Mobile Play-By-Mail
By Justin Hall, Mon Jul 26 21:30:00 GMT 2004

The future of wireless entertainment may well lie in some of the oldest modern games. Soon, your buddy list may light up with game moves as well as messages.

Mobile entertainment is still not part of a balanced day of communications. If you have a multimedia-ready phone, if you’ve downloaded a specific game, if you’ve paid your subscription, then you might be able to play – alone. If you want to play with friends? Then they gotta have about the same hardware/software setup, be ready to play and be within spitting range to use Bluetooth.

There are multiplayer online games that you can play at a distance but few of these allow you to play with specific friends. You’re playing with random strangers who might as well be computer bots because in most cases the in-game communications are so limited. And most of these games require your undivided attention for at least ten minutes in order to have a solid play experience.

This is not the way mobile multiplayer gaming is going to flourish. What if there were mobile-phone games that you could play with your friends, whenever you felt like it? What if playing a game was as easy, fluid and commonplace as placing a call, or writing a short text message? Something short, or long if you liked, suited to the moments you might have to play.

There’s a model for this kind of mobile gaming – it’s called “Play By Mail” or PBM.

Play By Mail

Before computers, most social games were played in person. So-called parlor games using cards or boards and dice were played in the home, with some snacks and friends. Sometimes the action got heated, and maybe a board would be left in place until the game could resume on another day.

But for those players who wouldn’t wait for weekends to engage in gaming, there was furious postal traffic dictating moves, orders and diplomacy. “Correspondence Chess” is centuries old. In the 1960s and 1970s, a dedicated PBM games movement began in earnest in the United States. The settings for these games often echoed wargames: elaborate stagings of historical battles, or maybe a fantasy angle – like the worlds of Tolkien.

These fantasy play-by-mail games evolved into Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1970s, which spawned some of the earliest computer adventure games in the 1980s. Now twenty years later, play-by-mail games are flourishing over the Internet, using e-mail or specialized Java applications. There are still elaborate tactical simulations, but there are also simple e-mail kung-fu fighting games and soccer match-ups more suited to casual office players.

Play by SMS

Hong Kong-based MBounce offers casual games where turns between players are exchanged through mobile messages. Their first game is billiards: in PoolTime, each player launches an instance of the game and as they take aim and fire the balls around, that turn’s data is encrypted into a text message sent to the other player. Their instance of the game opens that incoming message and shows the moves and the results to the second player. They take turns like this, dispatching their moves over their mobile devices, point-to-point play with a buddy.

MBounce harnessed the WMA (Wireless Messaging API) part of J2ME that allows software to use wireless communications software on handhelds. Think of it as sanctioned hijacking – the messages flowing out of your device may not all be composed by your thumbs, but here they’re serving your fun.

Now there are still frustrating limitations to this game – your buddy must have a pretty narrow range of phones in order to play (primarily Nokia Series 40 and 60). And worst of all, you and your buddy can’t take the entire day, or a week to play the game slowly., unless you wanted to leave the phone running only that game. The moves don’t arrive like regular incoming messages that might launch the game from your inbox. The game must be running to receive the moves and continue play.

Aspiring to Asynchronicity

In other words, PoolTime is not yet asynchronous. There’s a rich niche of mobile play awaiting the moment when we can casually dispatch a chess move or a karate chop to someone in our buddy list. We open an SMS and it turns out to be a quick little game move that someone’s executed and when we have a moment we execute our own move in return. For better or worse, picture tete-a-tete dancing hamsters, people scripting little virtual actors, maybe engaged in combat, maybe just goofing off. It will be a big business someday soon, probably in Asia first, where users are already customizing tiny avatars with big heads. Wouldn’t you want your online personality to be able to arrive in your friend’s mobile inbox, wave hello, and invite them to play?

Mobile gaming over SMS addresses a whole host of problems for the mobile gaming industry, particularly billing and server issues. Today, in order to set up mobile multiplayer, a game developer has to figure out how players will find other players (usually through a costly to maintain server), how players will be billed and how the developer will see any of that money. Already, SMS has established billing schemes and business models around the world. It’s a relatively reliable technology that’s inherently cross-platform and cross-carrier. In short, SMS is a natural medium for casual mobile gaming, making human communications on the mobile internet more playful. Bang!