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Porting Mobile Games - Overcoming the hurdles

The market for wireless games and content is here and now according to recent announcements by industry pundits. Nokia has estimated that in 2003 there were more than 10,000,000 downloads of Java enabled games per month worldwide; Ovum claims over 250 million Java enabled devices are in the market today; and, mobile industry analysts Zelos Group recently estimated 2003 mobile content revenues at over $500 million globally. All suggest that this is just the beginning of a lucrative market for mobile entertainment products.

One of the biggest challenges facing the mobile games industry, however, is the sheer number of different devices and local market requirements. With more than 250 different J2ME enabled devices in the market, along with multi-language and other customization requirements from mobile operators, a game developer faces a challenge in tapping into this broad market opportunity. Porting games from one mobile device to another has become a thorn in the side of an otherwise successful industry.

Porting Choices

In the past, many game studios considered porting skills - whether it be from console to PC or across consoles - to be a key part of the value add they would bring as either a developer or publisher. However, with over 250 device platforms plus 80 different mobile operators, just collecting the information and guidelines on these devices and markets can prove to be overwhelming and very costly.

If, for example, a mid-size game publisher has 20 games in its portfolio and wants these available globally in multiple languages it would have to create close to 5,000 different builds (20 games x 5 languages x 50 top devices). At an internal cost of approximately $2,500 per build it would need a budget of $12.5 million for mobile porting alone - something most mobile game budgets won’t support. Add to this specific requirements from mobile operators for billing API’s, game community API’s or operator branding and the size of the problem gets even more immense.

Given this scenario, what are the choices? Today there exists basically two ways to attack this problem as a mobile game developer / publisher: become an expert on mobile porting internally; or outsource to “porting houses” or service providers who have developed an expertise. Either way, the porting process can be done manually or by using automated porting tools to drive down costs and speed time to market.

Internal Porting

Developing the expertise to port across mobile devices internally is a risky approach. Firstly, strong relationships with the mobile operators and device manufacturers around the world are needed to ensure availability of the necessary information, as well as guidelines and devices to port the applications. Secondly, global testing facilities are needed to be able to load applications onto the actual devices and test them - the frequencies and network protocols of wireless networks in various parts of the world often differ from a local network. Thirdly, software and tools are required just to manage the immense numbers of source code builds, and staff trained on all of the devices and tools is critical.

As recently as a year ago, internal porting seemed doable for mobile game developers. There were only twenty or so devices and only a few mobile operators selling games. Now as the market grows and matures, the challenges to scaling this business are a significant hurdle. Automated tools may be the saviors. With automation, publishers can rely on the tool providers for device information and to provide the necessary workflow engines and data bases to effectively and efficiently perform the ports and to manage the growing number of builds.

The Outsourcing Alternative

As the pressure mounts to get more versions of games out faster, game publishers find themselves turning to outsourcing. Whether it is with small local shops or with larger, low cost, offshore software houses, the challenges remain substantial.

While a company that specializes in mobile game porting is more likely to have success in sourcing devices and mobile operator guidelines, they remain challenged with global testing facilities. But probably the biggest challenge, not unlike any outsourcing project, is maintaining quality. Often, to meet the strict deadlines imposed on them, outsourcing firms employ multiple employees to port the same application. The result is inconsistencies that are unacceptable to the publisher. No matter how clear the guidance, individuals will approach creating code differently, resulting in different end user experiences.

Again, porting partners that employ automation tools can provide time to market and consistency across a broader range of device builds. This is a key differentiator that must be looked for when selecting a porting partner.

Porting Strategies and Solutions

While the mobile market is quickly becoming a real opportunity for existing PC and console game titles, and the revenues are starting to roll in, the porting challenge can easily derail the opportunity to reach this massive market.

Through standardization and reuse of code elements, Sumea has streamlined its internal process to create significant efficiencies in porting. Other publishers such as Gameloft have developed teams on multiple continents to be able to handle local testing and relationships with mobile operators. Tira Wireless has developed an automated porting platform called Tira Jump that supports close to 100 J2ME devices and even can handle translation ports. Tira currently offers the Jump service to mobile game publishers, such as THQ Wireless, and plans to come out with a licensed version of the software for sale in the near future.

Whatever approach is taken, it is clear that game developers and publishers have to consider their porting strategies carefully. The market for mobile games is here and growing rapidly. The demographics of the market for wireless services and for console and PC games are very similar - young males - and thus there is a significant untapped opportunity to exploit existing titles on this new breed of mobile phones. It is also clear this market opportunity will only drive further advances in porting technologies and tools from which the whole industry will benefit.

Author Biography

Allen Lau, CTO and Co-founder, Tira Wireless

With more than 10 years technical and management experience, Allen Lau brings deep development expertise to the Tira Wireless team. Allen is the leader of the JSR 190 Standards Initiative and is considered an industry pioneer in code instrumentation, porting and digital rights management techniques related to Wireless Java. He also participates in a number of other JSRs related to Wireless Java standards.

Before joining Tira, Allen occupied senior development positions at Symantec. As Senior Development Manager at Symantec, Allen oversaw the development teams at the Toronto Research and Development facility. Prior to that, he fulfilled the role of Principal Software Engineer, spearheading the design and development of Symantec's premier product, WinFax PRO. Allen possesses the vision and skills necessary to design and develop industry-leading products from conception through to completion. He holds Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Electrical Engineering from the University of Toronto.

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