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The Gaming Life: Inside Look at Mobile Gaming

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  1. Insiders' Views
  2. Summary
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Some would argue that life is a game, but for those who see games as a diversion from the real thing, there just may be a pleasant distraction en route to your nearest cell phone. Mobile games are hot, and there is no loss of companies willing to supply you with the latest in sports, adventure, strategy, and role-playing.
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I guess it was inevitable that games would leap from cyberspace to a wireless environment. After all, games have been with us in some form or another for centuries.

Mobile phones have become the sixth delivery system for games—following in the path of PCs, Nintendo, Playstation 2s, xBox, and Gameboy—making the business viability of games a well-established model.

For some telecoms, the growing interest in gaming, along with the potential to raise ARPU (average revenue per use) rates is just in the nick of time. The real money is in data, not voice—and games, with their data-rich configurations, have many executives anxious for their deployment. Telecoms, especially in Europe, are faced with exorbitant 3G licensing fees as well as network development costs. By example, Deustche Telecom has relieved 20,000 workers from the payroll, and stateside WorldCom has announced a layoff of 16,000. A report issued by Mobile Metric and BWCS has described games as the "saviors of 3G."

In Asia, the proof is in the record numbers of game players hooked onto NTT DoCoMo, undoubtedly Japan's leader of the pack. However, KDDI is closing in quickly on the heels of DoCoMo. China's current game rave is Seven Kingdoms from MiG, which has 110 million players re-creating the seven regional wars, from their historical past through text messaging. Bell Mobility of Canada registered three million hits for its wireless version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire in October 2001, just as the television version was waning in viewers. Likewise, a recent test of gaming by Verizon brought one million hits within 49 days pointed clearly the road for the future.

Stateside, the NTT DoCoMo strategic alliance with AT&T Wireless has resulted in mMode, which launched in late 2001 and is replete with a full array of games. In summer 2002, Sprint PCS joins this next-generation trend with its 3G1X network.

It's for good reason that telecoms are jumping onto the wireless game bandwagon because Bear Stearns expects 8.8 billion wireless gamers by 2006 generating some $450 million in revenues.

Insiders' Views

To examine this burgeoning market, I talked with two insiders whose perspectives reflect very different sides of the business.

John Grotland is the North American Director of Development for Digital Bridges, a Scottish-based company that has cut a wide swath across continents with its gaming platform, Unity. It is currently launching several well-timed game products. An 11-year veteran of the American telecom market, John was an editor of PCS News in the early 1990s, covering everything from satellite services to wireless phone games. With stints at ComSAT and Omnipoint, John's knowledge reflects hands-on decision-making and the development of strategic business alliances with high-risk stakes.

Greg Costikyan, a New York-based computer game developer, has had products on the market since the early 1980s. He has been an innovator, an in-depth student of game history, and a speaker at international conferences such as E3 in Los Angeles. Greg is a vocal proponent of creativity: He advocates innovation and designing games built on thoughtful strategy rather than simplistic "set-'em-up and knock-'em-down" scenarios. His articles on these subjects have appeared in Salon, The New York Times, and Game Developer magazine. He had just returned from the Computer Games and Digital Culture Conference in Tampere, Finland.

SHERYL P. SIMONS for InformIT: Digital Bridges operates in a number of countries. Are there regional differences in the types of wireless games that people enjoy?

JOHN GROTLAND: Japan is much further ahead than Europe or North America, and most certainly I have seen cultural differences. For instance, Fishing Game and Samurai Romanesque, both with cultural overtones, have captured the imagination of the Japanese. Samurai Romanesque will soon be available in other parts of the world, courtesy of my "competitor" friends at Dwango. In a timely move, U.S. Digital Bridges has been licensed by FIFA, sponsors of the recent World Cup Soccer tournament, to create a game for the wireless space that has gotten off to a great start in Europe.

In a word, John describes the response as phenomenal!

SHERYL: What have been some of the technical drawbacks of bringing games into the wireless environment?

JOHN: The Digital Bridges platform can operate in any network environment, including CDMA, TDMA, and GSM—and thus a VoiceStream customer can play against a Verizon Wireless, and vice versa. Unity is a hosting service that will serve as a platform for games developed by THQ International, which are about to launch several SMS games in Britain. Regarding SMS, John states that competition has hindered the American market somewhat particularly with network interoperability. However, just like four gas stations on a corner will attract a greater aggregate of customers, the American carriers are beginning to realize that a little cooperation would not hurt.

SHERYL: I notice that the five SMS games from Digital Bridges soon to be available for customers of BT Cellnet are rather simplistic in nature. Word and puzzle games, as well as chess, are very low-key entertainment that won't create much buzz.

JOHN: That's just the way we like it. We are looking for familiar games with instant recognition and a relatively short learning curve. This is not to say that we aren't interested in the hardcore gamers (we have something for them, too), but they are a relatively small niche market. For that consistent, reliable revenue stream we are looking for classic games. In fact, you'd be surprised at the number of people who play Hangman; and, of course, casino-type games always attract a wide base of players. Games tied to movies tend to have a high spike in response but still are a good source of revenue.

I next turned to the current platform controversy pitting Sun Microsystem's J2ME (Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition) against Qualcomm's BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless), and asked both John Grotland and Greg Costikyan to share their opinions.

JOHN: Java is going to be much bigger than BREW, which has come to the table a little late, but it isn't a big issue since a server can accommodate both—so there is no reason a player on a BREW carrier can't play another competitor on a JAVA carrier.

GREG COSTIKYAN: Although Qualcomm maintains that BREW is an "open" standard, only CDMA carriers have committed to supporting it. Strong supporters include Verizon, Alltel, KDDI in Japan, and the Korean carriers—but it is unlikely to gain a foothold in Europe. All the major handset manufacturers are producing Java phones, and Sprint and Nextel are strong supporters. Thus, J2ME is likely to be successful worldwide—and BREW will be restricted to CDMA markets. This still gives BREW a potential market of tens of millions of customers, but J2ME will be the larger phenomenon. Thus, you can think of J2ME as akin to Sony's Playstation (the biggest market for wireless games) with BREW being an important but distant second—the wireless equivalent of Nintendo64.

SHERYL: While technology is important, Greg, you believe that technology is a facilitator, but should not be the driving force behind game development.

GREG: In wireless gaming, it is all about the communication and connecting with other people whether in teams, factions, or guilds that advance the side toward a win. Cell phones were not designed to be dedicated gaming devices as consoles were. In fact, today's Java cell phones have only as much processing power as the first Atari 2600 series, and it was only after period of engineering development that PCs had visual displays rich enough to support games. Presently, I feel that in wireless environments, gaming is communications-rich but medium-poor. It will take some time before the wireless environment gets it right.

SHERYL: Wireless Online Review lists the most popular games as: puzzles, role play/adventure, action/fighting, sports, and strategy/chess or resource management. You co-founded the Themis Group to assist companies with the management of game communities. Tell me why this is important for the "persistent world game massively multiplayer" market.

GREG: The Themis Group helps train and support game operators to manage the competition effectively. Diligent operators should have players in the game at all times in order to monitor and handle problems, as well as remove people who are abusive or exhibiting bad game behavior. We also handle message boards, Internet chats, and Web sites that support the community participating in the game. This has a direct effect on sales because a well-managed game will attract more people and increase the number of people who sign up after the free rate. Additionally, increasing the length of time that players stay, known in the industry as the churn rate, definitely adds to the bottom line. WWarII and Anarchy Online had very troubled launches because of poor community management, and acquired bad reputations as a result. Anarchy Online has, however, established much better player relations, and is recovering from its initial problems—at least partly because of assistance that the Themis Group provided to FunCom, the game's operator. Dark Age of Camelot and Everquest have both grown because of good management. Mythic Entertainment has handled the Camelot community very well, and it shows in the numbers. As online games are replicated in the wireless environment, they too will eventually require these services.

SHERYL: In preparing for this article, I with spoke Bill Keller, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, who recalls trying to connect with someone playing the wireless game of Pox, which uses a handset and beams radio frequencies. Bill thought for sure that he could connect with someone along Broad Street, one of the most heavily used streets in the city of Philadelphia. However, he was very disappointed at not finding any competition over the course of several months.

GREG: This experience speaks directly to the issue of critical mass, which is important for building and sustaining wireless play. You need an installed base of millions to have enough players at any given time supporting the game action. Because telecom carriers can't deliver the handset and depend on separate vendors to provide this vital link, they can't ensure that the numbers of participants will be there. Sprint has the size and market penetration to place millions of Java-enabled handsets into the mass market with relative ease; whereas smaller companies like TTP Com, with its Wireless Game Engine, cannot and therefore won't be able to ramp up to a large enough community of players to make it a satisfactory experience.

SHERYL: John, at what point do you see the present growth curve of wireless games?

JOHN: When Digital Bridges started out in 1998, there were no wireless games, and we were not in the publishing business. Now, Digital Bridges has become a key player in the publishing of games, along with our traditional business of platform and software development. I see a distinct change in consumer behavior of game players. No longer are players merely passing idle time waiting in lines, but games are becoming the prime reasons why people use their cell phones. And, the length of time of play is increasing. What this means is that people are willing to pay for content as well as the wireless minutes required.

SHERYL: Greg, for the uninitiated, what are The Sims!? I keep running into this game title and it reminds me of TV's The Simpsons.

GREG: The Sims! happens to be the best-selling PC game of the last three years, and is now available for Macintosh and Playstation2. It's a real-time simulation of suburban life created by Will Wright, who designed Sim City. Will Wright is a game creator whose track record in the industry allowed him to build in several techniques that really make games work. It's been a real revenue driver for EA (Electronic Arts), and built a real sense of community. If you check out The Sims! Web site, it is filled with product tie-ins and special events, as well as the usual message boards and Internet chats.

SHERYL: TV has been the source of several popular wireless titles, such as Family Feud and The Price Is Right. Mind, you this is not my Mom's The Price Is Right, the venerable TV game show that was a staple in our household for years. But will recycling TV fare into wireless adaptations do it for telecom?

JOHN: Carriers have separated the cost of access from the cost of content, so players are charged separately for the game—paying 25 cents per game or three bucks per month for unlimited access to the game, in addition to the minutes. This pricing model can be applied in the GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) system, which is the packet data network standard for GSM wireless networks such as AT&T Wireless, VoiceStream, and Cingular, as well as the European carriers. It is also applicable to the 1XRTT data packet systems developed for the CDMA standard and used by Verizon and Sprint PCS. 2.5G, which is the digital wireless network for both voice and packet data that can charge by the size of the data packet transmitted.

Sheryl's Note

Japan's NTT DoCoMo has written the "how-to" book on developing popular 2.5G content and making a profit. However, gamers in other regions are cautious about playing in a data-packet pricing model until they fully understand what the data transmission costs are.

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