Gameloft's Guillemot on Mobile Gaming

The CEO of the Ubisoft subsidiary discusses the differences between the American and European markets, how they evolved, and where they're headed

Is the U.S. mobile game market really that far behind that of Europe's? This certainly seemed to be common knowledge, as recent as just last year. The mobile industry however, even more so than other technology sectors, is in a constant state of change. American handset technology caught up with Europe quite rapidly, so it seems only a matter of time until American attitudes towards mobile gaming mirrors that of Europe, as well.

Modojo recently had the opportunity to ask Gameloft CEO Michel Guillemot for his thoughts on the Western hemisphere's shifting mobile dynamic. Gameloft currently operates 15 regional offices across four continents, which makes Guillemot uniquely positioned to comment on comparisons between the two regions.

Modojo: Why were U.S. consumers slower to adopt mobile gaming, and a mobile lifestyle in general, in the late 1990s and early 2000s?

Michel Guillemot: There were a few factors that contributed to the slow growth of the mobile market in the U.S. Primarily, it was due to a lack of high end handsets that were 3D enabled or even game enabled. The phones that were available on the market in the 90s and early 2000 were black and white screens that were neither BREW nor Java, so you were unable to download games onto them. There were very few select phones that were game enabled, but the screens were small and it was black and white, so the idea of playing a game on your phone wasn't that exciting, especially since you had the option of colored screens on other platforms. That slowly started to change in 2002, also the same point when Gameloft entered the U.S. market. Colored screens started to appear and the notion of gaming on your phone started to shift. The graphics were grainy and the images appeared very pixilated. However, the possibility and capability to design great looking games was there. It was a matter of waiting for handset technology to catch up to mobile game capabilities.

There was also the matter of how cell phones were perceived; it went from a corporate product where only business people had them to a mass market product where every college and high school student out there owned one. After this tipping point, the cell phone became ubiquitous. Manufacturers started toying with the idea of text messaging and gaming options. Mobile applications suddenly became an interest and the idea of the cell phone as more than a talking device caught on.

Flash forward to the last couple of years and I can honestly say the cell phone has become a one stop, all-in-one entertainment device. Your phone is now capable of text messaging, internet browsing, 3D games, music and email. The graphics are crisp and detailed. Moreover, with the introduction of our real-time multiplayer technology, gamers were able to take mobile gaming to another level -- a live gaming community where you could play head-to-head simultaneous competition with anyone across the nation via your cell phone. That breakthrough was a significant point for the mobile space. To be able to engage in something like this via your phone is remarkable and is a true testament to how far mobile has come since the 90s and early 2000.

Mo: What role has technology standardization played in the success of mobile gaming in Europe compared to America?

MG: The level of technology standardization is the same in the U.S. and in Europe. However, wireless penetration had more of an impact in Europe compared to the U.S. in 2002, hence Europe's relative success at that time. Now U.S. handset penetration has reached the same level as in Europe.

Europe embraced mobile gaming a lot earlier than the U.S. Again that had to do with the availability of mobile applications and how the mass market responded to it. At the point when cell phones were spreading in the U.S., text messaging was already employed in Europe and became a very common communication channel between people. There is a correlation between the global growth of mobile gaming and handset penetration.

Mo: How big is the gap between the U.S. and European mobile gaming markets today? Or does it still even exist? In terms of awareness, revenue, game sophistication, etc.

MG: Both the U.S. and Europe are pretty much on even playing fields. The U.S. has closed the gap relatively fast within the last couple of years with the development of 3D games and high end handsets capable of superior graphics. In terms of awareness, Europe has been playing games a lot longer than U.S. audiences, so there is more acceptance and openness to gaming there. Also, people are more familiar with publishers, whereas here games are chosen solely on the title.

Our worldwide revenues for 2005 were $46.8M with 29% of that coming from the U.S., 57% from Europe and 13% from our other markets. In terms of game sophistication, you will be hard pressed to find much of a variation between graphics from U.S. games and those from Europe. However, the U.S. does have an advantage with the EVDO networks, allowing for real time games with minimal latency.

Mo: The U.S. mobile market is currently driven by casual game experiences. Is the same true in Europe? Do European and U.S. mobile gamers have different tastes in what they want to experience?

MG: The European market has been and continues to be driven by action/adventure games, though you are starting to see a rise in the popularity of casual games. Our New York Nights game is incredibly popular in Europe and achieves the same level of sales as Splinter Cell or Prince of Persia.

Since the U.S. market has matured later than Europe, U.S. consumers are still wary of mobile games. The education and perception of gaming capabilities on your phone isn't widespread yet. The automatic association of video games with big console productions is still ingrained in most people's minds, so U.S. consumers are taking it slowly by exploring different genres of mobile gaming. They are discovering that the gameplay and graphics found on their cell phones is very competitive to what they experience on traditional handhelds. High end handsets like Verizon's VCAST phones allow the launch of 3D games that have the same level of quality as early PS1 games. Our 3D games such as Asphalt Urban GT and Massive Snowboarding are among the bestselling titles on these VCAST handsets.

I think it is important to convey that the gaming experience between mobile and console are two very different things and can't be compared. However, it is inaccurate to assume that one is more challenging than the other. The experiences are different. Console games are set-up for continuous hours of entertainment and mobile is set-up where you can get the same sort of challenge and entertainment in 5-10 minutes of gameplay, stop it and pick it up a few hours later or day later and not miss a beat. Being able to successfully complete a mission in a first-person shooter console game can be as challenging as being the top ranked player on Derek Jeter Pro Baseball for mobile. The challenges are different, but one isn't more hard earned than the other.

Regardless of region, all gamers share a common interest. They want a fun and immersive gaming experience regardless of whether it is a casual or action game.

Mo: In terms of future growth, where does the greater opportunity lie? Is the U.S. mobile game market right now growing faster than Europe's?

MG: The greatest growth opportunity within the mobile space isn't a question of geography, but lies with every person who owns a cell phone. The majority of handsets out there have gaming capabilities whether it's 2D or 3D games. Therefore, each person is able to challenge the misconception that cell phone games aren't as fun or challenging as console games. Whether you are a novice or hardcore gamer, I think it just takes one try. After that if you're still not convinced that mobile gaming provides entertainment, challenge and fun, then fair enough, but I believe that each person will be pleasantly surprised by the gaming possibilities available on their phone.

This is apparent in the U.S. where consumers are drawn to casual games because in a way it's an easier entry into mobile gaming. By that I mean action games are still perceived as difficult and very strategic, thus resulting in the misconception that it requires a large screen with intricate graphics to show all the details. Realistically, puzzle games can be as challenging and require the same sort of strategy, if not more so.

In Europe people are already familiar with cell phone gaming, so they know and understand the gaming capabilities available and know that playing Splinter Cell Chaos Theory on your cell phone is as thrilling and challenging as the console version at home.

Furthermore, the legitimacy of the mobile space is reinforced by our licensors. Viacom chose Gameloft to create a game based on one of their biggest titles, War of the Worlds, which was launched exclusively on the mobile platform. I believe that validates the credibility of the industry when you have such a worldwide brand such as Viacom devote itself to only one platform for its video game launch. By choosing mobile they are highlighting the importance of the platform in their overall marketing and promotion strategy for the success of the film.

Mo: Thank you for your insight, Michel.

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