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Growing Possibilities: Mobile Gaming 2004

Christopher Harz looks at the ever expanding possibilities in the mobile gaming sector going into 2004.

Qualcomms BREW technology was used on Disneys Tron 2.0. courtesy of Qualcomm © Disney.

Qualcomms BREW technology was used on Disneys Tron 2.0. courtesy of Qualcomm © Disney.

As anticipated, mobile gaming has been charging ahead, with revenues over $1.5 billion last year (by comparison, in 2000 they were almost negligible). The compound growth is expected to be around 60% per year, according to the ARC Group, with revenues of around $7.4 billion by 2007 (a large part of the total of the $25 billion in mobile entertainment expected by then). Although this is very respectable (even spectacular), some had expected even faster growth a year ago; this was somewhat slowed by expensive telephone company pricing plans and the lack of rich media capability on many mobile platforms. With the rollout of better telco pricing and quantum increases in graphics and audio, the industry now seems positioned for major gains. So whats new? First, lets get an overview.

Mobile gaming encompasses several categories of hardware, including cell phones (both online and voice-based), PDAs (which may also have phone capabilities) and mobile game platforms such as the GameBoy Advanced and the upcoming Sony PSP.

Gaming on the Small Screen

The largest of these categories by far is cell phones, with an installed base of over 1.3 billion worldwide; almost all new phones can play games. The various standards and Operating Systems for cell phones (BREW, Java, etc.) were covered in a previous article, which also covered the basics of game creation for this market (see Small Screen, Big Possibilities, AWN, July 31, 2003). Not much has changed in that area in the past year there are still several non-compatible standards that game developers have to design for and games still have to be tweaked for individual models of phones. The good news is that this remains a fertile area for apartment animators although there has been some consolidation in the industry (and the big dogs are edging into the market a lot more), it is still possible for a creative group to produce and distribute a cell phone game on a shoestring budget of around $10,000 to 20,000 dollars in three months (as compared to a mainstream PlayStation game budget of $5 million plus and a two to three year development schedule).

It is still true that U.S. gamers are far behind their Asian and European cousins, with far fewer games being written and less revenues being generated. For the global wireless market (not all mobile games are wireless, since many are standalone or can be uploaded with removable media), the U.S. represents about 5% of the total, Europe 15% and Asia over 75%, according to Strategy Analytics. Part of the reason for this is technical countries such as Japan and South Korea have far faster phone connection speeds than the U.S., with 3G (third generation) services becoming commonplace, allowing for far richer gameplay. Part of it is cultural people in those countries tend to commute on buses and trains, and take the time for real lunch hours, leaving them lots of free time during the day to play games, while Americans tend to drive to work and rush through lunchtime. So it is still advisable that an ambitious mobile game company should not limit its sights to just the North American market, but should establish partnerships or distribution deals to deliver its products to Europe and Asia as well.

Denmarks Watagame has created the role-playing game Era of Eidolon. © Watagame.

Denmarks Watagame has created the role-playing game Era of Eidolon. © Watagame.

What is changing fundamentally is the level of fidelity of most handhelds, including cell phones. The weak computer chips of yesterday, which had to handle both processing and graphics, are giving way to hot new CPUs from Intel and AMD as well as specialized graphics processors (true GPUs) from NVIDIA and ATI. NVIDIAs GPU (branded as the GoFORCE) and ATIs Imageon were on display at this years Graphics Developers Conference. The Imageon was shown powering a motorcycle racing game on a prototype cell phone side by side with its present-day incarnation, in which a single CPU chip had to do all the heavy lifting. The difference that a dedicated GPU can make by taking over the graphics load from the central processor is dramatic, resulting in smooth 3D-looking animations instead of the stuttering motions of 2D characters that weve become accustomed to. Look for new generations of handhelds this Fall that feature the new chipsets, which will bring a totally new look to cell phone gaming.

Better graphics also require more powerful development tools. OpenGL ES is being proposed as a viable way of encoding 3D applications on mobile devices; NVIDIA supports this standard, for instance. Microsoft just announced XNA, which offers a convergence between PC, Xbox and Windows Mobile development, offering developers a much easier path for producing games for both home-play and mobile-play markets. In anticipation of this convergence, producers have already started to port console games to mobile devices. Jamdat Mobile, for instance, announced a partnership with Microsoft to bring a number of Xbox titles to mobiles, including Top Spin, RalliSport Challenge 2 and Amped, to be released by the end of 2004.

Cool Games: the Roundup for 2004

Mobile cell phone games that are hot right now include Nightmare Creatures by Gameloft, Spy Hunter by Fathammer and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time by Gameloft, all of which won Mobies awards as the best games of 2003. Top sports games included Tony Hawks Pro Skater by Ideaworks 3D, MotoGP 2 by THQ Wireless and Jamdat Bowling by Jamdat Mobile, a top puzzle game was Bejeweled Multiplayer by Jamdat Mobile, and a major entry into mobile MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) came from Sony Online Entertainment in the form of its EverQuest: Heros Call.

wireless03a_Bowling2.jpgwireless03b_MotoGP.gifJamdat Bowling (left) and MotoGP 2 have become two of the hottest mobile games on the market. Jamdat Bowling © Jamdat. MotoGP 2 © THQ Wireless.

To give such games their due you need a decent cell phone such as the new SonyEricsson P900, which supports the worldwide GSM phone standard as well as J2ME (Java Micro Edition), Symbian and MMS gaming environments, a built-in camera and Bluetooth. You could also opt for Nokias N-Gage, a hybrid cell phone and true gaming platform, and have both a great gaming device and a guaranteed conversation starter. There is no arguing that the N-Gage is a groundbreaking gaming device. For instance, Nokia recently announced a new game for the N-Gage that was developed with Sega, Pocket Kingdom: Own the World, which it claims is the first global MMOG, challenging gamers to build a detailed online empire while competing against challengers from around the world. What makes the N-Gage controversial is its radical styling, which forces some unusual compromises between game playing features and actually being able to use the set as a telephone. The handheld will have to attract an audience quickly, as there is a rumored Nintendo 3D GameBoy in the works, and Sonys PSP, the 800-pound gorilla of the mobile gaming world, is just around the corner.

Nokia hopes that high-end games such as Pocket Kingdom: Own the World will be addictive enough to motivate gamers to pay the extra bucks for an N-Gage. The game is certainly illustrative of the capacities of the new generation of mobile online games it has 400 castle configurations, more than 100 units with which to do battle and more than 50,000 collectable items with which to equip these units. Buying and selling of items through an online auction system is encouraged (by contrast, Sony demanded that eBay shut down its auctions of EverQuest items). Players can chat and IM (instant message) their friends and check their global rankings. If they dont have any online friends, they can go to the N-Gage Arena, which will help with matchmaking to find them worthy online opponents from around the world to compete against. In fact, this feature of establishing a community for the players is becoming increasingly important to online gaming, and SDKs (system development kits) for developers are starting to have extensive community features.

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PDAs for Mobile Gaming

In the past, PDAs have been used only secondarily for gaming, perhaps for a quick turn of Solitaire before checking daily schedules. However, this type of mobile now also is getting specialized graphics chips, which are quickly raising the bar on what types of games can be played.

The ne plus ultra of PDAs for games is clearly the Tapwave Zodiac (www.tapwave.com), which combines a PDA running a Palm OS with a true-blue gaming station, with an ATI Imageon graphics card, a 4-inch screen with 480x320 resolution, great speakers (or even better sound with headphone), and robust game controls, including shoulder buttons. The set really looks and feels like a portable PlayStation, which is all the more remarkable since it is a fully functioning Personal Digital Assistant, running office and organizer applications like a champ, and featuring a graphite stylus, graffiti handwriting recognition and a full suite of productivity applications. What the Zodiac is not is a phone. It communicates with Bluetooth. This works amazingly well you push a button on the front and it makes the Zodiac discoverable for a set period of time. When you discover others nearby you can set up a multiplayer game (or do some collaborative business function, or both). There are two expansion slots, one intended for a removable memory card (so you can download games, MP3 music, or movies the set can play MPEG1 and MPEG4 video) and the other for future upgrades such as an SDIO card that will also give the Zodiac a Wi-Fi capability. The unit weighs less than a pound; with all those features, the users manual must weigh several times as much.

The 800-Pound Gorilla: The PSP

Sony Entertainment has announced the release of the much-heralded PSP for this year in Japan, and early 2005 for North America. This is a very, very serious machine that will influence the entire mobile gaming market. Rather than go head-to-head with Nintendos GameBoy Advance early on, Sony has marshaled its forces and sunk a huge R&D investment into producing what may become a category killer. Lets review the features.

Andrew House, evp of Sony Computer Ent. America, unveiled the PSP at GDC.

Andrew House, evp of Sony Computer Ent. America, unveiled the PSP at GDC.

The PSP has a 4.5 inch 16x9 format screen this wide screen has the interesting effect of making it look as if there are even more pixels than actually reside on the TFT LCD screen, that being 480x272. The display is driven by dual 32-bit MIPS processors that run almost ten times as fast as the current PS2 console system; one of the processors will take care of graphics, with the help of additional graphics chips that include a 2MB core for 3D rendering. The removable media is a new format call UMD (Universal Media Disc), essentially a mini DVD with 1.8GB of storage. The PSP features Dolby 7.1 surround sound for full-out 3D sound effects. It supports MP3 music, and MPEG4 video playback the UMD disk can hold 2 hours worth of DVD-quality video. The unit has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built in, and will at some point have phone capability as well.

Andrew House, evp of Sony Computer Ent. America, gave a presentation on the PSP at the recent Game Developers Conference. He elucidated Sonys vision of combining two growth areas in the gaming market mobile games and online gaming. Whereas the PSP will also have a wide range of visceral games for going head-to-head, it will be the online games that will allow longer gaming lifecycles and thus a better chance for developers to recoup their production costs. Instead of a typical game lifetime of 5 years or less, a multiplayer game with an active community should last 10 years or more, he noted. Sony is sensitive to the dark side of ever-better graphics and richer game play: ever-higher production costs and longer production times. In order to help developers get back their investment, Sony is providing a very extensive SDK with the PSP, including tools to help develop community for online gamers. Further, Sony has pledged to help developers by upgrading the PSP in gradual steps, rather than by making a big jump once in a generation. Innovation is the core responsibility of the platform holder, House noted. He believes it is Sonys job to push innovation, facilitate growth of the market, identify future potentials of hardware and software, and to bring these together to enhance the experience of the user.

Although online gaming is popular, House believes that the real boom is just about to begin, as new technology such as the PSP facilitates both commerce generation and most importantly community building. A major part of Sonys strategy for the upcoming years is building more integrated online communities, since these have been found to be crucial for the player experience and loyalty to the game and platform. House said Sony plans to build a centralized network space for PS2 and PSP players that can provide player match-ups, tournament organization and play, more intimate player groups clans, and long-term scores and acknowledgements for outstanding players. Developers will be provided much more support for implementing effective communities, including flexible hosting solutions, and detailed user data and demographics, so that producers can see what parts of an online game work and which dont, as well as tracking user patterns and player feedback.

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Design concepts from the forthcoming PSP game, Death, Jr.. © Backbone Ent.

Backbone Ent. showed Death, Jr. at the GDC that it had produced for the PSP it looked spectacular.

Chris Charla, senior producer on Death, Jr., describes the game as a fast action shooter (not a platformer! there is some platforming to move around the level, but thats not the goal of the game), featuring Death, Jr. He has access to a huge variety of unique weapons, and of course a giant, over-sized Scythe. Were developing the game exclusively for PSP, and taking full advantage of the hardware especially using morphing to reshape the environment as the game progresses. DJs style is his own, but we of course take influences from underground comics like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Mexican Day of the Dead and general horror themes, and the stop-motion animation of Rankin Bass and Nightmare Before Christmas.

Sony describes it as a handheld PS2, and it certainly looks like it will live up to that reputation.

Other Cool Stuff

One of the interesting new areas for mobile gaming is LBG Location Based Gaming. This genre started with BotFighters, which proved wildly popular in Sweden, and was then followed by Undercover. Basically, in these games you move the game device around a city instead of moving a mouse around a desktop. Urban warriors take their cell phones throughout city streets and parks to find clues, treasure and power-ups, and fight (or cooperate with) their fellow players while engaging in messages and commentary. The games work by overlaying a gaming grid over the map of the city and then track the players by using either the built-in GPS functions in the phones or the location capability of the phone network.

With the price of a GPS chip coming below $7 per handset, GPS-equipped phones will soon be ubiquitous; there are already over 100 different models of such phones serving 25 million customers, and growth is expected to be rapid.

Some great new LBGs are coming out, especially in Europe and Asia. One very popular one is Mogi, Item Hunt, a game that is about collecting and trading rather than fighting and maiming (see: http://www.mogimogi.com ). Players accumulate points by completing a collection of objects they can also trade objects with other players, and even help friends on the grid to find and pick up virtual items with their cell phones (you have to get within a few hundred feet of a location to collect each virtual item). Players report that the game is addictive, but that they are making new friends by meeting fellow players, and that Mogi is encouraging them to visit many side streets and parts of the city they would otherwise never have known.

Singapores Sing Tel just launched Asias first location-based massive multiplayer mobile game, titled Gunslingers (http://guns.mikoishi.com/gunsSingTel/index.html ), a shoot-em-up that enables players to find and challenge each other. Players can earn virtual cash after completing missions to buy more virtual weapons and armor. Earning a certain number of points allows players to win actual prizes, such as mobile handsets from Sing Tel. The game is becoming popular, and promises to turn Singapore into a virtual game arena.

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North America will also have a selection of LBGs to turn our cities into playgrounds. Blister Entertainment (www.blisterent.com) is developing hundreds of mobile location-based games for the American and global markets. It is interesting to note that Blisters parent company, KnowledgeWhere (www.knowledgewhere.ca) of Calgary, Canada, which produces gaming environments and support, also seems to be looking at fitness clubs as a gaming area. The writer of this article once helped NASA Houston develop a game-based exercise system for the Space Station. In order to motivate astronauts to exercise, they were provided with a treadmill that had a display showing a country road with (for male astronauts) a pretty woman jogging in front of them they had to jog at a certain pace to keep up with the scenery. Similarly, an exercycle had a built-in Space Invaders game that provided more ammunition to the astronaut for every minute that he exercised hard enough to stay in the proper heart rate zone. Both game-enhanced platforms were very effective in motivating exercise on what had been boring machines. It is not too far-fetched to speculate that future LBGs on cell phones or other gaming platforms will interface with exercise machines at the local health club, communicating via Bluetooth to get points or ammo or other bennies depending on how much and how well the exercise was being performed.

Although no estimates exist for the projected growth of location based games, it is likely they will become a staple of gaming, and it is also likely that businesses will step in and offer rewards for gameplay in their neighborhoods for visiting certain stores or restaurants, for example, or being able to answer questions about historical sites. With the rapid introduction of GPS capabilities into mobile handsets to fuel this area, it sounds like there might be some really over-the-top possibilities for creative animators to come up with great new game ideas, using geographical locations as their gameboards.

Christopher Harz is a program and business development executive for new media enterprises, working with digital animation companies around the world. He writes extensively for trade magazines on topics including the New Internet, visual effects for films and television, online videogames and wireless media. Harz was previously vp of marketing and production at Hollyworlds, producing 3D Websites and video games for films such as Spawn, The 5th Element, Titanic and Lost in Space, and for TV shows such as Xena, Warrior Princess. At Perceptronics, as svp of marketing and program development, Harz helped build the first massive-scale online animated game worlds, including production of the $240 million 3D animation virtual world, SIMNET. He also worked on combat robots and war gaming at the Rand Corp., the American military think tank.

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