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It’s game time.

Across the rainy streets of San Jose, CA, scruffy guys with laminated badges flapping on their T-shirts scurry into the city’s convention center. The occasion is the annual Game Developer’s Conference: Mecca for the programmers, artists and technological dreamers who design and code virtual worlds. The annual event is always the place to be for anyone who’s anyone in this multibillion-dollar industry. But on this Saturday morning, the buzz is even greater than usual. After a few days discussing vector units, quaternions and 3-D fluid simulation, they’re racing to talk about something truly heady, the birth of a new medium: wireless games.

Inside the conference room, a standing-room-only crowd has assembled for the “Wireless Game Summit,” a marathon exploration of the first new gaming platform in three decades. Among the development companies attending is one launched by the legendary John Romero. Way back in the 20th century, Romero was cocreator of three fast-action video games that radically transformed the industry. Romero’s violent “first-person shooters”-Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom and Quake-let the player see through the eyes of a weapons-wielding character. With their mesmerizing 3-D graphics and over-the-Internet competition, these three games rapidly became among the bestselling offerings in video game history. Now Romero has started Monkeystone Games in Quinlan, TX, to focus on what he thinks is the next great unconquered space for gaming. “Everyone has a cell phone,” he says, “and everyone’s going to want to play games.”

Wireless games are played on Internet-enabled portable devices such as personal digital assistants and, particularly, cell phones. Though most of us are now familiar with the idea of getting driving directions or surfing the Web on a cell phone, the real killer app of wireless devices is games. Primitive-looking wireless games have already gained enormous popularity overseas. And bolstered by new software tools that allow game creators to deliver robust, colorful images, and by the emergence of third-generation, or 3G, cellular networks, wireless games may be on the verge of commercial success. The New York-based market research firm Datamonitor projects that by 2005, 80 percent of all wireless users in the United States and Western Europe-200 million people-will at least occasionally play games on their handhelds. In that period, the wireless-games market will zoom from less than $1 million per year to $6 billion, if the rosier estimates are to be believed.

This latest wrinkle in gaming has been a long time coming. Computer games were born in 1962 when MIT programmers hacked together an intergalactic simulation called Spacewar for a PDP-1 mainframe. Arcade games were hatched nine years later, when Nolan Bushnell engineered a coin-operated spinoff called Computer Space-and, one year later, Pong. The first home game consoles hit the market in 1972. Though today’s games have achieved leaps in power and sophistication-from the massively multiplayer online world of EverQuest for the PC to the stunning graphical realism of Halo for the Microsoft Xbox-they essentially rely on machines that have existed for years. There hasn’t been a new game platform since the 1970s.

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