Gameboy Mortal Kombat

Not Your Brother's GameBoy: The Handheld Wars Begin

Even as Nintendo proudly announced last week it has sold 15 million Game Boy Advance units to date, with total handheld gaming dominance, rivals for this portable gaming market are lining up. Nokia has already initiated a truly massive ad campaign for the Oct. 7 launch of its phone/console hybrid N-Gage, and TapWave's gamer-enhanced PDA Zodiac begins taking pre-orders this month for October product delivery. Both manufacturers are attracting publishers to their platforms by not acting like Nintendo and instead bending over backwards for their partners.

"Our publishing agreement with Nokia is very favorable," says Dave Anderson, director of licensing and business development, Activision, whose Tony Hawk Pro will be one of the lead launch titles for N-Gage. "There is a favorable royalty base structure we can wrap our arms around."

While N-Gage suffered a chilly reception from critics at E3, and many analysts question the appeal of its $299 price point, the platform seems to have gained momentum as it approaches launch by demonstrating strong publisher support from majors like Activision and most recently Electronic Arts. Anderson says that in courting publisher support Nokia promises its highest level marketing push for N-Gage. "We know they are committed to this platform and making it work, and we take a look at their installed base projections and that goes a long way."

TapWave's Zodiac, which is powered by the Palm OS but modified for gaming, is taking a quieter, slower route by opening for online pre-orders Sept. 17 and expanding its marketing effort offline later this year. In order to attract launch publishers like Midway and Atari, "Early partners pay no royalties," says Tim Twerdahl, senior product manager, Tapwave. Because it uses the Palm OS, the Zodiac already supports over 1,400 existing game titles, and any publisher can develop to that platform. TapWave's own 3D API does require licensing, but "we've committed to not laying any licensing fees through this year and most of next year and maybe beyond," he says.

Twerdahl says that TapWave is taking a very different approach from N-Gage, in that the company announced the platform relatively close to launch and is trying to wow publishers with the platform's larger screen, 3D graphics and processing power. "We've had discussions with publishers who have turned down other platforms because they don't think their games will look good on them," he says. "We have been trying not to over-promise but to over-deliver - really solid performance - let that take center stage." He anticipates eight to 20 titles ready at launch, with more major publishers on their way. "They have a lot of belief in our mission to bring the console experience mobile."

The cost of developing for both N-Gage and Zodiac is at least that of developing for the GBA, says Anderson, so it is always best for a publisher to protect one's investment on such unproven platforms by limiting the number of initial titles and leading with the major franchises. Like N-Gage, Zodiac will get a Tony Hawk title for launch, a line that has been successful both on the GBA and mobile phones. "I've got to say we are very excited about these emerging platforms and these convergent devices," says Anderson. "They are more ergonomically tailored to the mobile gamer as opposed to being one element on a device."

Keeping the barriers to entry low for publishers in the handheld game is going to be critical, because many publishers have complained in the past that the GBA is more popular and profitable for Nintendo than for many of its publishing partners. Many publishers fled GBA development last year because of Nintendo's expensive royalty structure and claims that too narrow a range of titles (mostly Nintendo's own) sold well enough to make a profit. "Nintendo didn't have any competition," says Anderson. "They owned that space and they owned their own IPs, so they could support their own product more competitively. "It's a Faustian dilemma for third party publishers. Do you stay in to extend the brand and make your P&L look favorable, or do you cut your losses and not support [the platform] because you're not going to make the margins. It's a big dilemma."

The Rise of the GameMen?

Both N-Gage and Zodiac are aiming squarely at the 18- to-34-year old segment, which these manufacturers claim has grown up with gaming but is embarrassed to pull out the toy-like GameBoy Advance. In fact, TapWave says that two years of its own market research showed that adults specifically wanted multi-function devices that let gamers play in stealth mode. "It has to not give away that it's a gaming device," focus groups told Twerdahl. In designing the Zodiac, TapWave even found that it had to play down the visibility of the analog controller and shoulder buttons. "They needed something pocketable that would never embarrass them," he says.

Everyone seems focused on this adult mobile gamer now, even though the real appeal of higher priced multi-function gaming devices is largely speculative. Sony's promised PSP handheld (slated for late 2004) clearly is designed to skew older, and even Nintendo's sleeker GBA SP model is an attempt to get beyond its GameBoy-ish image, says Nitesh Patel, senior analyst, StrategyAnalytics. "It appears as though Nintendo decided it needed a device that appealed to customers that were falling out of the 'classic GBA' target segment and needed a device to keep this segment spending."

Anderson says that Nintendo remains "pigeon-holed" as a kids' device, but he believes there is a market for the adult mobile gamer, and there probably is room for one or two more handheld platforms to thrive. "That said, who knows which one is going to take root."

While everyone waits for Sony to distribute development kits for the PSP platform, the early competitors are already trying to position themselves against what certainly will be a major contender in the handheld space. "From what I have seen [the PSP] doesn't concern me too much," says Twerdahl. "It sounds like they have a screen size that is larger but in lower res. I am worried about spinning media in a portable and I worry about the thickness of the product."

For Nokia's part, it is trying to pre-empt the PSP's purported support for wireless networking by highlighting its own mobile multi-player capabilities. In buying the SNAP multi-player servers and network from Sega last month, Nokia is pitching itself as much to gamers as to the industry. "To be able to say that it has the first wirelessly enabled, multi-player console is likely to be viewed as innovative and cutting edge," says Patel. The move signals publishers that Nokia is committed to gaming for the long haul, and its recent announcement that other console manufacturers can license the technology suggests that Nokia wants to promote multi-play across platforms. "If gamers latch onto multi-player gaming, it is possible Sony might try to license SNAP technology for its PSP," says Nitel.

Contacts: Dave Anderson, 310/255-2704; Nitesh Patel, +44(0) 1908 423 621,; Tim Twerdahl, 650/960-1817

U.S. Movie Gross for Films Based on Games
1993 - Super Mario Bros.  $33 million
1994 - Streetfighter      $20 million
1995 -  Mortal Kombat     $70 million
1999 - Wing Commander     $11 million
2001 - Final Fantasy      $32 million
2001 - Tomb Raider        $131 million
2002 - Resident Evil      $39 million

[Copyright 2003 PBI Media, LLC. All rights reserved.]

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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