Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mobile gaming market booming thanks to iPhone & Facebook

Online gaming is bigger than ever thanks to Facebook and mobile devices like Apple's iPhone.

To be sure, both have opened up gaming opportunities to a huge amount of new users, helping to expand the industry exponentially. Although the huge user base is quite positive for gaming companies, it’s important to remember the competition is fierce.

"It's [really] an ugly scene," Alexandre de Rochefort, chief financial officer of mobile video game specialist Gameloft told the Reuters Global Technology Summit in Paris.

"The smartphone market is not a goldmine for developers. It's a bit like playing the lottery."

After reminding hopeful game developers that the industry is no cakewalk, executives noted developing and distributing games has become easier thanks to companies like Amazon who rent out computing space to test games for the likes of Facebook and the App Store.

UK-based media firm Screen Digest states the mobile gaming market has grown from $2.2 billion in 2007 to $3.7 billion in 2010, with estimates putting growth at around a staggering $7.8 billion by 2014.

"Since Apple launched its App Store, the mobile gaming market has undergone a transformation," explained Screen Digest analyst Jack Kent.

"Before, less than 5 percent were paying to access mobile games, in Europe at least ... since then consumers are a lot more willing to pay for content and particularly games."

As expected, changes in the industry have sparked deals amongst big gaming corporations like Electronic Arts (EA) and privately held smaller companies such as Zynga of Farmville fame.

Screen Digest reported 26 mobile gaming-related acquisitions within the last year, up from 12 in 2009 and 11 from the first quarter of this year. With $200 million in venture capital funds floating around last quarter alone, mobile gaming certainly has a hot niche in the market.

"We used to stay away from games," Neil Rimer, Index co-founder and partner, told the summit. "It was really like the movie industry where you had to come up with this basic idea for a game and then spend 5 to 15 million euros ($7 to $21 million) and two years building the thing," he said.

"Sometimes it would work. Many times it would bomb and you were out 15 million bucks."

Although it all sounds like rainbows and unicorns for app developers, it’s important to keep in mind that there are certain barriers to entry that make success in the mobile gaming market difficult. Even Rovio Mobile, maker of the uber-popular Angry Birds game, developed 51 titles before hitting the jackpot with Angry Birds.

The swords and mermaids of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

The fourth film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise had high expectations set for it, and it met most of them.

This film was classic Jack Sparrow, as developed through the first three movies by the expert Dep, in a story which was not written for him, and it shows.

On Stranger Tides is a novel about pirates of the Caribbean searching for the Fountain of Youth, surely, but Jack Sparrow was not a character in that novel.

Disney wanted to do another supernatural pirates film, and so inserted their own supernatural pirate into the existing story.

Most of the time it works, but occasionally you can tell that this tale was not really meant for our Jack. I guess when you base a franchise of films on an amusement park ride, things like this are bound to happen.

Even ignoring the historical inaccuracies - which is easy, as we’ve been doing it since we met Jack years ago, the mythology of this entry is a bit strained and over-exposed.

Usually the advantage to sequels is that the characters don’t really need to explain anything. The audience already understands how the world and plot work through the developments of the story so far.

Here however, the characters have to take the time to explain because the tale is so far divergent from the preceding trilogy. It’s not all bad, however, as they often managed to artfully mix the exposition in with fight scenes and chases, so it’s almost like a Police Squad gag in which it’s entirely possible to completely ignore the dialog because it feels almost extraneous to the scene.

The only really deep characters, ironically, are a pair of secondary characters, a cleric and a mermaid, who fall for one another, and finish the tale somewhat mysteriously. I can only guess - since I didn’t read it - that their touching story played a larger role in the novel.

Of course, we don’t go to see a Pirates film for the deep back-story, we go for the swashbuckling. The action scenes are well crafted. We even get to see some exciting day-light swashbuckling, as Jack escapes from the king’s palace, and moves through the streets leaping onto the tops of coaches.

The sword-fighting is well choreographed and clearly understood, relying on humor as much as action to entertain. Especially good is the melee between Dep and Cruz’s characters. They match strike for strike, and without the fog of most of the rest of the film the action is pointed.

The visuals, scenery and CGI are matching in style with the previous three films. As I mentioned, there is lots of fog. Particularly impressive was the ruined lighthouse the characters found when they left the ships behind and headed inland to locate the fountain. The fantastic elements were a bit muted compared to the third film, which was nearly incomprehensible, actually reminding me more of the first Pirates film in that way.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is just as fun as you’d expect it to be, and about as deep.

The film is in theaters starting this weekend.