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The World of Micro Java Gaming

Stay on the cutting edge of the gaming world and learn how to use Micro Java to design the next Pac-Man for mobile phones.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

A New Era of Gaming

Ah, games.

Games have almost a religious, ritual aspect to them. They allow people to enter together into a higher state of being, pushing skills to new limits and experiences to new heights. They allow ordinary people to experience extraordinary emotions—the emotions of the warrior, the king, the spy, and the lover—while remaining protected in a safe environment.

Now all this might sound like a bit of a heavy-handed way to describe Frogger, but it's fair to say that games transport us and amuse us in ways that no other form of entertainment can.

A Brief History of Games

Games have been with humanity since the beginning. A 5000-year-old Mancala-like game board, carved from stone, was recently unearthed in the Sahara. The game of Go, popular in Oriental countries, has reportedly been around since 2000 B.C. Backgammon-like games such as Tabula and Nard are talked about in ancient Roman scripts, and even in the Bible. And Tarot decks, initially used to help predict the future, evolved into today's Bicycle playing cards.

A decade or two ago, the only games that people spent much time with were professional sports, board games like Monopoly and Chess, paper and dice games such as Dungeons and Dragons, and card games like Poker or Hearts. Some games were for heavy money, some were bone-jarringly competitive, but most were just about good clean fun.

With the advent of computers, games entered a new era. Games became one of the main reasons many people brought these strange beige boxes called computers into their homes. Whether battling through a simple graphical tennis game such as Pong, or a rich, text-only world such as Zork, these were wholly new types of games that could be played anytime against a most formidable opponent: a game designer who had programmed your computer, long ago, showing it how to defeat you.

The arcade wave of the '70s and '80s, led by hits such as Pac-Man, captured the hearts and ate the quarters of millions of youths. Console systems such as the Magnavox Odyssey, the Atari 2600, Mattel Intellivision, and ColecoVision brought the fun of the arcade to the players' own living rooms. Then, in 1985, a box known as the Nintendo Entertainment System blew people away with stunning graphics and intricate gameworlds, typified by such hits as Super Mario Brothers.

Computer gaming entered a whole new stratum of mass popularity and acceptance with bestsellers such as Doom, followed by Quake, and later Tomb Raider. Clearly, ultra-realistic 3D worlds were a hit. The more a game made a player feel as if she were actually inside another reality, the better.

Graphics became richer and richer as 3D cards and engines doubled in speed and performance with each passing year. Super Nintendo gave way to the Sony PlayStation, and currently the Nintendo GameCube faces off against the PlayStation 2, not to mention Microsoft's daunting new Xbox.

Multiplayer Mania

A funny thing happened on the way to virtual reality-ville. In the late '90s and early 2000s, with games like Ultima Online, Everquest, and Age of Empires II, not to mention the spread of casual game Web sites such as Pogo, Yahoo Games, and Microsoft's MSN Gaming Zone, it became clear that what mattered to a whole slew of gamers wasn't only the richness of graphics or the detail of blood and gore—but the presence of other, real people. Multiplayer gaming, long popular with the geek crowd, had entered the mainstream.

In a way, games had come full circle. Once again, games were serving a social purpose, becoming a way for two or more people to enter new worlds and test new skills together, relating to each other in entirely new ways.

Micro Devices, Micro Lifestyles

While multiplayer gaming continues to grow in popularity, another big paradigm shift is happening.

It's becoming harder and harder to find people who don't carry network-enabled embedded devices with them wherever they go. Whether it's a PDA such as a Palm device or iPaq, or a mobile phone such as those crafted by companies like Nokia or Motorola, people are getting used to connecting and communicating with each other anytime, anyplace, and anywhere.

Today, there are more than 600 million mobile-phone users worldwide. In the United States and Europe, mobile phone users generally tend to be affluent, educated, and they often have lots of time on their hands. The picture is different on different continents. In Africa, Asia, and South America the masses have flocked to mobile phones because land-line access and Internet service are too expensive.

According to the Yankee Group, people in the United States spend 50% more time commuting than in any other country. This is the perfect time to pull out a mobile phone and play some quick games.

Additionally, Datamonitor has researched people's game-playing behaviors in Asia, Europe, and the United States, and has concluded that most people like to play wireless games on evenings and weekends.

In the near future, we will likely see micro devices become even smaller and more specialized. Phones the size of earplugs, voice-activated assistants on wristwatches, and smart chips on credit cards are all becoming a reality.

This is a continuation of the paradigm shift that began in the 1970s, with microcomputers taking the power away from huge, monolithic mainframes. Clearly, millions of small devices working together yields much more distributed power than one big, central device.

Unsurprisingly, games are keeping up and even helping to lead this paradigm. While it might seem silly to try to achieve a rich, meaningful immersion on a tiny 100x100 pixel screen, there's one thing mobile phone games give you that even the best consoles can't provide: They're always with you, and can be played anywhere you go. This not only means that games can now be more convenient, but wholly new types of games can be designed that take advantage of new lifestyles.

Enter Micro Java

The Java language, created by Sun Microsystems, is another example of a paradigm shift. As a language that had no pointers or complicated memory operations, was object-oriented, secure, and could run on most any browser or platform, application development suddenly opened up to the masses in a way that never seemed possible before. Java made it possible for millions of programmers to create quality applications in record time and quantities.

The Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME), or Micro Java, as we'll call it in this book, is an attempt to take the best aspects of Java and pare them down for smaller devices such as mobile phones; set-top boxes that add interactivity to television, pagers, handheld organizers and personal data assistants (PDAs); as well as embedded chips that you find in devices such as refrigerators, microwaves, "smart" credit cards, and automobiles.

Most every major mobile phone and handheld device manufacturer immediately realized the potential of J2ME: If Java were to be placed on the gadget, hundreds of thousands of developers would immediately be able to create applications and add value. Furthermore, because it's Java, a program written for one device would be able to run on another device with little or no modifications. That certainly makes more sense than trying to force developers to learn a native language and API in order to create programs for your phone.

Seeing the opportunity for Java on the handset, almost every major mobile phone manufacturer joined with Sun to create something called the CLDC: The Connected, Limited Device Configuration, along with the MIDP: The Mobile Information Device Profile. In later chapters, we'll get into greater detail about what all these wacky acronyms really mean. But the point to remember here is that mobile phone manufacturers have embraced Java in a way that not even PC manufacturers and browser makers have. Java is clearly the future platform of choice for mobile devices, and an ideal platform for mobile games.

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