A Proxy War For Mobile Data Dominance
By Mike Masnick, Fri Feb 25 02:15:00 GMT 2005

Two mobile video game companies are at a similar point in development. Each is taking a very different strategy to win over the market. It may be a perfect case study in understanding what works with mobile data.

Trip Hawkins is is the well known creator of Digital Chocolate, a mobile gaming company that's looking to do something new with mobile video games. The basic concept is not to recreate console video games and put them onto a handset, but to recognize what new things a handset allows in the video gaming world (mobility, connectivity, location info, etc.) and leverage those new abilities to make something that's different and attracts users for more compelling reasons.

However, as the San Jose Mercury News points out, Greg Ballard's Sorrent sees the mobile gaming opportunity in a completely different way. To Ballard, mobile gaming isn't about being new or different. In fact, it's the opposite. Since there's a tiny screen, a tiny amount of storage and a tiny attention span associated with mobile gaming, the better solution is to go with what people already know. That is, focus on doing licensing deals and getting brand name recognition. This way, when a subscriber is looking down the list of games available, the ones that stand out are recognizable brand names.

There are compelling pros and cons associated with each argument -- well laid out in the Merc article. However, what may be more interesting is whether or not these two companies can serve as proxies for a much larger battle concerning the mobile data space. There's an ongoing debate, over whether or not people will use their mobile phones mainly to communicate or to receive broadcast style content. While it may be asking a bit much for each of these startups to put the weight of one side of this battle on its shoulders, it seems like Digital Chocolate believes more in the "communications" model, while Sorrent is backing the "broadcast" model.

Digital Chocolate is focused on leveraging the more interactive features of a phone, and doing what seems natural on the handset. Sorrent is focused on transferring an experience subscribers are comfortable with elsewhere, and simply moving it to the handset. While execution will play a part in who succeeds (i.e., one of these companies could pick the right model, but build disastrous games), it will be an interesting battle to watch. There is, as always, likely to be room for both, to some extent, but figuring out which one is going to be the big winner is the challenge.

While Sorrent may get the early buzz, if Digital Chocolate plays its cards right, it should come out as the winner. Traditionally, killer apps aren't formed by simply moving what works on one platform to another. Television wasn't a success in the early years, because people just thought of it as "radio with visuals." Instead, it took Milton Berle's special brand of television show to really make TV a hit. Milton Berle was TV's killer app -- and it worked because what he did was made for TV -- not radio with visuals. Digital Chocolate is trying to find the Milton Berle of the mobile gaming space. Even within the video game space, it's clear that simply shifting media isn't working. Just this week, the NY Times noticed that all of the big movie licensing tie-in deals with video game companies seem to be falling apart. People don't want the "brand" so much as they want a good game that is fun to play. Even if the video games getting the "drafting effect" (as described by Ballard) of benefiting from advertising for the bigger brand, if the game isn't good, it won't get very far.

It may not work out this way, and perhaps Hawkins and Digital Chocolate never find the perfect game to take advantage of the mobile, connected user. However, if there's likely to be a big winner in the space, going for something new, which takes advantage of what makes mobile phones valuable, seems like the strategy worth watching.