Virgin looks to cash in with SMS gaming

A two-player game of mobile chess with Virgin Mobile's latest phone could easily cost £4 per player. No wonder the network operators are keen on interactive gaming

Virtual mobile operator Virgin is hoping to boost the amount of money it makes from its younger subscribers by launching a phone that will let two people play games against each other wirelessly.

The Sendo S230 supports interactive versions of chess, checkers (draughts), reversi and Kombat Club -- a two-player fighting game. Users compete by sending their moves as SMS messages. Each SMS costs 10p, so Virgin can look forward to receiving £8 for a single game of chess in which each player makes 40 moves, for example.

Virgin is already a big fan of Sendo's earlier handset, the S200, which was popular with younger customers and generated excellent average revenue per user (ARPU) levels. "The interactive games on the new S230 will play into the hands of (the youth) target market," said Andy Mallinson, head of product marketing for Virgin Mobile, in a statment.

However, Virgin may come unstuck if users start doing the maths. For voice calls, the company operates a simple tariff of 15 pence per minute for the first five minutes of calls in one day, with every additional minute costing five pence.

This means that £4 -- the cost of sending 40 SMSs -- would pay for 70 minutes of talk time in one day. This means it's probably cheaper for two players to sit in front of separate boards and simply dictate their moves over the phone.

The counter-argument, so to speak, is that the S230 will allow users to play games while on the move, letting commuters play games on the way to work, for example. Also, there's no chance of one player misinterpreting a move -- something that could easily ruin a game.

Still, some users may be reluctant to pay 10p a move -- and may instead decide to play one of the eight one-player games available.

The Sendo S230 will go on sale in April, and is expected to cost between £80 and £90.

Analysts believe that interactive gaming will be a key revenue earner for mobile phone companies in the next few years. As more feature-rich phones and faster networks become available, it will be possible for companies to offer more sophisticated games.

UK-based developer iFone said last year it was working on a project to recreate classic Atari arcade games on mobile phones. It believes that users will be happy to pay up to 50p to download a version of Asteroids or Frogger.


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