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GMIC 2012: Mobile Games As a Revolution in Storytelling?

Game Panel

What does a panel of several big names in the mobile gaming industry sound like? It sounds a bit like it is redefining the word “hubris,” though that might be expected from some of the largest names worldwide.

The defining subject of Friday’s discussion at GMIC2012 on mobile gaming was on the theme of emotions and character identification, as several industry leaders gathered to speak their minds on the nature of their success and their prospects for the future. The panel included such names as David Roberts, CEO of PopCap; Narry Singh, CBO of Outfit7; Phil Larson, CMO of Halfbrick; Henri Holm, SVP of Rovio; and Diana Moldavsky, CRO of Zeptolab. The moderator, Akio Tanaka of Infinity Venture Partners, did a thorough job grilling the panelists through a thoughtful discussion on their understanding of such topics as Disney, character development, and branding. The conversation was long and lively, and Mr. Tanaka skillfully balanced all of the speakers’ thoughts.

When asked about Disney, most agreed that the greatness of Mickey Mouse ultimately came from what Phil Larsen described as Disney’s “massive entertainment franchise.”  The consensus was that their characters and brands ultimately had a phenomenal appeal to people’s emotions.

Likewise, many of the panelists themselves had something to say about their own products’ emotional appeal. We are “really in the business of emotions,” said Ms. Moldavsky. Our character Omnom, really “touches users” in a way that others do not, according to her assessment.

Still, they took a critical perspective, as some of them heralded the coming downfall of traditional character development. It would no longer be enough to simply “create movies anymore,” as Mr. Holm contended. “We live in an era where you need to be with your fans and with your brand at every moment,” he explained.

Agreeing with this idea, Mr. Larson added, “Don’t just get users, get fans,” in other words, “If you have a product that people can engage, then you’re already upstream.”

Ms. Moldavsky also dovetailed this thought, declaring that though everyone likes Mickey Mouse, they now have Omnom, “who kids can see anytime they want.”

Rather boldly, Narry Singh went on to say that, “We’ve destroyed traditional storytelling” by changing the nature of the “start, beginning, and end model.” He said that it would be interesting to see which companies would be around in 100 years.

So how competitive were they? While most panelists had a sense that their brands were becoming quite influential,  David Roberts differed with the other panelists on this idea and tempered the conversation a bit. He believed that Disney would continue to be the most likely survivor in 100 years, saying that Pixar “is still one of the most amazing and consistent fountains of creativity in the world.”

The others disagreed, claiming that the frequency of contact would define the change of character development and branding. Mr. Holm said that it would become more important to keep the fans “close at all times.”  Echoing this idea, Mr. Singh declared that the “movie business is becoming more like the restaurant business,” where the model is 3-times-a-day rather than once in a while.

So what were these companies doing to monetize? For Rovio and Halfbrick, they were merchandising. Rovio was even said to be offering Angry Birds underwear in Australia. On its own front, PopCap was also doing some clothing lines with Metrs/Bonwe, as well as kid’s books for Plants vs. Zombies.

Still, they all conceded that their main sources of revenue were elsewhere. It was just that the appeal of the Chinese market was impossible to ignore.

Most panelists felt that their products and characters would ultimately be successful in China, given the fact that they had made incredible progress already. According to Phil Larson’s assessment, “Every place has problems, you just need to find the right partners to make it work.”

China is a market with a lot of potential, and the numbers do not lie, but it remains to be seen if Chinese consumers will be highly enamored of game characters over Disney characters. We will have to see which model ultimately stands the test of time.

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