games reporter

I-Play: We have a thumb on pulse of mobile games

Come June 27, Universal Pictures anticipates having a blockbuster on its hands with "Wanted," a fantasy action-thriller with a cast that includes Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Terence Stamp. Is this the sort of thing that can be successfully shoehorned onto a 2-inch-by-2-inch cell phone screen? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but mobile game developer I-Play sure intends to try.

While there will be other versions of the game for various platforms, only the mobile version will be released "practically day-and-date with the movie." No specific date has been determined, however, because the movie's opening recently was pushed back three months from March 28.

"Our goal is to release the game as close to the movie as possible to take advantage of all the great marketing that's happening around the film to help build awareness of the title across all platforms, not just mobile," says Jeremy Laws, a senior vp at Universal Digital Platforms Group.

The delay can only be a boon to the game designers at I-Play, giving them additional time to meet their goal of capturing the look and feel of Universal's big-screen release on a cell phone.

"We try to make the game follow the film script as much as we can, but obviously we can't duplicate what can be done on larger platforms like the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3," says Ben Klages, producer of the "Wanted" game at I-Play.

Fortunately for Klages and his team, the movie shoot started in May, the same month that game development began. That enabled Klages to work closely with Universal; to have access to preproduction material, scripts and stills; and to receive input from director Timur Bekmambetov.

"We started out with a game design document that I-Play created and we reviewed," Laws says. "We gave them some feedback, and then we moved on to looking at renderings of the game and then the actual gameplay levels. And so there was a lot of back and forth between I-Play and Universal."

I-Play president and CEO David Gosen believes that the developer has successfully turned it into what he calls "a one-thumb game." He says he's philosophically opposed to mobile games that only contortionists can play. "Just because you have a license that is a high-profile movie with a complex plot doesn't mean you can't make a game that is intuitive and easy to play," he says.

What is more important Gosen says is that when gamers go to the "deck" of their cell phones to choose a game to play, they recognize this game because it has the same name as the movie at the local theater.

"We look at movies very carefully because you have to make sure you're backing a winner because the length of time that an unsuccessful movie stays at the boxoffice isn't very long and you need a lot of momentum behind your mobile games to drive it to success," he says.

It took Laws' core team of nine developers about 31/2 months to develop the game — just about the same as the movie shoot — and then another five months to convert and port the game so it can be played on the 800-plus varieties of cell phones on the market. That second stage, he says, is the biggest hurdle for makers of mobile games.

Despite the challenges, Laws sees licensed mobile games as the wave of the future, even though video game critics have been urging makers to develop new and original IP.

"Many of the top-tier mobile publishers — even the ones who had sworn off licensed IP — are coming back to it because they've learned that if the gamer doesn't recognize the IP on the cell phone deck, they don't buy it. That's why they're coming to the movie and TV studios for licenses," he says.