Mobile-Gaming Madness

Would your cell phone be more fun if the industry adopted standards?

At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week, programmers will discuss the unique challenges posed by portable devices: the screens are small, wireless connections can be flaky, and processing power is limited. But the biggest complaint of many in the industry is the lack of standards.

Phone fun: At the University of Southern California’s GamePipe Labs, students learn about the unique challenges of making games for mobile phones. One USC team developed a game called Battle Boats (above), in which players try to move their ships across the board without hitting mines.

“The mobile-phone environment unfortunately has been driven by the service providers, and they have different demands for what technologies can and can’t be used,” says Michael Zyda, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California and director of its GamePipe Labs. GamePipe conducts research on video games and teaches students how to program games for portable devices. Zyda says that in order to meet the needs of service providers and phone manufacturers, mobile-game developers have to reconfigure–or port–a given game for several different software environments.

“It’s a crazy era, much like the early days of computing, when each manufacturer was making their own operating system and there weren’t standards for interoperability,” Zyda says. “It’s like the Tower of Babel with respect to interoperability.”

Christy Wyatt, a vice president at Motorola who coordinates the company’s developer program, agrees that the lack of standards can be a problem. “Overwhelmingly, we hear that the major challenge for the game community is platform fragmentation,” she says, adding that one developer recently told her he was supporting 500 different platforms. “If you change even a small thing on the platform, it’s a whole new test cycle of them.”

Hardware differences can also present problems. For example, it’s essential that a game player feel comfortable with the physical controls she uses to play a given game, but button placement can be very different from one phone to the next. Some use more-traditional phone dial pads with a couple of additional buttons on the sides, while many smart phones feature a typewriter-style button layout. Touch screens, such as the one on Apple’s upcoming iPhone, present even more of a challenge.

Joe Ariganello, senior product manager of games for Sprint Nextel, says developers who make games for the company have to ensure that the software works with a couple dozen of their top phones. If a game is licensed to another wireless carrier as well, then there’s even more porting involved because that carrier will likely have different hardware and software configurations. For this reason, some game makers outsource the porting and focus on creating new content.

Zyda believes that the industry should adopt the mobile version of the open-source operating system Linux as a standard to alleviate the porting problem. While there are other open-source platforms for mobile devices, Zyda thinks Linux is the best choice because there are already lots of programmers who are familiar with its intricacies. “It’s the only one with a lot of traction,” he says.

Amy Jo Kim, a game designer for Shufflebrain, agrees that the lack of standards is a major problem in the United States. Countries like Japan, she says, are “further along” in terms of game development because there are fewer carriers and handsets, which means fewer compatibility issues. But she doesn’t think that U.S. service providers are motivated to adopt a generic platform. “It’s the same reason that Toyota and Honda have the controls in different places,” she says. “They want to lock you into the way they do things.”

Kim will talk about the porting problem and the future of mobile gaming at the Game Developers Conference today. Some companies, she says, like to push the envelope and then struggle to make their games work on various devices. Shufflebrain, however, sees value in games that reside on a network (instead of being downloaded to a handset) and take advantage of features common to all kinds of devices. A user might start playing the game on her home computer and access it later with her mobile phone, using some aspect of the phone system that is fairly ubiquitous. The California company is currently working on a game that uses SMS, for example. The Short Messaging Service, used to send text, is found on most mobile phones.

Ariganello notes that despite the porting problem, there are still lots of new games being made: “Last month we had about 60 submissions.” He will be seeing even more game ideas as a judge of the Mobile Game Innovation Hunt today at the Game Developers Conference.

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