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Small Screen, Big Possibilities

Christopher Harz charts the phenomenal growth of wireless animation and reveals the most unpublicized need for 2D animation to keep up with demand.

Its a phone! Its a game deck! Either way, the N-Gage by Nokia means work for animators. © Nokia 2003.

Its a phone! Its a game deck! Either way, the N-Gage by Nokia means work for animators. © Nokia 2003.

In a time of repeated reports about layoffs and downsizing, its refreshing to hear that theres an area of animation thats growing like wildfire, with a worldwide demand thats expected to double every six months, requiring the services of thousands of animation specialists. Its animation for the small screen.

Huh? you may ask. Isnt TV animation work stagnant right now, with the consolidation of studios and increasing overseas outsourcing? But were not talking about TV. Were talking about the really small screen the screens in wireless devices such as telephones and PDAs.

The growth in this field in just the past year has been robust, but that pales compared to what is expected in the next few years. Global wireless gaming revenues are expected to climb from near-zero before the year 2000 to $1.5 billion this year, to $41 billion in 2007, by which time there should be more than 300 million wireless game players (The Research Room, 2003). What other animation business can you think of that is more than doubling in size every half year? In the U.S., the number of gamers is expected to rise from seven million last year to 71 million by 2007 (IDC Report). One U.S. distributor/publisher, Handango, has been reporting growth of 30% every three months since 2000, and now has more than three million customers.

History: In the Beginning

Now that I have your attention, some history may be in order. Wireless gaming, like Genesis (the book, not the band), started with a snake. In 1997, Nokia sold a phone that supported a simple game called Snake. Like Pong, it caught on. It became de rigeur among London cabbies and other groups who all had cell phones and a lot of time on their hands.

Enter NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese telephone giant. In 1999 DoCoMo introduced the i-mode, a mobile phone that allowed customers to send and receive data and pictures over a wireless network. The i-mode became an instant hit among Japanese teenagers, who suddenly could not imagine life without one. Unlike U.S. dial-up phones at the time, the i-mode was always on, using a type of packet technology based on a modified form of HTML (called cHTML).

DoCoMo did two very smart things that totally eluded America for years. First, it set a strict standard and kept tight quality control on the content, to make sure users were happy. Second, instead of jumping into the business of content creation, the company stood back and invited independent developers in. DoCoMo acted as the bill collector for these developers, giving them 91% of the revenues from sales or monthly subscriptions of the games and other content, and keeping only 9% (plus connection fees) for itself. A few dozen developers took the plunge at the rollout; they were joined by hundreds of others by the second year, and now number in the many thousands. The developers were happy, and so were the customers they were not charged for connection time, and the cost of each application was modest, typically the equivalent of one or two dollars a month.

Motorola has teamed with Sega to make animation for the really small screen. Motorola offers T7201 (left) and the v60x.

Motorola has teamed with Sega to make animation for the really small screen. Motorola offers T7201 (left) and the v60x.

Western wireless customers were not nearly as happy as their Japanese brethren. Games generated for WAP or other standards ran at painfully slow speeds, and were charged for on a per-minute basis. Consumers asked that deadliest of questions, Why bother?

In 2001, just to rub it in, the Japanese took another leap forward with the i-appli, an upgrade to the i-mode that let games be downloaded and run locally in the phones memory. Videogame makers like Namco and Sega started to get into the market, and it became possible to play advanced games like SimCity.

Around this time the major western telcos woke up to the fact that, 1) they were hemorrhaging red ink after throwing away tens of billions of dollars on government licenses for bandwidth; and, 2) DoCoMos major problem seemed to be keeping up with all the demand for its services it now has more than 30 million subscribers, and is the worlds largest wireless ISP.

The western telcos decided to jump on the bandwagon. The giants of the wireless gaming world started a mating dance. Microsoft joined up with Qualcomm in a joint venture, Wireless Knowledge, to pump out applications. Motorola teamed with Sega, DoCoMo teamed with AT&T, and Ericsson with Sony (as witness the Sony/Ericsson phones in the stores). Phone companies and publishers planned to provide open platforms for independent content developers, as DoCoMo had done. They were not as successful in agreeing to one standard platform there are several now, prominent among them Suns Java (in a sized-down format called J2ME, for Java 2 Micro Edition), Qualcomms BREW, as well as SMS (Short Messaging Service). Wireless PDAs generally run on one of two operating systems, either the Palm OS or Microsofts PocketPC. There are of course many different handsets, each with its own peculiarities as to screen size, buttons, memory and reception capabilities. The net result is that there is a lot of opportunity for game developers, but they have to write for multiple platforms, much like videogame developers are resigned to writing for Sony PS2, Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo GameCube and PCs.

The Distribution Supermarkets

Several very large wireless content distributors have sprung up in recent years. In America, Jamdat (www.jamdat.com) and Handango (www.handango.com) are among the very biggest and best. They vary somewhat in function, but they basically serve as a clearing house for the thousands of games that are being produced they accept content from pre-qualified development partners, test the content (if necessary), post it on Websites for sale and support the download to customer wireless devices with the permission of and coordination with numerous telco operators. Jamdat also has a technology division that helps develop tools for generating and publishing games, and is also a developer.

Both companies are setting up offices in Europe and Asia to enter into those markets, which are at least a year ahead of the U.S. in both growth and the quality of the devices (new Japanese phones have around 200 lines of resolution in bright color, whereas many Americans make do with under 100 lines and black and white).

The Simpsons is joining the wireless game world. © & TM 1997 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

The Simpsons is joining the wireless game world. © & TM 1997 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

On the Front Lines

How does a typical small wireless content studio work? For the answer, we went to Flarb (www.flarb.com), a relatively old (old in this business in America is two years, ancient might be three or four) studio in Valencia, California. Ralph Barbagallo, the founder, has a core staff of animators and programmers, and adds team members with character design, music and other skills to projects as needed, often via the Internet in a virtual studio setting. Barbagallo has an extensive gaming background, having worked for Ion, Neversoft and other major videogame firms.

A typical wireless game takes about three months to create, and although studios keep their costs secret, it appears that production costs may be in the $10,000-$30,000 range. This is where videogames were at in the early days. Its actually good if someone has early videogame experience, says Barbagallo, because for wireless games they need many of the same skills how to tell a compelling story with few pixels and small amounts of memory. Familiarity with high-end animation packages is not necessarily a plus in this world. I have applicants coming out of school that tell me how well they can work in Maya, Barbagallo says, And I tell them, thats great, but do you know how to draw? Its a real challenge to deal with the present limitations of mobile devices, where you have to be able to create a character with 18 or 19 pixels instead of thousands of polygons.

A good first step in creating a game, or in starting a wireless gaming company, is to become a partner of one or more of the major publishing/distribution companies. Joining the Handango Software Partner Program (directions on how to do this are on its site) enables a developer to list his game on the Handango site, have access to international distribution channels such as Lycos Germany or Sony International, access software resellers such as Software Spectrum, and get technical and marketing help.

The next step is to decide which platforms to write it for. The customer often decides this. If the game is for Qualcomm partners, for instance, it would most likely be written in BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless), Qualcomms proprietary platform. If the game is for a larger market, it will have to be cross-platform, which increases the time for both coding and testing. Testing is a critical phase of developing these games, notes Barbagallo. Its not just testing the game to make sure it plays well and is bug-free. You also need to assure it displays properly on different models of phones with different screen sizes, processing power and other peculiarities every new model of phone has at least one major bug in it.

This can get involved. Unlike creating videogames, where developers may only need to stay tight with the publisher, wireless games often demand that the creator also be close to the telco, the creator of the OS and/or software environment, and the manufacturer(s) of the handhelds. For instance, a particular telco may let the developer know that it will not support violent or sexy games on its network. Knowing the gatekeepers of software environments, such as Sun for Java, will alert the developer to new software evolutions, such as the new Java applications for 3D wireless games.

Following the handheld market will let the developer know how much real estate he has to work with, whether it is the tiny 96x50-line screens of some of the older sets, the 128x112 screens of some newer models, or the new Japanese handhelds with over 200x100 resolution capacity. Keeping on top of each new handheld is not easy, since new models are coming out every month. A good site that has pictures and reviews of new phones is that of Wireless Gaming Review (http://wgamer.com/devicedir), which also lists which software platform(s) each phone supports. These are halcyon days for chipmakers like Intel, since phones keep getting more and more features, and consumers are typically tossing them out every 18 months or so. One example of a new type of phone is the Sharp J-Phone released this month in Japan it is the first phone to have a megapixel camera (J-Phone is a branch of European giant Vodaphone; some 67% of J-Phones 14 million customers use its picture-messaging service).

Finally, Nokias new N-Gage game deck features multiplayer gaming capability over Bluetooth and GPRS (higher-speed GSM), an MP3 player, an extensive keyboard, and a stereo FM radio (press releases mention almost as an afterthought that it can also work as a mobile phone). The N-Gage is being rolled out in Europe with a 50-city Challenge Tour to decide the European champion; gamers can follow tour progress at www.n-gage.com.

Veteran wireless content studio Flarb has produced the games Cali Surf (bottom left) and Puzzle Poker (bottom right). All images and content are copyright FLARB development. FLARB is a trademark of FLARB Development.

Veteran wireless content studio Flarb has produced the games Cali Surf (bottom left) and Puzzle Poker (bottom right). All images and content are copyright FLARB development. FLARB is a trademark of FLARB Development.

The Art of the Deal

After deciding on game and platform type, the developer needs to strike a deal with the publisher/distributor. These can vary widely. The first issue is whether there is an up-front payment (against royalties), or whether payment is for royalties only. The type of royalties can also vary. In the U.S., it is normal for the developer to get 70-80% of the price of the game when it is purchased by the player. If the game is being sold in Europe or Asia, there are often more middlemen involved, meaning other parties eat up some of the royalties.

If extensive localization is involved, including translating into a different language or changing some of the content for a different culture, this incurs costs as well. Whereas in the U.S. the developer usually only gets a cut of the sales price (which ranges from $2 at the low end to around $10 at the high end, though some new titles are coming out at $20 and above), this may vary in other countries. In South Korea, for instance, it is possible that a customer can pay for a game and then pay a monthly fee to play it; part of that fee may go to the developer.

Finally, a payment schedule has to be delineated some distributors pay monthly, others quarterly. It is also possible that a developer can do work for hire, where he develops a game that then belongs totally to the publisher, who pays him only for the work performed. This is not generally the case, as publishers, distributors and telcos prefer that developers absorb most of the risk.

A smart developer will seek to get additional revenues from a successful game, by generating new versions or levels, or perhaps adding new features such as power-ups, armor or characters that the player can adopt.

Test, List, Download

Once the game is complete, it is time to thoroughly test it (although, as mentioned earlier, testing should be done throughout development). The final testing can be done in-house, by the publisher, or by an independent testing agency. The game is then listed on a distributor site, and can then be bought by a customer in one of a number of ways. One method is for the buyer to go to a Website, enter his phone number and have the game downloaded to it. Smartphones and PDAs can store and forward, that is, the game can be downloaded to a desktop and then transferred to the handheld through a sync cradle or via a removable memory storage device such as a Compact Flash Chip.

The Nokia N-Gage phone is breaking new ground in that it will also offer pre-loaded memory chips with games at various stores, for prices in the $20-$30 range. Most distributors choose to avoid having to deal with actual hardware inventory and prefer to deal only with electrons, essentially selling zero gravity virtual packages to customers for real money.

Possible Types of Wireless Games

Early games were limited to slow, turn-based simple games and puzzles (which remain popular), but more powerful handhelds and faster connection speeds are enabling faster and richer game play for RPGs, multiplayer and action games. Until recently, Americans were lucky to get 5- or 6-frames-per-second on their handhelds, which is way to slow for dodging bullets comments Barbagallo, But now we can get 15 fps, allowing both action games and detailed role playing game environments.

Recent releases of multiplayer games from sprint include Alien Fight Club (from Mforma), Bejeweled Multiplayer (JAMDAT Mobile), and Jumble (Mobliss). Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) are coming online, with releases of Wizardry Proving Grounds Of The Mad Overlord, by German publisher Mobile Scope, as well as wireless versions of existing popular MMOGs such as Ultima Online (from Dwango) and Sony Onlines Everquest. Telcos like MMOGs because they can charge both for the initial game and for monthly gameplay, much as publishers such as Sony are presently doing with Everquest. What is not clear is how MMOGs will adapt for mobile play, where gamers usually do not have the long playing times available that they do at home on their desktops.

An interesting new form of mobile game is developing in Europe, where viewers were invited to vote for TV contestants with SMS messages from the phones. Some shows also allowed playing simple games sent via the SMS-based input. This has now mutated into a new form of MMOG, where huge groups of players duke it out in action games that are shown as normal TV broadcasts. This type of cross-media mobile game has generated so many millions of euros that on some TV shows it has replaced traditional content altogether, forming a new kind of reality show with roots in the cyberworld.

Monsters, Inc. (top) and Atlantis (bottom) jumped into the wireless fray when Disney and Sprint announced a game partnership. Monsters, Inc.: © Disney/Pixar. Atlantis: © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserv

Monsters, Inc. (top) and Atlantis (bottom) jumped into the wireless fray when Disney and Sprint announced a game partnership. Monsters, Inc.: © Disney/Pixar. Atlantis: © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserv

Major Players Jump In

The opportunities afforded by wireless gaming are of course not limited to the thousands of small independent developers springing up all over the globe, but also extend to the majors, which have been busily re-purposing their major franchises and brands for the tiny screen. For instance, Twentieth Century Fox and THQ Wireless (a new division of THQ, Inc.) recently announce distribution of The Simpsons wireless games. JAMDAT has licensed many branded characters, and teamed with Electronic Arts, THQ, Hasbro and other major publishers to offer mobile versions of their games, such as EA Sports PGA Tour, Tiger Woods Golf and World Cup Soccer.

Walt Disney Internet Group (WDIG) announced a partnership with Sprint to provide games such as Disney/Pixars Monsters, Inc., Disneys Atlantis: The Lost Empire and ESPNs 2-Minute Drill on Sprints PCS Wireless Web.

Future Trends

Several bleeding-edge trends will provide both challenges and opportunities to the booming mobile gaming community. One is the rapid improvements in both handsets (larger screens, better color, more powerful chips with integrated processing, graphics and communications, as well as built-in hi-res cameras and GPS location systems) and transmission (from the slow 10Kbit range of the past to consistent 50Kbps speeds in many American and other global locations to more than 300Kbps from 3G systems in Japan, Singapore and elsewhere).

Another development is Location-Based Gaming (LBG), which allows gamers to play scenarios based specifically on their geographic locale in the real world (Swedens Botfighters is a popular application of this).

As phones get more built-in memory, expect more games to be played in the phone itself, not within the phone network, leading telcos to support multiplayer gaming and other applications that generate connection charges or monthly club membership fees.

Expect gamers to take advantage of meshing, the process of extending a WI-FI (802.11 b/g Internet access) hot spot by hooking multiple connected mobiles together in peer-to-peer local networks.

Finally, the new Internet format (known as Internet Protocol version 6), which starts to phase out the old Internet this year in Asia, Europe and American communities such as the Department of Defense, will have many as-yet-unknown effects on wireless gaming. The new Internet protocol provides for thousands of IP addresses per player (permitting individual game elements such as avatars, armor/capabilities and locations to be individually addressed), as well as built-in security and worldwide wireless roaming support.

Summary

Theres a saying that some people complain about the noise when they hear opportunity knocking. Generating animated content for very small screens may have many challenges, but offers opportunities for growth right now that is geometric, not linear.

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 video games 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 Corporation, the American military think tank.

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