Few people understand the video game space the way Robin Boyar does. She boasts 15 years of research experience including online, console and mobile gaming and is the head of thinktank, a Berkeley, Calif.-based research consultancy specializing in gaming, entertainment, new media and young consumers.
Before founding thinktank, Boyar led the consumer research department at Electronic Arts, the world’s largest video game publisher, managing efforts for the company’s entire line of offerings.
In the edited interview below, Boyar, a speaker at our upcoming conference, Mobilize 09, shares her views about the disappointing early days of wireless gaming, the impact the iPhone has had on the space and the future of mobile apps.
Colin Gibbs: Mobile gaming for years failed to live up to sky-high expectations, but now it seems to be getting legs, thanks largely to Apple’s iPhone and App Store. What’s your take on how the space has evolved in the last 12-18 months?
Robin Boyar: If you look at why gaming has been so moribund for the last couple of years it’s that it’s tough, from a consumer perspective, to find and download games. Most of the carriers have done a really terrible job in promoting games, so it’s not surprising (that the market stagnated).
Boyar: It’s sort of the new get-rich-quick scheme, which harkens back to the very early days of gaming when you could see a 15-year-old kid in your basement designing a best-selling game. The market has actually shifted in a way that it now rewards independent developers.
Gibbs: Why did the established publishers fail to gain much traction in the early days of mobile gaming?
Boyar: I think what happened is that very early on –- and I saw it first-hand at EA -– is that traditional publishers come from a console background. They mistakenly thought consumers wanted to play console games on a mobile phone. What they failed to recognize — where they should have leveraged consumer insights — is that most people when they’re playing on a phone want a short, quick, easy-to-play experience.
Gibbs: Do you see that changing anytime soon? Will features like Wi-Fi and location awareness help boost the popularity of more sophisticated games, or is mobile simply a casual, siloed gaming platform?
Boyar: I think that over time mobile gaming will become more complex; I think it will be able to leverage some of the feature sets that are becoming more and more popular on handsets. But I think we also have to recognize with mobile gaming that you do have to develop to the lowest common denominator. Smartphones are still only about 30 percent of U.S. handsets, but as that percentage increases, the types of games you will be seeing will be increasingly complex.
Gibbs: Is R&D in mobile limited to companies with big research budgets?
Boyar: Most of the companies I’ve spoken to who do mobile gaming don’t spend a lot of money on R&D. It’s a cost equation: If you’ve got $50,000 to $100,000 to build a game, you’re not going to spend much on R&D; you’re just going to build the game. If it works, great; if it doesn’t you’re just going to throw it out and try again.
Gibbs: Can you give me an example of R&D making a successful product at EA?
Boyar: Here’s a great example: Close to five years ago, some folks at Black Box (a Vancouver-based EA studio) came to me and said, “We want to build a Tony Hawk killer.” (Activision publishes games featuring the famed skateboarder.) I sort of laughed at them and said, “Good luck with that,” but we looked at Tony Hawk, found that there was some opposition in the marketplace, some weaknesses in Tony Hawk. We also had a development team that had a great control mechanism, and we tested qualitatively and quantitatively, and the team did a lot of ethnographic research, going to skate parks and talking to skaters. Fast-forward: Six months later I met with a woman at Activision who’d done work on Tony Hawk and she was like, “How did you know those were our weaknesses?”
Gibbs: What in mobile particularly interests you? What’s ripe for innovation?
Boyar: I think what really is a robust market is the female audience. Women are actually playing mobile games slightly less than men, but women have just as many handsets as men. I think there’s a real opportunity for developers to come out and make content that’s more specific to women.
Gibbs: Are we over-thinking mobility? Is it just a natural extension of the web? Or have we under-thought it and failed to build apps that take into account the features and limitations of mobile phones?
Boyar: I think we’ve under-thought it, and a big part of the reason why is the bandwidth limitations. The vast majority of consumers are dealing with the equivalent of the Model T. Again, it all comes to building something for the lowest common denominator. And a lot of developers will bitch and moan about how different it is to work with telecoms. Carriers haven’t embraced (mobile gaming). Those folks in Kansas and wherever AT&T is centered these days, they’ve been very backward.
Gibbs: So how does the future look for mobile data?
Boyar: What you’re starting to see is that due to the penetration of cell phones, a lot of consumers are actually using them as this all-purpose device. In a lot of regards what you’re hearing is, “I don’t need to be tethered to my PC anymore because 80 percent of the stuff I need to do I can do through my phone.” It’s interesting to see that the future really is mobile.