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An Imperfect World

The hard part still lies ahead, though. Despite the enthusiasm of the game developers and some early successes, wireless games face significant challenges. For one, the business case for wireless gaming is open to question: there’s no guarantee that consumers will be willing to pay enough for games to make their creation a viable business. The London-based market research firm Ovum concluded in a recent study that few people would pay more than 50 cents a month extra to play games on their cell phones and that only a tiny fraction of cell phone users-less than two percent-would pay $10 a month.

Arcade game players who have learned to milk hours out of a few quarters will also likely find wireless gaming a far less congenial experience. Wireless distribution means that gamers essentially get punished-instead of rewarded-for their skills. “If you’re successful at a network game,” says Ovum analyst Roope Mokka, “you end up paying more in airtime charges because you have a longer session.” What’s more, the very quality that defines these games-their reliance on wireless transmission-poses sticky technical problems. No matter how advanced wireless technologies become, there’s no getting around the disconnection that occurs when a player’s train heads into a tunnel.

Then there is the cultural issue. Japan’s affinity for the medium does not necessarily translate into U.S. acceptance. After all, i-mode has been Japan’s primary means of Internet access; here, where most homes and businesses are already online, Net play is not such a novelty. Ultimately, wireless-game makers have to not only deliver the goods but compel adults to redefine the way they are entertained. Eric Goldberg, founder and chief executive of Unplugged Games, found out that’s easier said than done. The New York-based developer of wireless games had to shut down his company in December despite having struck deals with Verizon, Sprint and AT&T. Goldberg reels off a list of problems with the new medium, ranging from cell phones’ puny memory to the lack of peripherals. The absence of a single standard adds to doubts about the enterprise’s feasibility.

Still, Goldberg and other game developers tend to see these problems as temporary growing pains rather than fundamental barriers. After all, with games comes ingenuity. A creative designer could think of a way to make such drop-outs part of a game. Some resourceful players have surprised companies by playing with their cell phones plugged into the wall to keep from missing the action when battery power flags. And in Europe, wireless gamers are embracing entirely new kinds of interactive experiences that turn games into entertainment services rather than products. It’s Alive, a company in Stockholm, is pioneering a new genre it calls “pervasive gaming,” which uses cell phones to lead players into real-life adventures; participants are lured to locations in the physical world where they must uncover clues and gain information. The company’s first offering-BotFighters-is an assassin-style game that uses mobile positioning to alert gamers to nearby players whom they can “shoot” by typing text messages into their cell phones.

Ultimately, if mobile gaming does take off in the U.S., it could expand the current $9.4 billion gaming industry into the number one entertainment business in the country-ahead of not only movies but also music. The stakeholders aren’t just the 130 million cell phone users but the biggest carriers (from Verizon to Sprint), the biggest game publishers (Electronic Arts to Sega) and the biggest manufacturers of hardware (Motorola) and software (Microsoft). “Bringing Sega content to wireless platforms is another step toward’s goal of bringing networked gaming to all devices,” says Ryoichi Shiratsuchi, CEO of and general manager of Sega Mobile Japan.

At the very least, proponents say, the new medium might do for wireless technologies what earlier games did for computers. It was in large part to satisfy game players, after all, that PC makers pushed for bigger color screens and faster processors (see “From PlayStation to PC,” TR March 2002). This vision animates the San Jose conference goers. “We had a revolution take place in computing years ago because of consumers’ desire to have excellent entertainment on a PC,” R. J. Mical, chief architect of Morgan Hill, CA, game developer Fathammer, tells those gathered at the Wireless Game Summit. “We ended up with massive machines with powerful graphics. And because of this wealth of capabilities, the Web was able to come into existence. We’re going to see an equivalent revolution in mobile devices.”

The crowd at the conference cheers. Game time, it seems, is just getting started.

A Wireless-Game Maker Sampler
Company Location/URL Major products Platform Notable Digital Bridges Dunfermline, Scotland Unity I-mode, Java, Pocket PC, wireless application protocol (WAP) Creator of Unity content server platform Fathammer Morgan Hill, CA, and Helsinki, Finland X-Forge Linux, Pocket PC, Symbian Built pioneering 3-D graphics engine for mobile devices Jamdat Mobile Los Angeles, CA Gladiator; Tiger Woods PGA Tour Wireless Golf Java, WAP Created one of the most successful wireless games yet-Gladiator Monkeystone Games Quinlan, TX Hyperspace Delivery Boy!; Argentum: This Is War Pocket PC Founded by cocreator of PC classics Doom and Quake THQ Wireless Calabasas Hills, CA WWE Mobile Madness Java, Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW) Major video game developer that recently launched a wireless division

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