Telecom's employees were brought over to help create our backend and implement some of the Korean mobile capabilities. These individuals gave us a strong connection with Korea's largest game and software developers," Jun explained. "We have deals with the top two Korean [mobile game] publishers, com2uS and Gamevil, including some titles which are Helio exclusives. Gamevil and I have known each other for five years, and they're currently bringing over five games to Helio."
Helio's handsets support a programming language popular in Korea known as WIPI (Wireless Internet Platform for Interoperability) which runs Java apps, as well as WIPI-specific apps. This allows Helio to support a wide variety of titles from western publishers, virtually all of whom support the Java platform.
"We have a large catalogue of Gameloft games, as well as titles from Digital Chocolate, Capcom, and other Western mobile publishers. We're nearing a total of 50 titles on our deck" Jun said. "It's also worth noting that our Korean relationship isn't one way. We helped lay the bridge for Gameloft in Korea."
A Superior Shopping Experience
Helio's imported software architects were able to build a shopping experience much closer to the attractive, informative system used by Korean publishers, instead of the typically abysmal on-deck shopping of Western carriers.
"In some cases our interface is actually better than that found in Korea, because we don't have to worry about legacy support. Our two handsets are both high-end, so we were able to completely cut out the traditional chunky interface that low-end devices could handle."
Helio's game browsing experience features a lot of functionality Modojo has long insisted would help take mobile gaming to the next level of acceptance.
"We have clear genre separation, with all of our games falling into one of eight genres: action, arcade, sports, speed, casino, puzzle, RPG, and shooters," Jun said. "We also support searching, not just browsing. Users can search by title, keyword, or publisher. On our game shopping index and within each genre we have a featured game spotlight, allowing us to highlight new products or each genre's #1 game. As our number of games increases, stacking them won't be a problem, because users can search to find the title they want to download."
"For gamers who want to know more about a title before purchasing, there are deeper levels of information. We offer an animated screenshot running at the phone's native resoution, so players can see what the game looks like. We also offer one-sentence IGN reviews, as well as the full text, for gamers that one more information," Jun continued.
Expanded Revenue Capabilities
Helio's ground-up system also allows for the gifting and begging of mobile titles, which Heineman predicts will grow into a major source of revenue.
"Gifting and begging is extremely powerful. It allows for the use of content as a communication mechanism. The ability to buy a game for a friend for their birthday or create a wishlist of games you wish others would buy for you leads to much higher content consumption," he explained. "In Korea it represents a huge percentage of game purchases."