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Comics on your mobile phone!

Aparna Krishnakumar | March 10, 2005

Archie is being chased by Betty and Veronica, Jughead finishes a 12-feet-long sandwich and Reggie is finding a way to escape Moose.

No, we're not referring to the Archie comics you were hooked on in your adolescence. These are just some of the games that the Mumbai-based Nazara Technologies plans to develop for the 64-year-old Archie Comics Entertainment. Nazara has a three-year deal with the US company.

Elsewhere in Mumbai, Mauj.com, the mobile content development company, is readying to unleash its range of J Lo mobile content for Sony-BMG's promotion of the latest Jennifer Lopez album.

As part of the promo, Mauj.com is developing music clips that can be downloaded. Another Mumbai-based company,  Indiagames, meanwhile, is looking at developing Phantom and Garfield cartoon strips.

Suddenly, a new world of business opportunities is opening to India's mobile content developers. Some, though not all, of them are casting their eyes beyond the frontiers of mobile games for business.

Arun Gupta, CEO of Mauj.com, says that apart from gaming, mobile gaming companies are also aggressively entering areas like ring tones, mobile imagery and streaming audio and video.

Most mobile gaming companies explain that it's lucrative to produce well known comic strip content for mobile phones and that they need to have a bouquet of products, apart from mobile games.

Vishal Gondal, founder of Indiagames, argues that the mobile phone is an entertainment device and so diversifying into other entertainment spheres is natural.

Says Gondal: "A mobile is a device that will form communities of like-minded people and so personalised content will be the name of the game in future."

An Ernst & Young report on technology that will propel the media and entertainment businesses in the future states that the US video game consumer spends $35 for video games, almost as much as the $39 spent every year on an average on a movie. Also after game and ring tone downloads, mobile imagery is the preferred download globally.

Globally, companies have realised the business potential of mobile content. Entertainment companies too that hold intellectual property right have now begun to tap the wireless medium as an alternative source of revenue. Last year, Marvel Comics signed on the US-based Mforma to digitise its content.

Says Nitish Mittersain, chief executive officer, Nazara Technologies: "It's become a highly competitive market and the entry barriers have set in because there are very few branded and well known properties whose digital rights are for sale." As a result, IPR holders demand sky-high prices for digital rights.

All content developers have to pay a minimum guarantee to IPR holders. None of the developers reveals how much this runs to, but the sum involved is anywhere between $20 million (Rs 87.4 crore) and $50 million (Rs 218.5 crore).

Warns Mittersain: "Only companies with deep pockets can invest in such projects and so very few companies actually pitch for such accounts." Also, Gondal warns that content based on comic books and other imagery will be viable only if the developer has a strong distribution network.

Still, bagging these rights can bring fat returns. As Mittersain points out, since his company has exclusive digital rights to Archie's comics, Nazara will be the one point contact for telecom companies that want to source such content for their subscribers.

However, not all mobile gaming companies are gung ho about foraying into this kind of content development. At the Mumbai-based Paradox Studios, Anurag Khanna scoffs at the idea of venturing beyond games.

Says he: "Many studies prove that games currently account for 70-80 per cent of any telecom operator's downloads. Why venture beyond that?"

Ajay Adisheshann, managing director of Coruscant Tec, too believes that game development is a large enough market to keep developers busy for the next two to three years.

Both Paradox Studios and Coruscant Tec are experimenting with different kinds of games that involve not just a single player but multiple players, and with 3D animation games.

If mobile game developers are sceptical of the wisdom of foraying beyond their traditional boundaries, will the move into producing content from branded comics persist? Perhaps not.

Mittersain perhaps concludes this debate when he says: "Branded products will sooner or later dry up. The time has come to develop original content that can be branded in due course of time."


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