In the middle of the swirling festival of music and film, the geeks are also converging on Austin to talk about all things technical. We checked out the SXSW Interactive Conference to see what the future holds for gaming and consumer technology.
Austin, TX is not only home to [H] Consumer, but to one of the biggest parties in the country. Each year, South-by-Southwest (SXSW) brings tens of thousands to the city to see the most “hip” acts in the entertainment business. From art to music to independent films, everyone wants the chance to be on the big stage. Alongside this annual reincarnation of the independent hippie spirit, SXSW Interactive also takes the stage to shine the spotlight on some of the visionary entrepreneurs and developers in the technology landscape. There were many panels, interviews, guest speakers, and conferences, but we picked out a few that we thought might be of interest to [H] readers.
Patrick Moorhead is the National Manager for R&D of Advanced Marketing Solutions at Avenue A | Razorfish Inc., an interactive agency that has done interesting work in the mobile marketing field. While pure techies may be unenthusiastic when it comes to being marketed to over their devices, money still does keep the world spinning. And, consequently, marketers often have some of the most interesting perspectives on where marketing is going.
Moorhead spoke about The Truth About Mobile Technology and The Future of Personal Devices . Basically, where are they heading and what will they let us do? With all the buzz surrounding the iPhone, people are looking at how many different tasks a mobile device will let them perform and how many other gadgets it can replace. For Moorhead, though, it’s important to “think about mobile and the future of devices not in terms of convergence and divergence, but in terms of complements and substitutions.” In other words, he said we need to stop thinking about how video cameras and music players become phones, and think about how our phones add to the experience of our existing cameras and players or substitute for them.
The music phone was an ideal example for substitution, he said, because it’s fairly easy to take a best-of-breed player and merge it with a communications device. “By contrast,” he said, “let’s look at the game phone: taking a console experience and adding a communications tool, something like what Samsung is getting ready to inflict on us. This is a complement. There will be certain types of games that will be fun to play on it, but you’re never going to replace the consoles that form the core of the industry with the big sound, graphics, and community experience that people enjoy from them.”
Likewise for video phones, he pointed out that most people wouldn’t watch “Lord of the Rings” on their small screen, but they might be interested in watching a behind-the-scenes interview with Peter Jackson.
“It’s critical,” Moorhead claimed, “for those of us designing services for mobile devices to think of it in the correct way - many channels in one package. It can potentially be all channels, but that’s not going to work for everybody.”
That’s an interesting way to look at it, and may also reflect how consumers and critics need to evaluate the technology. As a parallel, at [H] Consumer, we don’t evaluate an HTPC, like our recent Shuttle X200, in terms of gaming. It may be a convergent device, but it’s more of a theatre system that complements our existing workhorse or gaming PCs rather than substituting for them. When it comes time to start evaluating video phones, anyone looking at them might want to focus on the strengths of pulling down and playing micro-content instead of movies or even television shows.
Particularly exciting was when Moorhead discussed marketing. He views mobile as the next major medium. With worldwide users in the billions, it’s quickly eclipsing television broadcast as an effective means of outreach. But it’s limiting, for both consumers and marketers, in that the content and channels just aren’t there yet.
Moorhead sees “a tendency of mobile producers and advertisers to think of this as five guys doing it in New York, but in reality I think it’s going to go prime time in six months.”
Moorhead’s optimistic timeline was not quite shared by the guys over at the panel on Mobile Phones and the Future of Video Games . They put the timeline for mobile development, at least in gaming, to take closer to a year or two: “I predict by this time next year, you’ll see games going from mobile to other devices,” said Matthew Bellows, GM of Floodgate Games.
The issue for them isn’t so much one of converging technology, but of diverging service providers. “And then there’s the port problem,” said Bellows. “You make an Xbox game, and it works. We make a reference build and then port it out to all the different platforms. We have to do a 2D build, a 3D build, a translation - there are thousands of SKUs.”
For all the hype of the growing market, Mark Pierce, CEO of Super Happy Fun Fun, pointed out there are “thousands of builds to sell to billions of users.”
He went on to say that most of the games out there are simply ports or extensions, and often poor ones, of existing brands. Fortunately, the dearth of quality branded games seems to have more of an effect on mobile developers than console designers. Of his award-winning game, “Tilt,” Pierce said that it “Reminded us that innovation is very important. You get press and buzz that way. And it feels good. Now phones are going to have triaxial accelerometers in them that read ‘Tilt.’ And ‘Tilt’ is made for phones. The ‘Need For Speed’ port looks great, but it just doesn’t map well.”
Paul Trowe, President and CEO of Pulse Interactive, added that “That’s why original IP is key. ‘Tilt’ has no brand. Graphics and 7.1-channel sound don’t matter if you have great gameplay. ‘Grand Theft Auto’ was the same. ‘Tetris’ had no brand when it started, but you played and then you got addicted. Some licenses are great and translate well. People sometimes look for brands, but if the game doesn’t lend itself well to the platform, like if you make a horrible NFL game, it doesn’t have legs.”
Qualcomm’s decision to put a 3D accelerator in its phones moved the industry one step closer to standardization in levels of technology. Pierce sees that move as key: “I think in the future we’ll stop screwing the customer so much. Right now we have to release our products on low-end handsets, but we sell them based on the pictures off hi-end handsets. And then they’re disappointed and don’t come back.”
The N-Gage strikes for standardization of platforms. When the current mobile gaming world was compared to the old DOS gaming world before Microsoft and Apple forced a sort of standardization, Pierce compared the move to Nokia’s. “If you comply to this platform,” he said, “your games will play on all Nokia phones going forward. And so eventually when you’re looking to buy games, there will be a Nokia channel. And Nokia is major like Microsoft or Apple.”
And since, according to Bellows, “roughly half of a big game development budget goes toward solving the port problem,” any sort of standardization helps to funnel that money back into areas we care about, like design.