4G, LTE & Games: Casual On Speed!

Next to app stores (or markets or marketplaces or app worlds or, well, Ovi), the dominating theme of CTIA Wireless was 4G/LTE. Now, as sexy and de jour as app stores might be, the latter has a hugely larger commercial impact (the Verizon Wireless contract for their LTE network will be a multi-billion deal alone!). But what is a network without applications?

So it was just as well that, one day before CTIA Wireless, I had the great pleasure of contributing to the "Connecting the Consumer" panel at Alcatel-Lucent's 4G Symposium (with Disney, Samsung, Buzznet and Atlantic Records all contributing, providing for the various facets of content [games, video/film, music, web]). The ground had been laid by the keynote of the formidable Mitch Singer, Sony Pictures CTO and a long-standing thought-leader in changing sectors (he's one of the people who brought the original Napster down and - in his own words - "look was the music industry has become"). Mitch had reminded us of "The Innovator's Dilemma" (Read it! It's worth it!), which deals with how businesses should tackle change...

And this brings me to the nucleus of this post, which is how the content industry will (should?) approach the next big thing that is LTE.

By way of background: LTE (Long-Term Evolution; don't ask why but this is apparently what it stands for) is largely seen as the successor to current third-generation (3G) networks (UMTS, WCDMA, HSDPA, HSUPA, CDMA2000, EVDO, call me if you want more acronyms...). LTE appears to have won the "fight" against Wi-Max (as some early commentators predicted) with carriers (Verizon Wireless, Vodafone and China Mobile amongst them) and vendors (Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, etc) strongly supporting it. The standard is capable of delivering speeds well in excess of 10MB/s over wireless networks. So, world, be prepared!

One of the obvious beneficiaries should be the games sector home of the tech-savvy early adopters: ultra-high broadband, super-speeds, fantastic opportunities. Or so they say...

The games market can probably - to this extent at least - be simplistically divided into a) hard-core and b) casual games. The former would comprise massively multi-player online games (MMO) as well as fast-paced, high-end racing and action games. The latter is, well, everything from Solitaire to Scrabble and Tetris. And, yes, the latter is the one genre played by far more people, including the online gaming industry's "golden customer", the proverbial 42-year-old housewife from Ohio (absolutely no offense meant, implied or indeed merited!). Whilst it is easy to see how a high-end action game would benefit from high bandwidth, the case may be slightly less obvious for the casual games space (on PCs alone, this is a $2.5bn+ market already today!).

Given the casual games' higher adoption across a much broader demographic, it is however conceivable that carriers (the ultimate gate keepers for mobile content at least in the world as we currently know it) would want to reach that broader demographic: higher spending power than geeky kids, faithful, not necessarily wanting to change things every 5 minutes, predictable spending habits - this is a much safer and more promising target demographic than my 13-year-old son who will happily switch allegiance to a provider the moment another one has something cooler, cheaper, slightly funkier, whatever, ... to offer.

So what can 4G do for the (mobile) casual games space? It brings, quite simply, wireless (or wire-free; remember that sweet tagline from Orange days long gone?) digital media to par with the wireline one (and will, in very large parts of the world, effectively be digital media (or do you think Brazil, China et al will dig up their vast countries to lay down copper or fibre cables to connect their non-urban consumers?).

So what, you say? Well, this allows consumers to actually play as they did before the arrival of the first crude iterations of the Internet, and that is socially: what was a game before computers and gaming consoles took over? An intrinsically social activity (cards, board games, petanque, golf, you name it). We have seen a huge uptake of social games on the Internet with tens of millions of consumers enjoying fairly simple games on Facebook and other platforms. And the next generation wireless will enable that again wherever you are (see here for a presentation I recently gave at Casual Connect in Hamburg on the topic).

So, high connectedness it is then! Games that will allow to interact with peers, friends, total strangers that happen to have the same passion for the same type of game around the world. Games become a social activity again. It is a less fancy, less futuristic vision than all-immersive high-end niche products such as World of Warcraft (which will also see its fair share of fame once the wireless networks can support it) but it is one that will finally make any wireless device as ubiquitous as many in the industrialized world (East or West) have learned wireline connected devices to be. And it actually takes some of the sting out of concerns that (digital) games will make video zombies out of our children.

This development (with LTE as the backbone) opens a market to be counted in billions rather than millions, and most of them will be wireless (the number of mobile phones outnumbers the number of Internet-connected PCs by a ratio of 2.5:1 already today!). And this is where the true market opportunity lies!

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