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The Wireless Doom Years

Think of Gladiator and Millionaire as phase one of the mobile-game evolution-analogous to the beginnings of computer games, with their chunky-looking graphics. They represent, in effect, the Pong years. Now we’re about to witness the start of phase two, to be ushered in by the deployment of newfangled hardware and game development software later this year. These will be the Doom years of wireless gaming.

This transition will occur in large part due to the advent of two new software platforms designed to make it easier for developers to create games for multiple devices, yielding a wider selection of games. One is a wireless variant of the language that powers much of the Web-Sun Microsystems’ Java. The Java variant (known in the business as J2ME-for Java 2, micro edition) is now a feature on 15 million handsets and is expected to be standard on nearly all mobile phones by 2006. The other is San Diego-based Qualcomm’s set of software tools called the Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless. Phones with this software-known as BREW-are already available in South Korea and will become available in the U.S. this summer from Verizon. While early wireless games are capturing a growing audience even with their low-tech look and feel, the more graphically rich games that the new platforms will make possible should appeal to a far larger audience.

Both Java and the Binary Runtime Environment offer full-color, arcadelike experiences akin to those offered by Game Boys. For example, rather than taking turns selecting moves and then waiting for the results, as in Gladiator, players might hop on the back of a tiny motorcycle and tear around an animated racetrack as an amber sun sets on the digital horizon. Or they’ll play a lush round of golf as Tiger Woods.

Because games developed with these platforms are downloaded to a handset-instead of requiring users to interact with a server, as with the wireless application protocol-the chief factor limiting performance is the device’s processor speed. Faster processors permit more complex games and smoother action. A typical cell phone chip today runs at around 200 megahertz-sluggish by PC standards. With wireless games, however, that isn’t much of a constraint. “We made do with one megahertz on a Commodore 64,” says Mikael Nerde-who oversees mobile gaming as third-party-program marketing manager for Sony Ericsson-referring to a popular home PC of the 1980s.

Developers can also make do-to a surprising extent-with the low bandwidth of existing wireless networks. Indeed, the new third-generation networks now becoming available in the United States and providing at least 144 kilobits per second of data delivery-ten times the capacity of today’s typical wireless systems-will have only a minor influence on most mobile games. Since Gladiator transmits tiny packets of data, for example, it works fine with today’s pokey wireless services. “We don’t care much about bandwidth,” says Jamdat’s Lasky.

While higher bandwidth will not itself do much for wireless gaming, it will still have an indirect effect. That’s because wireless-device makers are preparing to usher in the 3G epoch with a flood of handsets featuring larger and more colorful screens. The emergence of so-called smart phones-combination personal digital assistant and cell phone-also promises the more game-friendly interface of large color screens.

In another important development, some companies are also starting to make game-specific peripherals for mobile devices. Taiwan-based Architek, for instance, has developed a tiny cell phone joystick for players of Nokia’s Snake-a hit game in which players must maneuver an ever lengthening electronic reptile before it crashes into a wall. A new version of the Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless will address another interface issue for gaming-the ability to execute certain tasks by pressing several keys at once. This capability, common on console game systems, allows for more complex character actions-such as a jump-turn-shoot maneuver.

All these technologies will converge to create a more varied gaming experience for the masses of gamers-as well as an appealing development opportunity for game creators. Calabasas Hills, CA-based THQ, for example, plans to introduce games that it says will rival in quality those it makes for the Game Boy Advance. These will include spinoffs of games based on World Wrestling Entertainment action, with animated wrestlers body-slamming each other in the ring, as well as Moto GP, a mud-slinging motocross contest. And while creation of a typical PC or console game can cost as much as $5 million and take as long as two years, the relatively graphics-poor games for mobile devices-even the next-generation ones-can be completed in six weeks for less than $50,000. There’s no packaging, no retail, no muss. “It’s fun to make small games again,” says John Romero.

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