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What will mobile games be like in 2010?

Mobile games weren’t sexy at all a couple of years ago. Even the intentionally arousing (i.e. adult) ones were profoundly unsexy, thanks to the limitations of Java and the various well-documented irritations in the process of getting hold of them.

That all changed in 2009. You can now see mobile games being showcased in the ad breaks of primetime TV shows thanks to Apple, while a series of high-profile games have racked up seven-figure download numbers. You want sexy? Even Megan Fox talks about her love of iPhone games – specifically Sally’s Spa – during chat show interviews, while Demi Moore tweeted about her Flight Control habit.

So what does 2010 hold for mobile gaming? We’ve identified seven trends that we think will define how people play as they go next year.

1. Rich 3D gaming goes beyond the iPhone

Want console-quality 3D graphics on your handset? This year, iPhone was the platform most likely to fulfil your needs. Nokia’s N-Gage service offered similar capabilities but flopped, while Android and BlackBerry games were still stuck in the Java era.

This will change though. Nokia is refocusing its energies on its Ovi Store with a new push for 3D Symbian titles, Google is making it easier for games developers to tap into Android handsets’ native hardware, and RIM recently promised similar functionality for new BlackBerrys.

2. Mobile gamers will get connected

Another area where iPhone has been a trailblazer is in connected gaming, thanks partly to the assumption that many players will be on Wi-Fi connections much of the time, and also to the plethora of Xbox Live-style community technologies – OpenFeint, Plus+, Scoreloop and so on. Meanwhile, Facebook Connect has helped developers sync their games up with the social network.

In 2010, this too will go beyond the iPhone. Scoreloop has just started supporting Android, allowing owners of Google-powered handsets to challenge iPhone-owning friends. Facebook Connect is also now available for non-Apple handsets. There will be no single community to rule them all in 2010, but features like online high-score tables and even live play will feel increasingly common.

3. In-app payments are here to stay

Another area where iPhone blazed a trail this year was its introduction of in-app payments, allowing developers to charge for extra stuff – levels, items, modes – within games. It’s already led to several big games being given away for free and funded entirely on such payments, including first-person shooter Eliminate, dogfighting game Skies of Glory, and virtual pooch title Touch Pets Dogs.

2010 will see a lot more use of in-app payments, although it’s still too early to tell if they justify charging nothing for the main game. And here too, we’ll see the trend on non-Apple platforms. RIM will start letting BlackBerry developers use in-app payments in the first half of next year, and Nokia also says it’s working on the model.

4. Proper Facebook-to-phone crossover

Having said that Facebook Connect has been fuelling mobile game connectivity in 2009, it’s been distinctly limited. Bragging about your Tap Tap Revenge scores on Facebook is nice, but there have been relatively few genuinely cross-platform games that you could play on mobile or Facebook – Anytime Pool and Who Has The Biggest Brain? being two of the more high-profile exceptions.

The growth of iPhone and Android will hopefully change this in 2010. All those people finding lost pigs and growing crops on Farmville online will hopefully get a spin-off mobile version to tend their farms on the go. In a just world, Playfish will follow suit with its Restaurant City and Pet Society games.

5. Cleverer way to discover cool new games

With tens of thousands of games to choose from, it’s increasingly easy to miss the pearls in the swamp. There are some great websites reviewing mobile games (Pocket Gamer, Slide To Play and Touch Arcade to name but three), and 2009 saw the launch of social services to help spotlight cool games, including Mplayit on Facebook and the Chorus app for iPhone.

2010 will see this trend continuing, with more startups attacking the problem of app and game discovery. The app store owners will also be refining their mechanisms. The second-generation Nokia Ovi Store may finally deliver on its promise of social location recommendations, Google could possibly leverage its knowledge of everything you’ve searched for in the last five years to serve up better suggestions, and the next step for Apple may be more social features to complement its Genius tech on the App Store.

6. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo (may) make their mobile move

If 2009 saw Apple park its tanks on the lawns of DS and PSP, 2010 could be the year Sony and Nintendo hit back with their own full-scale moves into mobile gaming. Possibly. Nintendo has been frustratingly unwilling to consider making its own-branded handset (the PokePhone?), but there have been constant rumours that Sony was mulling a PlayStation phone – with or without Sony Ericsson’s participation.

One of those will happen in 2010. And Microsoft? Xbox executives have periodically talked about the opportunities in mobile, while Zune HD recently saw the company’s first major move into mobile gaming. That, plus a renewed push with Windows Phones, should mean something in the year ahead, even if it’s not a dedicated XboxPhone.

7. The rise of social not-quite-games

I’ll admit, the genre title needs work. Social not-quite-games are iPhone apps that turn your social life into a game, often complete with scoring systems and achievement badges. Foursquare is the prime example, getting its users to ‘check in’ at venues to outscore their barfly friends and win badges for their nightlife. Booyah’s MyTown also falls into this category, as does UK app Rummble.

They’re not quite games, but it’s their game-like elements that keep people using them (or, indeed, playing). As more developers get to grips with Google Maps mash-ups and location APIs, the apps named above will face competition from new rivals in 2010. Intrinsic word-of-mouth means only the strongest will survive – although how they’ll make money is an entirely different question.

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