New Devices, Same Games
By Justin Hall, Tue Sep 23 04:30:00 GMT 2003

The first wave of sophisticated mobile gaming devices offer strong graphics, tired games and exciting potential.

You don’t need powerful 3D graphics on your computer to compose a spreadsheet or check your email. Graphics technologies serve entertainment; for decades media making and video games have fueled PC hardware sales and development. Now it looks like the same movement is coming to mobile phones. Games in particular are making for devices with larger screens, better controls and more person-to-person connectivity.

After years of only playing Nintendo or Snake on the road, there will be a multitude of mobile gaming machines available in the next few months. Sadly each of these devices represents a proprietary platform for portable gaming – you won’t share multiplayer fun with friends unless they happen to purchase the exact same device from amidst the half-dozen upcoming contenders. And based on the launch software for these devices, you won't be sharing much multiplayer fun for a while.

Samsung released a game pad that snuggles up with their SPH-A600 phone, adding a joystick and buttons to a regular clamshell handset. They run games on the Java-based J2ME platform, offering more interoperability than most, but less graphical and gameplay sophistication.

Nokia has their upcoming N-Gage, featuring 3D graphics and game cartridges. The device has received mixed reviews from game industry insiders, but they’ve already placed the device in specialty game software stores, where N-Gage Tony Hawk sells near the PlayStation version. The N-Gage custom platform, cartridge delivery (more information than you might pack into a mobile phone download) and beefy price (reportedly over $250) makes the N-Gage something like a portable console.

Formed by a few Palm Inc veterans, TapWave's first product is a hybrid organizer and GameBoy called a "Zodiac." With the Palm operating system beneath the wide three inch screen, the device appears to be a fantastic way to organize downtime. It doesn't offer mobile email or even a phone connection, but it does have Bluetooth and the capacity to serve as an MP3 alarm clock and dynamic picture frame.

Each of these devices is designed to appeal to older gamers who find the GameBoy too colorful and childish (have they seen the stylish and trim GameBoy Advance SP?). These companies are betting on gamers with narrow but deep pockets, who want to mix media files and mobile communications with interactive entertainment.

The games set to debut with these devices are games you’ve seen before: driving, shooting, driving and shooting, skateboarding, jumping. Familiar games are not necessarily a bad thing; users looking for play experiences to take on the road will likely be happy with the power of the device to provide a decent single-player experience.

But a decent single-player experience on a mobile phone has years of catching up to the pleasure of playing the artfully crafted Final Fantasy Tactics on the GameBoy Advance SP. The strength of these mobile gaming machines should be in their multiplayer.

I sat down with Executive Game Producer Mitzi McGilvray during a visit to the TapWave offices, to ask her about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Spy Hunter, Doom II - old games premiering on their innovative device. These licenses are important for an upstart company, she observed; the first TapWave games demonstrate that they have the money and talent to attract big names. The second and third wave of games should start to take advantage of features unique to the device, she expects.

The Zodiac would really shine as a host for games like Pokemon or Card Fighers' Clash – single player games of collecting and dueling against the computer in preparation for matches with friends or strangers when you meet up in person. Both the Zodiac and the N-Gage have Bluetooth capacity - perfect for this kind of play because there are no wires to mess with. You could trade your signature monster with other TapWavers and collect pocket monsters from all the people you meet in Bluetooth range. Sharing a shooting match on a small screen is a short-lived thrill; the game I want to play over mobile multiplayer is something social and collectible.

But Pokemon is an old game, perhaps best suited to the GameBoy where it still is so popular. The best game for mobile multiplayer hasn’t yet been invented. The games announced so far are nothing you wouldn’t rather play on your PlayStation or PC - there’s no new game ground broken here yet.

Even the simplest game rigorously exercises a mobile phone or PDA. Players hit buttons hard and fast and repeatedly. Frustration or excitement causes a tight grip, and defeat might cause a flying phone. Long spells staring at a tiny screen and wiggling your fingers over weak buttons could make for some serious electronic entertainment fatigue. But none of this immersion in tiny-screen entertainment is likely to pop up until people can play with their friends. Isolation in a single-player game while instant messages pop in the background is a sad alternative to playing games with your buddy list. Besides better graphics and better joysticks, let’s hope these devices live up to their potential to facilitate collective fun.