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Will Mobile Games Sweep the Nation?

by David Fox

Last week, top executives from companies such as Sony, Disney, Sega, THQ, and Newscorp met at the Mobile Entertainment Summit in Las Vegas, Nevada. The summit was part of CTIA's Wireless conference. It took place in a big ballroom at the Venetian hotel while a floor above us, gondolas glided through canals. Entertainment companies, game studios, mobile carriers, handset makers, and operators met and discussed the present and future of wireless games.

The numbers vary widely, but analysts are sure mobile gaming is going to hit big. Frost and Sullivan believes that mobile games will be a 9.3 billion dollar industry by 2008. Ovum plots games at $4.4 billion by 2006. In-Stat/MDR, however, prognosticates that games will "only" earn $2.8 billion in revenues by 2006. But any way you slice it, the sector will see some action.

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Japan, Japan, Japan

The golden age of mobile entertainment clearly hasn't reached the United States yet, but the first rays of potential are beginning to stretch over the horizon. A rising sun is actually an apt metaphor: The most often-repeated word at the session was "Japan." Basically, Japan has the perfect primordial soup of culture, technology, and necessity for wireless entertainment to thrive.

Due to people's lifestyles, beautiful color-screen handsets, and the slow pace in which affordable Internet access grew, many Asians use their phones as their primary means of surfing the Web. Downloading and playing games is easy, and a common way for people of all ages to pass time.

The most popular way to play is as a package deal--you subscribe monthly, and new games keep on coming. The popular G-Mode "petit appli" service, for example, offers more than 60 games, but you can only play 3 games per month. They earned more than $10 million in revenue last year.

The other top contender in this "game pack" space is Hudson Soft, with its "chakushin appli" site, which allows subscribers to download as many games as they want. Games include some top brands such as SimCity Mobile and Bomberman.

SimCity Mobile
SimCity Mobile

Disney spoke about its success in the Asian market. The top-branded entertainment provider, Disney offers ring-tones, cartoon serials, wallpaper, clocks, as well as a few simplistic games. The company charges about 100 to 300 yen ($1 to $3) per month for this content, and it has tens of thousands of subscribers.

Would Americans be willing to shell out a few bucks to display a simple image of Mickey Mouse on their phones? It seems doubtful.

The Latest from Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless

As one person noted, however, there's no reason wireless entertainment couldn't take off in America. After all, users pay more on average for their wireless bill in the United States than anywhere else in the world.

In fact, Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless have both begun a marketing push, trying to educate the masses to the fact that games on cell phones are possible and desirable. TV and magazine ads feature bored people passing the time with exciting little games.

Verizon Wireless is pushing games as part of its Get it Now campaign. They have some big-name partners. Sony Entertainment, for example, is rolling out Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. You can download a basic demo for free, but must then pay $2.99 per month for future trivia questions and puzzles. The hope is that the strong brand name of these games will drive people to pay to play. Sony is also developing a wireless role-playing game called "Hero's Call."

Another big partner is JAMDAT Mobile, a company dedicated to wireless games. Titles include Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Golf (part of the EA Sports imprint), JAMDAT Bowling, JAMDAT Football, JAMDAT Solitaire, and Diamond Mine. Future games will include Fudomyo (a martial-arts fighting game), JAMDAT Baseball, Minefield, Stock Car Fever, Mummy Maze, and JAMDAT Basketball. Most of these games are available for $4.99 for unlimited use, or $1.99 per month, though prices vary for each game.

Jamdat's Bowling

Sprint PCS is releasing games along with its PCS Vision service, which also allows you to do such things as exchange digital photos, change ringers, and swap screensavers. Games that can be downloaded include PAC-MAN; Men in Black II: Same Planet, New Scum; MotoGP; Space Invaders by Taito; Tetris; EXPN Skateboarding; Cybiko CyRace; JAMDAT Solitaire; Snood; Disney's Lilo & Stitch: Space Escape; and Riverboat Blackjack. Some of these games are free but most of the better ones require an additional download fee.

The biggest hype revolves around Sega's popular Monkey Ball franchise. Sprint will include a free five-level demo of the game with all of its new PCS phones. To access further levels, you need to subscribe for $3.99 per month.

The wireless version of Monkey Ball is a simple but strategic puzzle game where you play the role of a monkey, trapped inside a ball. You must roll around various landscapes and time your ball to hit moving platforms, avoiding cliffs, brown bananas, mud, ice, and wind.

Sega's Monkey Ball
Sega's Monkey Ball

For those who have Java handsets, Nextel also sells a wide range of Java games. These games are about $5 each. The current offerings are pretty simple, but some neat games are coming soon. For example, Nuvo Studios is going to offer WWF Mobile Madness and Cyibiko is coming out with a slick-looking motorcycle game called MotoGP.

WWF Mobile Madness
WWF Mobile Madness

AT&T Wireless is also planning to support games. One of the first games it will deliver is the mobile version of Activision's Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4--a sequel to the #1 action-sports video game of 2001.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4

If you're interested in keeping tabs on the latest games, a good source is the Wireless Gaming Review, which allows you to sort games by service provider or by device.

Coming Soon to a Miniscule Screen Near You

The current crop of games isn't bad, but it probably isn't enough to drive a mobile-gaming frenzy. But as navigation and devices improve, we can start to expect PalmOS games and eventually iPaq games to begin making their way onto more powerful phones.

Gameloft, for example, demonstrated a beautiful-looking game called Siberian Strike, where you fly a biplane through various missions. Since you cannot detect the hit of two buttons at once on most handsets, the plane constantly fires, so the player's main focus is on offensive and defensive movement.

Siberian Strike
Siberian Strike

Also demo'd was Tomb Raider, adopted for the mobile phone by IdeaWorks. The 3-D engine lets you navigate Lara Croft through the same caverns and temples as the original game, and you will be able to download new levels wirelessly.

Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider

Another highly innovative game to watch for is Dance Queen, presented by nGame. This game allows you move an animated character to music by pressing your keypad, like a thumb-size version of the "Dance Dance Revolution" arcade game.

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SMS Games and More

Another interesting category is SMS games. SMS, or mobile messaging, is amazingly popular in Europe and Asia. It is also catching on in the United States, especially among teenagers.

Some companies have created games that are completely playable through SMS. For example, you can play a game of hangman by guessing a letter and sending it to the hangman server. The server will respond with a message showing you whether that letter helps solve the word. If not, you'll be shown an ASCII version of the hangman.

There are also a wide variety of SMS casino games, adventure games, and even role-playing games. A popular Japanese SMS game involves fishing--you cast your lure and your phone eventually returns a message to you with either an empty hook or an exotic fish!

As more carriers begin to support the Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), these games will be able to include images, audio, or even small video clips.

More interestingly, many wireless networks implement some form of mobile positioning. As this feature becomes more accessible, a game can track exactly where a player is in the real world.

For example, It's Alive!, a company in Sweden, has a fascinating game called BotFighters. Players use a Web site to locate other players. They can then get out into the real word and attack other players by sending an SMS message while in range. Mobile positioning determines whether two players are actually close enough to fight.

Location-based games have extreme potential and they are the type of thing that can only be played on mobile devices. Until there are clear standards for how to handle positioning, though, such games can only be done in places like Sweden, where everyone in the country pretty much uses the same wireless network.

Smart Skins

Eric Engstrom, CEO of Wildseed, believes that companies that know games need to make games for phones--not telecommunications executives. "Today's phones are as powerful as the original GameBoy," he says. "But they just don't have good enough games, or good enough input devices." To address this, Wildseed has created "smart skins," including one that turns your phone into a device that looks like a console's game controller.

Wildseed is launching its first products for Kyocera's Delta-Two phone in early 2003, with each skin costing about $20.

Wildseed Skin for Kyocera Delta-Two
Wildseed Skin for Kyocera's Delta-Two Phone

Give the People What They Want

The summit attendees had high hopes. Weary from dot-com craziness and leery of hype, panelists discussed lessons learned and showcased their newest stuff. Everyone has reason to give it a shot: Hardware makers want consumers to buy more powerful devices, carriers want consumers to use their services, and content creators want consumers to consume lots and lots of product.

But what do people want?

Some of the big questions are:

My belief is that mobile games will be incredibly popular--but not the types of games we are used to. Gamers who want quick reactions, bloody 3-D monsters, and supercharged sound will always be disappointed by limited devices. But there's one thing mobile-phone games offer that even the highest-end consoles can't provide: they're always with you, and can be played anywhere. Games that support wireless devices are already drawing players into a level of immersion that has never before been experienced.

The right pieces aren't all in place yet. Games need to be easy to get to--go to one menu, press one button, and you're in. More importantly, devices need to be more "gamey"--color screens, the ability to press more than one button at a time, and better audio. And networks need to improve, with better bandwidth and latency.

Once all that happens, the nation will surely be swept away.

David Fox is launching a game company in New York City. He's also the author of numerous books and articles about cyberculture and technology.

Copyright © 2009 O'Reilly Media, Inc.