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Last Updated: Friday, 7 July 2006, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Mobile phone firms playing to win
Ian Hardy
By Ian Hardy
Click's North America technology correspondent

When games arrived on mobile phones many hailed them as the next big thing. But several years on and with more games than ever to choose from, has it become the money maker US phone companies thought it would?

Mobile phone game
Games may be more sophisticated, but do users want them?
In a very short time mobile games have improved thanks to better screens and higher processor speeds on handsets.

Indeed the 3D graphics on today's phones have been compared to those seen on the PlayStation console.

But according to one analyst, phone gaming has stagnated in the US.

M:Metrics's Seamus McAteer says: "Game downloads, on a monthly basis, are relatively flat, so the market is relatively flat even though we're continuing to see the launch of a lot of new titles being made available on mobile phones."

M:Metrics say that in March this year 2.7% of US cell phone subscribers downloaded games, compared to 4.2% in the UK.

We need to change the consumer experience
Greg Sauter, Nokia
Less then 1% of new subscribers tried games, and most did not go back for more. Consumers cite cost and quality as the biggest concerns.

Phone makers say they know users are unhappy.

Nokia spokesman Greg Sauter said: "We don't change the industry and we need to change the consumer experience.

"You're going to hear a lot about experiences from Nokia, but we need to change that overall end-to-end experience.

We can't be in a situation where in any particular case 30% of the people downloading mobile phone games aren't getting it, or it doesn't work, or they're dissatisfied."

Niche gaming

Mobile phone screen showing a game downloading
Downloading games can prove to be too costly for some users
In the US games cost up to $10 (5.40) each - a very high price if users only play a few times before getting bored. Some consumers have been burned by the alternative method of payment - a monthly subscription that quickly adds up.

One way out, say some, is in marketing to small groups of users. For instance, Limelife targets women with its "Girls Night Out" selection.

Limelife's Marci Wiesler says: "We have done a lot of proprietary research. Limelife as a company really thinks a lot about research and making sure we're not making assumptions based on our own opinions.

"One of the things that came out of some of the research that we've done in-house is that a lot of women don't like to play against the clock. So we've made it a feature of our applications that if there is a clock you can actually turn it off so you can take your time, play at your leisure.

"A lot of women have interruptions while they play and you don't want that to happening to you."

Platform intergration

When it comes to gameplay most of us treat the mobile as a standalone device, but not if Bill Gates has his way.

He says: "You can start a game on Xbox, continue it on the phone, there are games that will work that way. Schedule things to happen from your phone; a download that you might want to set up on a different device."

Big game manufacturers are snapping up their mobile counterparts quickly
In Microsoft's vision a racing game might be played on the Xbox 360, edited on the PC and tweaked on the phone. But for that to be a reality, Windows mobile needs to dramatically increase its customer base around the world.

Telephia's Jerry Rocha says: "Microsoft has their own way of doing things and I think that they want to see that happen. Whether that will happen or not is a little bit unclear.

"Obviously, Windows controls the desktop world, and they are ahead on the console side with the new generation. The mobile side is still a little bit unclear because the Microsoft operating system for the phones is still a very small part of what's happening in the mobile world."

Meanwhile, the big game manufacturers are snapping up their mobile counterparts quickly.

Electronic Arts recently bought mobile game maker, Jamdat, in a deal worth nearly $700 million (380 million). Overpriced, said some analysts, unless EA can re-ignite the mobile market.

Apart from the odd world record attempt here and there, it may be that the platform has peaked and casual gamers no longer want quiz games or Tetris.

And serious gamers may be saving their cash to splash out on one of the new high definition console epics due soon rather than wrestle with a cut-down version of a title they already know.

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