Op/Ed: 'Was that Portability or Port-Ability?'
Mofactor CEO John Szeder examines the porting problem from a developer's point of view. Are content creators actually making the porting dilemma bigger, not smaller?
When people talk about mobile games I often go through great pains to get people to replace the term "mobile games industry" with the expression "mobile games marketplace". I think there is a very key distinction between those two that is worth exploring, since you can define an industry as "the aggregate of manufacturing or technically productive enterprises in a particular field, often named after its principal product" or else "systematic work or labor". A marketplace, by contrast, is defined as "any sphere considered as a place where ideas, thoughts, artistic creations, etc., compete for recognition". We are much less like a well oiled machine of industry and more like a number of eager vendors standing in our little marketplace with phones held aloft shrieking "Wireless! Get your wireless here!"
I will waive for the moment the argument that it is desirable for us to be truly be considered an industry versus a marketplace and assume it is a given. Let us examine one of the root problems that prevent us from advancing the state of affairs for everyone. It is important to note that an examination of affairs is not an assignment of blame.
Presently, the optimal path to revenues for mobile games content consists of taking a games idea whether it is original (ex. 1) or else a derivative of an established product elsewhere (ex. 2), and follow a set of steps:
1) Secure carrier approvals on application ideas
2) Finalize product development
3) Port the application to the required phones
4) Distribute the application
The way most of the carriers have structured their processes today, publishers are required to provide handset support for up to 80% of the handsets available to consumers, even though it is very likely that many of the handset builds provided to carriers are not generating significant revenues for the time and money invested in getting the applications deployed onto those handsets. This is significant because there are wide varieties of devices available and many of them have different requirements for creating games: File size limits, firmware inconsistencies, special api's for sound and graphics are just examples of the challenges faced. There are 300+ phones needed to distribute a title to cover the breadth of North America alone, and in Europe there are more phones and five languages to be considered. This creates a geometric volume of work for each title that needs to be developed: 10 titles on 300 handsets is 3000 product SKUs to manage!
Presently, most companies rely on the use of internal and external engineering teams in order to do massive volumes of their porting work manually. Some game companies loftily boast of mammoth engineering teams dedicated to making sure that applications run on the required hardware and pass device testing. Many of the above companies require teams to work on migrating their existing titles forward to maintain deck placement, as well working on the builds for their new games. This simply does not scale. Businesses that do so are merely throwing money at the problem rather than trying to solve it.
This is a systemic failure for mobile and is chiefly why we should not attempt to grace ourselves with the term "industry". We have little machinery to speak of, we have more in common with imitation leather wallet companies exploiting sweatshops in developing nations than with anything else.
There are companies that have looked to provide this as a service and/or platform to publishing partners (Javaground and Tira), however this is just a short term solution and not suitable for a publisher with long term business thinking. Porting is the lifeblood of mobile games publishing. If you cannot port, you cannot publish. While there are these companies out there that can provide porting services for publishers as a convenient business today, both of the leading vendors are businesses who have raised external capital. External capital necessitates an exit, and there will soon come the day that the meeting will be had where someone says "it says on page seven of our investor presentation we plan to sell it to Google/Microsoft/Yahoo at revenues of $XYZ". This is not such a bad thing if the acquiring company is like Verisign. This can be a very bad thing if the acquiring company is like EA or Glu (only if you are not EA or Glu, however).
It is a function of when, not if, this will occur and it is important to realize that it may not be in the new owners' interest to retain the service portion of the business.
A mobile publisher who wishes to turn revenue generation into healthy profit would be wise to consider the value of owning their own porting solution. It is possible, through our own experiences, and also through the experiences of others, to create robust top selling games and handle the vast majority of the porting process through automated tools and well crafted game engines. This prevents you from being placed at the mercy of a potential competitor through an acquisition of one of the porting platform companies out there today.
As a near term recommendation, for anyone providing porting for your business, you should make sure that they deliver all of the source code for all of the ports that they are providing. If any one such company has more than 20% of your business, you should also be mindful of what you will do when that business will be unable to work with you at a moment's notice.
These are hard recommendations but mobile is a hard industry. Having an internal solution to your porting is not just a better way to control your costs and schedule of deliveries, but also provides an insurance policy against other external issues that could drive your revenues down at the blink of an eye.
The exercise of "buy it" versus "build it" is up to the reader. It takes a profound mobile architect to create a viable porting platform, in my experience I have seen less than five mobile development systems world wide that I have truly been impressed by.
Speaking practically, it is wise to spend time and money to own platform technology to minimize work than to spend time and money on getting sets of builds delivered over time. That does not scale effectively. As your product line grows and new handsets appear, your cost structure and work load will increase geometrically.
Speaking philosophically, by creating machinery and tools that solve your porting problems, it also takes all of us one step closer to being a true mobile industry.
John Szeder is the president and CEO of Mofactor, Inc. a new mobile games publisher that is integrating best-of-breed development practices with innovative product design and distribution methods. John formed his own studio, Seismic Studios, in 2001, which is now part of Mofactor. During 2003, John was part of the launch team at Digital Chocolate, where he served as director of development.
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