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Howard Tomlinson
Chief Executive Officer

PDA Games, Genres, and the future of Palm OS

14:58 13th February 2007

There's been quite some discussion recently about how Palm OS doesn't seem to be the same anymore, and to an extent how this shows through in the games that are being created. I thought I would explain how I've seen the OS, the types of users, and the demand for games change over time, particularly from the Astraware perspective.

Zap!2000 Astraware ran its first big survey of customers back around the start of 2001, when there were just four of us working full time. At the time, the majority of Palm owners (we weren't dabbling with Pocket PC too much back then) were what get termed "early adopters" - who I might stereotype by saying that they were predominantly 20-35 year old males with a high level of education, a well paid job, and plenty of disposable income.

These were people who loved their gadgets, fondly remembered playing games in arcades, and were willing to part with cash for games like Zap!2000.

That's how it was back in 2000 and 2001, but Things Changed...

The price of Palms came down. More people bought them. And the demographics shifted too.

The gadget nuts are still there, and still buying. They change their device regularly, and do buy plenty of software. The mainstream, however, is here too. They like more casual games - puzzle, word, board, card etc. They like the graphics to be good (emphasis on clear and readable rather than flashy!), the sounds to be complementary to the game, and the game to be "fun" (as subjective a term as it ever was!).

There have been some truly awe inspiring technically exciting games created - I remember being amazed by Warfare Inc. and EDGE just like everyone else. The problem is, the big "look what's possible!" games don't sell. Not only do they not get as many sales as a good word or puzzle game, but they cost more to develop, much much more. These are games that took several man-years to create each. Most PDA game developers create the games out of a love of games and a passion for the platform, but hope that they'll see at least a reasonable return for their effort. In most cases, the return for that effort is very low. I know a lot of developers who have been very disappointed with their game sales!

StarPop! In our most recent survey, we're finding there's still a small demand for action and platform style games, but the answers we're getting are confirmed by our results - customers are willing to pay for the "casual" games. These games take less time (and so cost less) to create - our games typically about 4-6 man months. It is possible (just) for these games to break even!

If you were to gauge the market by reading the contributors to forums, you might see dozens of gamers (the Tapwave site forums were great for this) who are continually excited about action games, but this really is a disproportionately vocal minority. The majority of our customers wouldn't classify themselves as gamers, even though they enjoy a game here and there throughout their day. Many developers have listened to the minority, but not been able to make their money back. Luckily for most of those developers, it hasn't been their day job!

We're in a pretty good position - we've got a strong customer base, a powerful technology layer, and some great IP, some our own, some licensed. We've got the space to experiment a bit with new games where it might not always be obvious how well a game may do - StarPop! for example. Will we do more action style games? Probably - but only as one part of a much bigger mix of games. Will we ever complete Zap!Evolution? I hope so, but it won't be soon!

We get a lot of questions about operating systems. We've become somewhat "platform agnostic" over the past few years, having covered Palm OS and the various flavors of Windows Mobile quite equally. I'm very fond of a lot of things about Palm OS (though that's more from a user than a developer perspective!). Palm OS, in its current guise, seems to be at the end of its road. Palm will continue to use it (there are lots of happy customers!), but ACCESS are developing their own Linux based PDA/Smartphone OS. I'm hoping it will share of lot of usability features with Palm OS, since a lot of good thought has been put in.

I mentioned in a recent interview where I expected Palm OS to be, maybe not actively developed but used in some more devices for another year or so to come, and that means customers will still be wanting Palm OS software (games included) certainly for a further year or two beyond that. We're only now making our minimum Palm OS level 5.0 and up - its a trade-off between supporting the maximum number of devices, and making our development cost acceptable. It has been several years since a 68k based device (OS4 and below) has been released, and so well over 95% of our users have OS5 and up, and the device capabilities that go with it.

Treo 680s The learning curve for Palm OS can be pretty scary (and frustrating) for new game developers, so at this point I wouldn't expect to see too many new developers who only create Palm OS titles. Most PDA developers spread their risk a little by putting in the extra effort to have their game across more than one platform, Windows Mobile being a popular choice. Astraware have been doing this for quite some time, and by putting our effort into a system that lets us create games for many platforms, we're able to move quickly when new platforms become available. There's still the same old questions of how to reach customers for new platforms - whether it be directly or via resellers or carriers, but that's something every business has to get to grips with.

My own personal device is (now) a Treo 680 - so you can expect that Astraware will be supporting Palm OS for at least as long as I have a Palm OS handheld!