Can Old Designers Teach Our Phones New Tricks?
By Justin Hall, Mon Feb 04 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Gaming's old-timers know what it's like to work with limited hardware, and still make games fun.

Of the many designers and publishers working on mobile phone games, some are game design veterans.

They have piles of cartridges and disks behind them; lines of code and game structure they composed before we were thumbing away for fun on our phones. Many of their old games are reappearing on the mobile internet, and some are designing games for this new medium. Many of them have a clear sense of what is good and bad about mobile phone gaming, and no clear success yet to show for it.

Handset hangups

For someone experienced with PC or video games, mobile phone game design is like trying to perform ballet in a box. Veteran game designer and theorist Greg Costikyan lamented the mobile phone handset's poor performance as a game device in an interview with TheFeature back in March 2001; a year later the hardware situation is still largely as he described it.

Some designers look forward to new hardware and broadband networks. John Romero, co-designer of the breakthrough PC game Quake is now working on some PDA games. He hopes that "someday we'll get to use REAL CPUs and hardware!" But others see more of the same troubles down the road. Dennis Leahy has worked on a number of Lego video games and some children's software titles. Now he's directing business development with Games Kitchen, a wireless entertainment developer based in Scotland.

Leahy notes the pitfalls of latency in a mobile gaming environment: "latency encourages a player to think of other, more pressing, issues: homework, girls, busses, boy... Give the player a moment to step out of the experience and you can lose them altogether. "Leahy muses that the arrival of 3G will not allow for much more maneuvering room online: "when it does arrive, the number of connected users will likely be greater than people connected to the web with PCs, which will mean even more latency issues."

Still in spite of these handset hang-ups, most designers manage a positive outlook on the potential for phones as gaming devices. Andrew Gething has a history of making console games based on cartoons at Warthog, a game design firm based in the United Kingdom.

He sees phones being more popular than GameBoys: "people always have their phones on them - they might leave their Game Boy at home but they'll make sure they have the phone, otherwise there's no point having the thing. This strength is played to by most designers working on mobile phone games, the games give you short sharp shots of game play while you're waiting for a train or any other time you're just kicking your heels."

Whether people play in the boardroom or the bathroom, a mobile phone's near constant accompaniment is one of two huge opportunities for game designers. The other immense opportunity rests with the built-in network. The capacity of a mobile phone to render virtual worlds leaves much to the imagination (perhaps more even than a book). But a mobile handset is built for communication. Home video game machines have been struggling to learn how to speak between games; the latest generation of consoles might finally provide bankable network connectivity.

PC gaming saw an immense increase in popularity, and a whole new market, once PC games were wired for competitive play. Networked play is elementary for mobile phones, notes Gething: "mobile phones are a connected device by design, you don't have to decide whether to buy a modem or plug it in to the net. This means that mainstream massively multiplayer games can be built for the mass market and not just the hard core of gamers."

Given an omnipresent network and you have a rich potential for a successful game, Gething believes: "When mobile gaming gets its first real phenomenon it's going to dwarf Pokémon because it will mean 500 million players around the world competing with and helping each other. And they won't be gamers, they'll be people looking for a diversion like when your granny plays cards or your mom plays Monopoly." Still a market that large is its own challenge; the challenge of "...creating games that can take advantage of a very rich mix of players and play styles."

Network? Notwork.

Still for now, most game designs make very limited use of the network. Most of the games we see today are simple single-player games. Simple ports (re-encodings) of older, established game models abound. For Europe and America, most of these games are exceedingly simple; black and white still illustrations to accompany text are a game feature worth mentioning.

Instead of sacrificing resources to design new games expressly for mobile phones, mobile game designers are working with old school game designers to fix old games for these new devices.

Intellivision reborn

Before the console game machine crash of 1983, Mattel Corporation's Intellivision competed with Atari and Coleco for the hands and dollars of the first generation of American home video gamers. Between 1980 and 1990, over 120 software titles were developed for Intellivision. Today, these games look blocky and simple. But they offer proven entertainment in less than 10 kilobytes, and that might make them attractive to mobile gamers.

Before 2001, Los Angeles based THQ was known for making games based on popular entertainment franchises featuring wrestlers and pop stars. Now they're one of the first large game publishers to move into mobile phone game publishing. Recently THQ licensed the library of Intellivision games for use on mobile phones.

General Manager of THQ wireless, Doug Dyer discussed the guidelines THQ uses to determine what games they will license and develop: "When designing mobile games for JAVA, we try to make the game similar to that of GameBoy in addition to: Making it as small as possible to conform to the small memory space of a phone. Make the game as easy as possible to play and understand. Action must start immediately. Puzzle games, arcade shooters, racing, are perfect for phones. You can play for 5 minutes at a time, put it away, start again anytime."

Most Intellivision-era games fit that bill precisely, with just a bit of fine-tuning. For example, Intellivision's Astrosmash was originally designed to be played during an afternoon in a living room; to make the game exciting and portable for a mobile phone, designers at THQ adjusted the game to become more difficult more quickly.

Entertaining books on a mobile phone?

Some are reaching for games other than video games to translate for the small screen. Simple card games and dice games abound; and now there's an acclaimed mobile phone game based on a game book.

In the mid-1970s Steve Jackson co-founded Games Workshop, the successful UK developer of the Warhammer series of board and miniatures games. In the early 1990s, he developed a series of phone games for people to play over normal land line phones, called FIST: "adventures which you played on the phone. ...You listened to a narrator/voice actors reading lines and dialed in choices. A bit like an interactive version of a radio drama. These were unbelievably popular, logging up over 5 million telephone minutes of calls." Later Jackson would develop a two-player version; "This was very successful even though linking up two players was quite difficult. You had to phone your friend and arrange a time when you would both phone in to fight; the computer searched for your nominated opponent and linked the two of you up when you were both on-line."

Recently Steve Jackson wrote the story behind Lionhead Studios's successful PC animal-breeding game Black and White. His game design history includes a series of "game books" where players unfold the story according to multiple choice options that take them to different points in the text. Game books are similar to the popular "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, except when reading most serious game books you keep a pencil and paper handy with some dice to determine some adventuring choices and keep track of a more complicated character. Game books are a role-playing adventure for one person, which makes them an appropriately compact experience for a mobile phone.

The Scotland-based mobile entertainment publisher Digital Bridges worked with Jackson to bring some of his game book adventures to the wireless platform. Jackson's "Sorcery" won a recent poll on Wireless Gaming Review as the world's best WAP game.

For the future, Jackson is working on a 2-player version of Sorcery, "concentrating on sword and sorcery battles." Hooking up specific players will be a priority for Jackson; "for me, playing with a friend, as opposed to a random stranger, is the real essence of gaming. I cannot get excited about playing someone in Iceland who I will never know. I want to play a friend, so as I cleave his head from his shoulders with a mighty blow, I can imagine the expression on his face! And next time we meet I can gloat. You can't do that with an on-line stranger."

Recycling program

Today we're more likely to see recycled games than we are to see recycled game developers. But the simplicity of mobile gaming gives Dennis Leahy some hope: "I actually enjoyed the challenge of designing for the web back in the mid-90s after we had become a bit lazy designing for CD-Rom systems. Lots of memory, beefy hardware, etc., was resulting in fat design ('hey, let's end this scene with a HUGE explosion'). Relying on special effects is a crutch that many designers have come to rely upon."

He added, "Special effects don't make the game, they should only enhance the experience... further suspend disbelief. On mobiles, the special effects you'll see on even the 'most powerful' Java phones will be quite diminutive. Thus, we are forced to focus on the essence of gameplay."

If Leahy is right, then mobile phones may yet teach old game developers some new tricks.

Justin Hall wrote his first article exploring technology culture in 1990; since then he's written over 2,000 web pages at Today he writes and speaks on electronic entertainment and he's bootstrapping his own TV talk show.