New Developers on the Block
By Justin Hall, Mon Oct 01 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Companies both young and old rush to establish themselves on today's new mobile platforms.

Envision a brilliant wireless game. There's a small possibility that one tenth of that idea would work on a modern mobile phone. Even big budgets don't shine so well on the small screen. But the potential audience is far larger than the pool of people who regularly spend a few hundred dollars for the latest video and computer gaming technology.

In the last few years, many scrappy young game development studios have started up to develop the first generation of mobile phone games. Companies like nGame, Jamdat and Unplugged Games; each of them laboring with the small black and white graphics, the miniscule bandwidth, the awkward buttons, hoping to develop a reputation and the skills for making games that might sustain them into a more mature market.

Most of their early games are simple. Jamdat's Gladiator is rock-paper-scissors fought with high, medium and low sword blows. nGame's Merchant Prince is a multiple choice text adventure. While each phone is theoretically connected to a world of other players, these games offer minimal engagement with other human beings: compare high scores and perhaps play believing that you are locked in mortal combat with another furious thumb jockey.

While the next generation of Java-enabled phones promise color and higher bandwidth for arcade style play, Rich Owen wants to take a stand for the current generation of games: "It's a mistake to think that we are merely making-do with the current technology, instead we are addressing a different market with tastes other than simple twitch games, and this market is potentially more interesting and much bigger."

Hundreds of millions of cellphones exist in the world; when all of those can handle the right software and connections, the general mobile phone playing public is not likely to want Quake or Starcraft. Some young mobile entertainment companies are betting that most people would rather see Regis Philbin or Rowan Atkinson in their pockets.


Rick Owen, Marketing Manager at nGame: "Many WAP gaming companies started their catalogues with a range of classic games, hangman, tic-tac-toe, etc. While there is certainly a place for these games, the fact is that anyone can produce these games easily (our own classic and parlour games took on little more than an afternoon's work!) and it is dangerous to base your business on such content." Unfortunately, given the audience for mobile phones and the technology behind them, simple games are about all you can expect to make or play in Europe and America

One way to distinguish this kind of simple gaming content is to attach a famous brand. Most mobile games feature few of the graphics and music from the original product; these are simple playing experiences with recognizable window dressing. Once you get past the big title screen, it's a multiple choice game drawn from the movie narrative, or a trivia game like the original on TV. So fans of the movie or TV show are attracted by the tie-in, and presented with a game that isn't too hard to learn - this is important for new players. Since most mobile phones are owned and carried by folks who don't play PC and console games, licenses present a ready way to make gamers out of commuters.

While they have made their name in original games, nGame has announced a recent movie-tie-in game license. A WAP game based on the movie of the same name, Rat-Race features a race played out in a series of multiple choice questions. The game offers some minimal graphics, featuring characters and scenes that look as though they were drawn from the movie. There's a sweepstakes component here - winning players can win a few nights at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas (the Venetian logo comes up in grand black and white 2-bit style at the introduction of the game).

nGame's Owen sees this game growing their audience: "...if we are trying to attract players to the new world of wireless gaming, we have a problem. A range of games which are all unfamiliar to the user is likely to be daunting, especially to users with little experience of electronic gaming. So well-known licenses are important, lending a reassuring familiarity to the game concept."

As important as these licenses can be, often license-hunters realize the value before license-holders. Esa Luomanpera, Sales & Marketing Director at CodeOnline, talks of approaching Hasbro in 1999 to ask if they could make a version of Trivial Pursuit for play on a mobile phone: Hasbro asked, "What is mobile gaming?" Together with a license for Who Wants to be a Millionaire in Europe and Asia, CodeOnline today offers branded SMS mobile trivia games to over 100 million subscribers.

As wireless gaming becomes more viable, large entertainment companies might try to produce their licensed games in-house. This is where the pioneers could give way to established players. Luomanpera doesn't seem worried: "We are building and operating a global delivery network; that is a major barrier for new entrants. Also with our focus on question and answer games, we can produce and deliver them on competitive terms and within weeks of closing new licensing deals." He hopes their
combination of technical infrastructure and streamlined development will make it hard for CodeOnline to lose ground to either another scrappy upstart or a larger company.


This technology infrastructure is at the heart of other young game developers. As simple as these mobile games might seem, streaming entertainment software to a cellphone turns out to be a complicated business. According to Unplugged Games's Chief Design Officer Greg Costikyan: "maximizing revenues from wireless games requires us to integrate with the carriers' back-end technology for billing, provisioning, and data reporting, as well as with their messaging solutions to enable communities, which are a key part of the appeal of networked games on any platform."

Between the many networks and handsets, this dense data management presents a complex challenge to small game makers. Once they have solved these problems, their technology solution is attractive to fledging developers without the resources to develop their own solution.

Unplugged Games has decided that their MobileStage Game Platform will not be squandered on their games alone. The technology initially developed for the likes of Word Trader, Void Raider and Rags to Riches has been licensed to other game developers, and they expect to publish their first third-party game next month. Unplugged games is not alone is turning their tools over to a paying public.

Makers of the popular wireless game Gladiator, Jamdat has published an SDK, a software development kit for mobile entertainment. They bill it as part of their middleware solution, a series of tools for developing entertainment and then formatting it for the many mobile platforms out there. This vision of cross-platform content is also at the core of another small company, Synovial, providing the infrastructure behind a much more visible entertainment partner.

The big boy

In 1991, Sega launched the Game Gear, a handheld version of their popular Master System video game console. Expected to fare well in color, Sega's Game Gear never caught up to Nintendo's mighty little black and white GameBoy. Still hundreds of games were programmed for the system; today most of these are more advanced than contemporary mobile phone and PDA entertainment options.

Sega is the first client for Synovial's SYN development platform - software that allows software to be written once and distributed for many different devices. For starters, Sega Game Gear software will appear on mobile devices running the Pocket PC operating system. David Gasior, the "Public Relations Guy" for Synovial, sees a strong market for these slightly dusty games: "the target audience of these devices is skewed a little higher than normal gaming platforms. So there is definitely a sense of nostalgia in going with older titles." The audience for mobile phone games doesn't want a game that is a commitment - they're more likely to play something if they get hooked fast: "How do you impress them? Easy to play. Familiar
play. Quick play - don't have to devote a lot of time to it."

Sega is known around the world for developing these catchy games. Besides their partnership with Synovial, Sega has been picking some of their other old titles to publish to mobile devices. Communications Manager for Sega of America Gwen Marker, "...since [mobile gaming] is still in its early stages, it makes most sense for us to first bring our established games and franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog, ChuChu Rocket! and Columns to cell phones and other mobile devices. These games have not only been well-received worldwide by consumers, but their hardware requirements are currently in line with what mobile devices can offer."

Sega is unique amongst the large game developers, investing early in mobile entertainment development. As phone handsets evolve to accommodate more advanced gaming options, and millions of phone users prove their willingness to spend money on games, other large game developers are likely to step into this market.


The strength of the mobile gaming market depends on the ability of these young game developers to find a compelling combination of multimedia and multiplayer that handles well on a thin client. Unplugged Games' Greg Costikyan has a broad vision; he's not just teasing out a new business plan, he's part of an attempt to develop a new form of electronic entertainment.

Whereas computer and videogames have pioneered graphics and sound proficiency for single players, handsets present an entirely different medium for games: "The media capabilities of handsets are slim--but they're networked devices from the start. Consequently, they offer the opportunity to develop games very different from anything that exists in the conventional games market--media light, but multiplayer, community-based games that engage people, create friendships, and allow people to have fun with each other. This is, in short, an enormous artistic opportunity for those with the vision to grasp it - and not merely a commercial one."

While the chance to define this medium might rest with a few pioneers, mobile gaming is likely to end up being managed by large entertainment companies. They will have the resources to provide rich media experiences, licensed with popular characters, integrating players from around the world, billing us discreetly in the background. With hundreds of millions of players worldwide and the potential for addictive gameplay, these games could ultimately be responsible for a large chunk of future revenues from web-enabled mobile

But still the market belongs to small players; "It's more likely that the media companies will wait and see--and then either launch their own wireless endeavors, or buy out one of the pioneers, a few years down the pike," points out Greg Costikyan from Unplugged Games.

A buyout perhaps - but only if these small companies can prove wireless devices can be plausible interactive entertainment machines.

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.