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Mobilemania: The Future of Mobile Gaming with XMG’s Ray Sharma

XMG Studio sits atop the Trader’s Bank building at 67 Yonge Street. Once the highest skyscraper around, today it serves as the beautiful home to young organizations like XMG.

XMG was founded by Ray Sharma in 2009. The focal point of Sharma’s office is the pedestal desk, which really stands out in contrast to his wall decorated with Space Invaders graphics.

After meeting him, we chat briefly about satellites and wireless spectrums (from which I learned that disposable satellites are going to be launched in a lower atmosphere and will be replaced every one or two years as they decay with more powerful satellites capable of keeping up with wireless demand). We then launch into a discussion about the future of gaming, and the role of mobile gaming.

IMMERSIVE IPAD GAMES

When I had a chat with Michael Schmalz several weeks ago, we differentiated between mobile games and console games based on the different experiences. Casual mobile games are usually played in quick 2-minute bursts, whereas console games engage users in a more immersive atmosphere for hours on end. Because console games offer a different experience, they will survive.

Picking his iPhone up off the desk, Sharma looks at the top paid apps. He tells me that on average, 7/10 are games (it was 8/10 when we check), and usually 6/10 are casual games (7/10 are at that time).

Citing his finance background, Sharma refers to the Barbell effect (where the rich get richer and the middle class is getting thinned out): “What’s happening in the midrange – this is being reflected in employment trends in Canada too, by the way –  is these smaller console game titles, like multi-million dollars, they’re the ones that are going to have a tough time to compete because these mobile games only cost a tenth of that, and take up a fraction of the time…and you can generate more profit. That’s why there’s a barbell effect, going from super high-end to super casual games.”

When I ask him about porting immersive games (think console games like Call of Duty, or The Darkness II) over to the iPad, he makes a couple of points.

Sharma leads into the first point. “When you look at your tablet screen, it may be small. But because it’s near you, the physics – if you look at the optical physics of what you’re seeing in front of you versus even a 70-inch screen that’s 10 feet away – the reality is now, the experience of it being so close to you is as good as an experience of a screen far away,” says Sharma. “That’s number one…and the quality of that display is excellent.”

Number two is multi-core processors. Mobile phones are now using dual-core and quad-core processors, and Sharma points out that battery life was a huge concern. “What NVIDIA found and what everyone is starting to find is that the multi-core processors actually has lower battery consumption than the single core; the act of just splitting up the tasks and allocating them amongst different processor cores is actually resulting in a reduction in battery life per processing computation,” comments Sharma (this NVIDIA slideshow corresponds to his point). “That’s the biggest barrier, for multi-core processors to be successful within tablets.”

 “These screens and these tablets are not yet at the quality of the surround systems that you have in your family room. But because there are hundreds of millions of unit potential in this market between high-end smart phones and tablets, the economies of scale are so massive that we’re going to start seeing amazing audio system capabilities being built,” explains Sharma.

“Because of these experiential things, you can reasonably translate that console experience to the tablet experience,” says Sharma. “And the second thing that’s going on is because people have limited time, and people have so much time to spend with devices, there seems to be a shift happening where people are spending more and more time with their devices, including tablets. So it’s logical for console game titles to look at being translated into the tablet world. Now there’s one big but: there are certain games where the user interface translation doesn’t make sense. You can do Kinect type games, but then you’ll have to put your tablet on a stand, and set it up, and all that stuff.”

Sharma touches on a point about user interface, made previously in the earlier conversation with Schmalz of Digital Extremes. Schmalz explained that the friction of the screen (in comparison to the ease of using a joystick) would hold the tablet gaming experience back. Sharma built on this, predicting that motion-detection could be used in the future for mobile gaming (“You remember Minority Report?”).

“What they didn’t see was an unfair competitive advantage…you don’t carry your console in your pocket.” Sharma predicts that console games will go the way of the arcade, and will be what theatres are to the movie industry these days.

 “There’s something Mark Twain said that was brilliant; History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme,” quotes Sharma. With games like Infinity Blade already available in the market, I’m very excited to see what mobile gaming has in store for us in the future.

TRIBES OF USERS

“It’s a fully democratized gaming world now. There’s also a quid pro quo though; there’s always somebody around the corner,” remarks Sharma. “There’s always somebody launching a new game.”

Sharma’s observations support this trend: teams need be only 8-10 people to design a good mobile game. “You could get together a group of your guys, artists, a producer, a designer or a person who focuses on UI, a couple of developers, and you’ve got a shot.” So how does XMG plan to compete with the hordes of other developers in the world?

“We’re focusing on less games, higher polish,” says Sharma. “There are a lot of different types of strategies; there are so many different strategies you can take. There’s the throw the dart at the wall type of game…Angry Birds is more a super-polished casual kind of game.”

Where traditionally XMG, and other companies like Rovio, have pumped out a ton of games annually and tried to see what sticks (Angry Birds was Rovio’s 51st), it is now taking a much more calculated and polished approach towards building games. They’re building games around tribes of users: Fashion Star Boutique caters to a female demographic that has a passion for fashion, where Drag Racer World appeals to fast-paced car enthusiasts.

“This trailer is a little bit more artsy,” Sharma says as he plays the Drag Racer World video.  Surprised, I nod in agreement.

BEYOND TRADITIONAL GAMING

“People are going to shift their time allocated in entertainment away from consoles toward mobile games…They will selectively go to console, sort of like people go to movie theatres today,” Sharma says. Today’s transition from console to mobile is the “metaphoric echo” of arcade to console.

He immediately supports his claim with two pieces of evidence: Time spent on apps growing beyond time spent on the web, and the dollar value of apps.

Sharma dives into a comparison of a 40-hour single player game (like God of War), which sells for $40 (a conservative estimate) with a casual mobile game like Angry Birds. At over 120 levels for $1, Angry Birds can bring in probably over 20 hours of experience (but let’s just cap it at 20); that’s just an example of the relative value per hour of games. On average, console games cost $1/hour of entertainment, whereas mobile games cost $0.05/hour of entertainment.

Also, each mobile device – tablet and smartphone – being sold is like another console being sold. There 1.5 billion of these devices out there, and each one is capable of being a console. There’s also the transition to casual games, which we discussed earlier.

Sharma predicts that games will either be super-high-end games will still thrive, just because they’re on the bleeding edge of experience. He built up to his final prediction by drawing on the metaphor of the video game industry being bigger than the movie industry.

“By the end of this decade, the mobile gaming industry will be bigger than the console gaming industry. Actually, I’ll go even bolder: I’ll bet you by 2015 this happens,” Sharma grins.

We touch on many other topics, including a Minority Report-esque interface that could be possible with projectors starting to become integrated into mobile devices (I’m looking at you, Samsung Galaxy Beam), as well as incremental increases in gaming hardware compared to one-time increases (remember those satellites I had mentioned earlier? Tablets will be like that – replaced every 2-3 years in comparison to consoles, which are replaced every 7-8).

I buy Infinity Blade later on that day (Sharma points out that it’s on special at $0.99 when we are checking the Top Paid Apps), my head swirling with these radical predictions.

Will console games go the way of the arcade? (While definitely not representative of the entire population, I can’t help but think of my own PS3 collecting dust this past year.) Will mobile devices like the iPad serve to be the primary deliverer of immersive and artsy gaming experiences? It’s not difficult to lose myself in a game like Infinity Blade, and presently mobile gaming is still in its infant stages. The app economy is shaping up to be a behemoth of an industry; if (when?) Sharma’s logic follows through, we’re going to be seeing a very remarkable tomorrow.

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