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The Wireless Arcade

They don’t have fancy 3-D graphics, but video games for handheld devices stand poised to capture a huge U.S. market. Why? Because we all have to wait.

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.

The Waiting Game

Everybody waits: for school to let out, for planes to arrive, for dentists to see us. To the wireless-gaming industry, these unoccupied interludes in an average day are opportunities-minutes waiting to be killed with their creations. “There are plenty of time-saving applications,” says Paul Goode, entertainment platforms group manager for Motorola. “We’re working on the time-wasting ones.”

There’s a reason for this strong corporate interest. An estimated 60 percent of Americans play video games regularly, according to the Washington, DC-based Interactive Digital Software Association. That adds up to 145 million people, including 62 million women. Even the president of the United States confesses to daily bouts of digital solitaire. Despite the dot-com crash, U.S. sales of video games-buoyed by competition between the Sony PlayStation 2 and new home consoles from Microsoft (Xbox) and Nintendo (GameCube)-reached a record $9.4 billion last year. Americans spent more money on games than on movie tickets. Stereotypes aside, the average gamer isn’t a pimply teenager, either: he’s a 28-year-old adult.

Thing is, adults have been largely left out of a sizable piece of this revolution. Nintendo has sold more than 100 million units of its hot handheld platform, the Game Boy. But not, by and large, to adults. The reason? It’s a toy, and adults need to act like adults. They aren’t likely to make room in their briefcases for a Game Boy; if they do, they’re certainly not encouraged to whip out a fuchsia-colored hunk of plastic for a round of Pokmon. Cell phones and personal digital assistants have at least the veneer of business utility.

Enter wireless games-handheld games for grownups. Now cell phones can be toys disguised as tools. You punch up a “games” option on the phone, which connects to a server operated by your wireless carrier or a game publisher. The server transmits the data needed to turn the tiny screen into a playpen. Server-based games allow for frequently updated content and relieve the player of the need to carry game discs or cartridges. The server can also relay data between different players in real time, allowing for multiplayer competition: why play paintball by yourself when you could compete against someone in Japan, live?

Indeed, Japan is the model for a wireless-entertainment culture. NTT DoCoMo, that country’s largest wireless company, has surprised and transformed the nation with a service called “i-mode,” which allows subscribers to access games and other online entertainment wirelessly. The i-mode service requires a special cell phone with a slightly larger than ordinary screen (typically three by four centimeters) plus circuitry and software built in to handle the proprietary i-mode protocol. Users can access only the few thousand Web sites that have been modified to meet i-mode’s technical specifications. But there’s no dialing-up-an i-mode phone is “always on” the Net.

I-mode is phenomenally popular, engendering a “thumb culture” of 30 million subscribers-an estimated 80 percent of people worldwide who currently use wireless devices to connect to the Net. “We’re all looking at DoCoMo,” says Paul Palmieri, director of business development for Verizon Wireless. “Clearly the biggest category within the content is on the game side.”

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.

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.

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 Sega.com’s goal of bringing networked gaming to all devices,” says Ryoichi Shiratsuchi, CEO of Sega.com 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
www.digitalbridges.com Unity I-mode, Java, Pocket PC, wireless application protocol (WAP) Creator of Unity content server platform Fathammer Morgan Hill, CA, and Helsinki, Finland
www.fathammer.com X-Forge Linux, Pocket PC, Symbian Built pioneering 3-D graphics engine for mobile devices Jamdat Mobile Los Angeles, CA
www.jamdatmobile.com Gladiator; Tiger Woods PGA Tour Wireless Golf Java, WAP Created one of the most successful wireless games yet-Gladiator Monkeystone Games Quinlan, TX
www.monkeystone.com Hyperspace Delivery Boy!; Argentum: This Is War Pocket PC Founded by cocreator of PC classics Doom and Quake THQ Wireless Calabasas Hills, CA
www.thq.com WWE Mobile Madness Java, Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW) Major video game developer that recently launched a wireless division

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