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The Lure of the Simple

I-mode games offer nothing like the whiz-bang explosions of a typical video game. The most popular game, for example, is Fisupeli-virtual fishing. Like most i-mode titles, it is text-based-no graphics at all. To begin, a player types “fisu” on the phone. A message appears on the screen describing the fishing environment. The player taps keys to select lures and rods-choices that will, ultimately, determine the chances of success at catching various kinds of fish. Simple? Yes, but as seemingly timeless and compelling as a good round of Go Fish.

Given Fisupeli’s sparse graphics, one lesson U.S. game companies are taking from the i-mode phenomenon is that adult players of wireless games don’t need the bells and whistles that kids go for. On the contrary, adult gamers prefer simpler games. Take an offering from Los Angeles-based Jamdat Mobile called Gladiator, which has enticed more than 1.1 million people to spend some 15 million minutes competing against each other over wireless networks. That averages out to less than 15 minutes per player; people play in short busts.

Gladiator’s popularity shows how compelling a primitive-looking game can be. The screen displays two combatants-you and your gladiatorial opponent. You manipulate a cursor to choose where to put up your shield and where to strike out. These choices are then sent over the wireless network, which compares them with your opponent’s, calculates the results and relays back the score. It isn’t realism or beauty that’s driving the success of Gladiator-it’s simple competition and distraction. “Developers were making better-looking games on the PDP-1 in the 1960s,” admits Jamdat Mobile CEO Mitch Lasky.

Though Gladiator shares the simple structure of the i-mode games, it occupies a parallel universe. Playing it requires a handset compatible with a completely different standard, known as the wireless application protocol (often referred to by its acronym, WAP). This protocol has the disadvantage of not offering i-mode’s always-on connection. Unlike i-mode, however, it works on a wide assortment of phones.

Even more widespread are lower-tech games based on a method of wireless text communication called the short-message service, or SMS. This service allows people to exchange brief text notes, generally less than 160 characters long, by typing into their cell phones or other handheld wireless devices. Already widely used in Europe, text messaging is starting to catch on rapidly in the United States (see “Message in a Bottleneck,” TR January/February 2002). And it turns out to be well suited for gaming.

In China, for instance, a simple trivia game called Intelligence Quotient Quiz is credited with expanding the clientele of the wireless firm Linktone 20-fold in its first month. And last September, when Bell Mobility in Canada introduced a short-message service version of the popular game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the game was played more than 500,000 times during the first week. Games now account for more than half of the Internet traffic on the Bell Mobility wireless network. That’s an even higher percentage than in Japan, where about a quarter of i-mode users seek entertainment and games. The massive popularity of these graphically simple games shows that an addictive round of trivia can be just as riveting as fancy color images of explosions and mayhem.

While the short-message service is popular in Europe and Asia, it is new in the U.S. The same goes for the wireless application protocol-available on only about one of every ten phones nationwide. Given the U.S. appetite for Millionaire-style entertainment, it and similar games will almost certainly hit these shores as wireless gaming infiltrates U.S. culture.

But that, code warriors at the San Jose conference proclaimed, is only the beginning.

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Tagged: Communications

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