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Namco Networks and the Future of Mobile Gaming: An Interview With Scott Rubin
interview
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Namco Networks
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date posted: 10:28 AM Tue Jan 31st, 2006
last revision: 10:26 AM Thu Feb 2nd, 2006



Click to read.Scott Rubin is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Namco Networks, Namco's newly-created North American company. Namco Networks brings together all of Namco's wireless and mobile gaming efforts. Namco Networks is not really a new company-- Namco has been producing content for mobile platforms for many years, and they were the first to put videogame music and sound effects into cellular ringtone format, exploiting a lucrative gaming culture connection.

As part of the Namco Bandai merger, several of the companies' divisions are being spun off into fully-fledged companies. One of Rubin's first comments to me was that it is imperative for people to realize that Namco Networks is not "new" to the mobile gaming scene, and that the creation of the new company was a sign of respect from the parent company.

"We've been preloading demo versions of Ms. Pac Man on Sprint phones for years, and last time I looked it's still number one on their top games list," Rubin says. "[Namco Bandai] is spinning off Namco Networks not because we're getting into the space, but because we've been so successful in the space already."

Rubin's assertions ring true with other interviews I've heard him give. When I ask him pointedly about the data in a Gamasutra interview he did, he is obviously aware of it. He's also obviously aware of even more coverage, and alludes to several blog posts and articles. Rubin is an efficient interviewee. He lays out the key areas of discussion he wants to hit right away: arcade ports, new intellectual properties, improvements in networked play, and the burgeoning world of mobile 3D.

Arcade Roots

        "There's no false advertising-- when you download Ms. Pac-Man, it looks like Ms. Pac-Man."


I have a few things I want to discuss. I've read big statements in Namco press releases. Kenji Hisatune, President and CEO/COO Namco Networks has said that the company will bring "fun, high-quality mobile games that 'push the envelope', both in content and in the leveraging of increasingly sophisticated mobile technology." This comment carries a lot of weight coming from the company that invented the narrative videogame with protagonist and cutscenes (Pac-Man), from the company that has recently given us the mad genius of Katamari Damacy.

But I decide that if Rubin has figured out a nice progression through these ideas, far be it from me to mess up an easy outline for organizing my article.

The core of Namco's success in mobile games has been built on solid ports of their arcade classics, available on every major carrier in North America. These include some all-time greatest gaming hits like Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Dig Dug and Galaga. There is an anecdote I had read in other interviews with Rubin about why these games are successful, and Rubin repeats it for me:

"One of the mobile carriers we work with said that the reason they like promoting Ms. Pac-Man and the Namco arcade games because we do the best job making them like people remember. There's no false advertising-- when you download Ms. Pac-Man, it looks like Ms. Pac-Man."

I'm glad he brought this story up. I had wanted to get a feel for how much he really understood the significance of this statement. Regardless of whether his anecdote is true or not, there is more at stake in this observation than just selling Namco titles. Fortunately, Rubin seems to understand, too.

He continues, "When you download a football game on the cell phone, you're kind of setting up the consumer for disappointment. If I have a PS2 football game on my mind, I download it to my phone, and it looks nothing like they thought it was going to look like. But Ms. Pac-Man looks exactly right."

The disconnection between expectation and experience is an issue that plagues games on all platforms. Any recent Peter Molyneaux game could be a great example of this effect in action: After promising so much in games like Black and White and Fable, there was a significant backlash against both of these otherwise very good games simply because not all of Molyneaux's ambitious goals were realized.

More recently, Electronic Arts games suffered at the hands of gamer expectation: Their Xbox 360 titles were mysteriously missing gameplay components found in the PS2 and Xbox versions. Regardless of how god these titles were, the simple fact was that gamers expected the next-gen versions of EA's games to offer more features and gameplay.

Rubin is aware of the larger issues, but he still sticks close to his script. He brings up the "five minutes of fun" mantra that he has repeated in several interviews. Rubin believes that mobile game makers, for the most part, need to create casual games that offer easy-in, easy-out gameplay. Namco's classic arcade titles fit this requirement nicely, since they were essentially designed with the same parameters in mind so long ago.

"You have 180 million cell phones out there, and they all play games. Most of these users are not gamers, but they will pick up and play something that looks familiar," Rubin explains.

In fact, Rubin is probably right-- there are certain qualities possessed by the early Namco arcade games that are undeniably attractive to mobile gamers. And I'd be lying if I claimed that I don't really enjoy Ms. Pac-Man on the mobile phone. In a world filled with ever-increasing access to gaming platforms and game software, we gaming enthusiasts will just have to make room for the casual gamers. We can do that. Besides, it's not all casual gamers' fault that mobile games are so predictably retro.

The Trials of Mobile Game Development

        "Pac-Man takes 3.8 seconds to go from the bottom left to the bottom right corner of the screen in the original arcade game. It's got to take 3.8 seconds to go from the bottom left to bottom right on every phone, no matter how fast or how slow the processor is."


Rubin discusses some of the obstacles faced by mobile developers. "If you launch a game on, say, Verizon and Sprint, you're targeting probably 40 different phones being sold. And there may be millions of other phones still in use that are nothing like the phones being sold today. The challenge is to get a game like Ms. Pac-Man to play the exact same way across all phones."

Rubin continues, "For example, Pac-Man takes 3.8 seconds to go from the bottom left to the bottom right corner of the screen in the original arcade game. It's got to take 3.8 seconds to go from the bottom left to bottom right on every phone, no matter how fast or how slow the processor is."

Rubin reels off a list of little details that are problematic in the Pac-Man titles. Getting the ghosts "podia-like" appendages to wiggle properly or getting the "wakka-wakka" sound back into the game have been issues for developers. What's more, Rubin and his teams have heard from gamers who miss these elements. That level of attention to detail is certainly a mark in Namco's favor, but it's also a reminder that not everyone who plays Ms. Pac-Man is a casual gamer-- those are pretty specific complaints for a passing player to make.

These challenges come, in part, from developing games for a platform that is still not driven by game technology. In arcades, hardware is designed specific to each game. On home consoles, hardware is designed for a gaming platform. On your home computer, games long ago won the operating system wars, and now games enjoy a place high at the top of any new PC's feature list. But phones are not made (exclusively or even primarily) to play games. Thus, issues with playing more than one sound at a time are common, memory is small, and the interface is anything but ideal.

In fact, sometimes it's better to think about playing a game at home rather than to actually play the mobile version of the game. Along those lines, Namco was the first game publisher to begin offering its game music and sound effects as ringtones on mobile carriers. Namco Networks' Arcade Corner is a clearing house for game-related sounds on your cell phone. Songs from Katamari Damacy, remixes of the Pac-Man theme, and even tones from other publishers like Sega are on offer for download.

Innovative Strategies

        "The challenge of 3D is not the 3D."


At this point in our conversation, Rubin turns to some of the new developments Namco has made in the mobile gaming space. It's not all reissues and ringtones for Namco Networks. The first big innovation Namco was responsible for is, oddly enough, in a very casual game: pool.

Pool Pro Online is the first mobile phone pool game to feature online multiplayer. You can play against other users on their handsets. Pool is one of the most popular casual games of all-- Yahoo! Games reports that pool is consistently one of their most popular multiplayer games. In Pool Pro Online, gamers can even chat while they sink a few.

Namco Networks is also reaching for community/competitive network features such as high scores leaderboards and unique stats tracking. In the upcoming Pole Position for Sprint, gamers will be able to place not only on a best times leaderboard, but also on such lists as most wrecks and slowest time. These kinds of unique listings look to put bragging rights in the eye of the beholder.

Much of these breakthroughs with network support have come thanks to Namco's work in building a strong back-end infrastructure. Rubin brags about the low-latency of Pro Pool Online, "Without a question our proprietary technology on the back-end is what makes the head-to-head pool game fun. If you were to put two phones side by side, you'd see that if one player takes a hit, it shows up on the other player's phone within a second, maybe less than that, or maybe a second and a half. That is something that Namco has put a lot of effort into creating."

High on the list of many mobile game developers' goals is 3D. In a gaming industry saturated with 3D graphics, game developers see it as a natural progression for their mobile games. However, most phones do not support 3D technolgy, and those that do are not very impressive.

Namco has made a few experiments in the mobile 3D realm. Their hit arcade game Time Crisis takes a novel approach to 3D interaction on the phone. Time Crisis is an on-rails shooter played in the arcade with a light gun. By all accounts, it should not be possible to do a satisfactory port of it to mobile phone. However, Namco has introduced an innovative control scheme that divides the screen into nine sections that correspond to the mobile phone keypad. By hitting the numbers one through nine, the player can shoot any quadrant with great speed. This control scheme illustrates that Namco is at least willing to take a risk on innovative ideas in the mobile arena.

Bringing 3D into mobile games also enhances the issue of control: In a 3D environment, even more directions of movement are possible, and console games have adopted the analog joystick as a staple of 3D navigation. No mobile phones have analog joysticks, so creative solutions like the one used by Namco in Time Crisis are necessary. But control isn't the only obstacle in 3D mobile game development.

"The challenge of 3D is not the 3D," Rubin says, "The challenge is to figure out how you can invest your business resources into 3D, which, number one, the install base is so small for handsets that can run the game. And the second challenge is that 3D is also very hardcore, it's not your mass-market game."

Rubin has a point there: Three dimensions tend to edge towards an immersive environment, which has historically meant much more time spent with the game and takes games out of the realm of "five minutes of fun" that Rubin sees as the sweet spot for mobile games. It is also worthwhile to note that before the advent of 3D games like Doom and 3D accelerators in gaming PCs, there was almost no concept of the "hardcore gamer."

"3D starts to compete with... Well, no, in no way does it compete with something like PSP, but you start to think that the person who is looking for 3D graphics with their five minutes of fun is probably carrying their PSP in their pocket," Rubin says.

The Future of Mobile Games

        "[Katamari Damacy] would be a great title, both 2D and 3D, to put across mobile phones, and we're definitely exploring that."


Rubin has a point: With such powerful and exciting handheld gaming platforms out there, the mobile game developer must choose his battles wisely. It is best not to compete head-on with more advanced gaming systems and to focus on what mobile gaming can offer: What's unique about mobile games, the platform, and the way they are played?

I agree that graphics are often seen as a mark of "hardcore" gaming and that the "best" graphics aren't always the most photorealistic and don't always have the highest polygon counts. I ask him about a game like Katamari Damacy, which has been a great title for Namco, bringing the company kudos for taking a risk on such a strange game.

"[Katamari Damacy] would be a great title, both 2D and 3D, to put across mobile phones, and we're definitely exploring that. The key with making games fun is utilizing what you have-- Use what you've got," Rubin explains. "With Pac-Man it's up-down-left-right and you're having fun. With Katamari, it's the same thing-- the controls lend itself to potentially being a very fun game on mobile."

Agreeing that Katamari Damacy would be a fun game on mobile phones, I pushed Rubin about some other areas of mobile game development that have been intriguing. I mention Ojom's mobile games, which use phonecams to bring some truly different styles of gameplay to the platform. However, Ojom is working in the European market, where mobile phone carriers and manufacturers and developers have a much different relationship. Rubin addresses the issues faced by American mobile game developers.

"We are exploring and taking advantage of all technologies that are made available to us by the handset manufacturers and, mainly, by the carriers," Rubin says. "We're also internally exploring what kind of technologies we can create to take advantage of what mobile has to offer."

Rubin continues, "I don't know the latest deal with cameras, but one of the things about the cameras was that, up to a certain point anyway, the carriers basically said that using the camera in games would be confusing to users. They don't want to release camera APIs, and they didn't want us to use the camera in games. It may be different today, and you might be able to build a case for using it in a game, but for awhile there at least it was less about technical limitations and more about carrier decisions."

But he doesn't want to just write off these unique technologies. "The answer is yes. Yes, we are definitely exploring technologies that mobile has to offer that other platforms don't. Probably the most obvious one out there today is the network connectivity. You can add network components to your games and it's a natural fit."

It does seem odd that more game developers have not created serial content or game updates/expansions. While these are pretty widely accepted on other gaming platforms, they are almost unheard of on mobile phones. Rubin even suggests subscription games where users would be allowed to continually download new content and new game levels. Rubin sees the future of innovation in using these network components in conjunction with proprietary technologies running behind the scenes.

"Those are things we've been exploring because those are things that mobile offers today," he says, "without any kind of carrier limitations as long as we do it right, and without any technical limitations as long as we can figure out how to do it."

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