Portable Gaming in the Post-GameBoy Era
By Justin Hall, Mon May 17 23:45:00 GMT 2004

After years of watching a few innovators attempt to cram exciting mobile gameplay into small mobile phones, this year's E3 might be the final sign that the hardware for uniquely mobile gaming is here.

Next-generation mobile entertainment will be empowered by a range of devices that mix mobility, communication and media making. After years of watching only a few brave experiments on mobile phones, the world's largest video game show this year demonstrated that next-generation mobile entertainments now have a healthy hardware platform. A heartwarming number of devices were demonstrated supporting mobile multiplayer experiences and even GPS support for location-based play.

Each year E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, showcases the state of the art in gaming. Up until now, mobile phone games have been little more than shrunken, stilted versions of the more flashy console and computer games showing nearby. But this year, mobile games began to emerge as their own entertainment medium.

In large part, this is due to the advent of a number of powerful portable gaming devices launched or demonstrated at E3 this year. Sony and Nintendo demonstrated two new devices for the post-GameBoy era, and a number of competitors from outside the game industry weighed in with their own innovations.

Sony's PSP - Waiting for Innovation

Sony's PSP (PlayStation Portable) was hard to miss. A jumbo-sized version of the device hung up over the large west hall. Attendees queued up to see the demonstration of the slick new media player in a prominent corner of the Sony booth. The PSP device had a nice form factor - slick looking industrial design, and a lush wide screen. A bit large for casual pocket carrying maybe. Along with the device itself, they displayed a few potential peripherals - phone-style and QWERTY keypad attachments, GPS units.

At E3, the PSP was fronting more multimedia than games - playing preview clips from films and music videos, with looping videos of game footage. Few games on display were at all playable - demonstrations of rolling 3D tanks and 3D adventure games repeated on screens. There was one game we saw that was interactive at that time - a Japanese-style RPG by Namco - impressive graphics for the small screen, but not offering much by way of unique mobile game design, taking advantage of the PSP's built-in WiFi, for example. The hardware on display seemed like prototypes prepped for presentation; hopefully some innovative games might emerge once the platform has stabilized. Analysts predict playable PSP software by the Tokyo Game Show in September 2004.

The PSP had an aura of entertainment around it. Sony is set on launching the PSP as a game device, but obviously the PSP has broad potential - a big crisp screen, potential to hold any kind of media, and even do some communications networking. The PSP could be the IPod killer - the new default stylish portable media device. But Sony hasn't yet overtaken Apple's IPod in digital music perhaps because Sony's content arm (Sony pictures, Sony music) seems to have kept Sony's engineers from making the proper digital successor to the seminal Walkman. Sony seems to value copy-protection over convenience. And Sony might be repeating the same DRM-focused approach with the PSP: while the PSP will definitely play music files recorded in Sony's proprietary ATRAC3 format, there's no word yet on whether the PSP will support MP3 playback. In fact, industry watchers doubt that the PlayStation Portable will support playback for the world's most popular digital music format.

Double Screen - Mobile, Creative, Cheap

In contrast to Sony's proud presentation of a pre-production device with few games, Nintendo had a more polished device and a wide array of games tucked in a dark corner in the back of their booth. Nintendo's new device is nicknamed the DS - for double screen; a folded over compact device, basic gray plastic with little of the sleekness of the Sony.

Nintendo's DS very much resembled their old Game & Watch units from the 1970s and 1980s. Except that this 21st century Game & Watch has a bit of modern power - the bottom screen is touch sensitive. Using a stylus, the players now have the potential to control the device on beyond a keypad and buttons. Several programs on display demonstrated the capacity - controlling a submarine by twisting knobs and adjusting levers, carving up materials on a sort of virtual lathe.

The DS has rich networking infrastructure as well; WiFi and BlueTooth. Nintendo demonstrated a communications application, "PictoChat," simple four-way, where pictures drawn with the stylus could be swapped between nearby DS units. It was intuitive, immediate and fun. The network blended in with the power of the device, enabling playful communication.

Network-shared digital drawing space on a cheap platform available to children has terrific potential. If Nintendo encouraged third-party developers as well as their own acclaimed designers, there could be some fantastic mobile gaming innovations to emerge from the accessible hybrid PDA/game technologies available in the DoubleScreen.

Geo Games

Other folks see networked potential in Nintendo's previous-generation GameBoy system - RedSky demonstrated its GPS unit for the GameBoy at E3 this year, covered in a TheFeature.com news story last week.

GPS gaming was also a primary selling point for the Gizmondo, a third mobile gaming device demonstrated at E3. The Gizmondo is made by GameTrac, a UK company partnered with Tiger Telematics, a company known for making GPS devices. GPS is included in the Gizmondo units, along with impressive multimedia specs, a camera, wide-area networking and text-messaging capacities. In short, the Gizmondo could present a strong mix of mobile multimedia and gaming.

But the Gizmondo facing a crowded marketplace. Fortunately, they're seizing their GPS-enabled gaming potential directly, with a leadoff location-based game called Colors. The specifics on the title were scarce - they were showing only single player at this conference. Colors is a 3D gangland shooter. As players play single-player, they earn points towards multiplayer land-grabs in their local area. Designers working with GameTrac mused that the game might evolve to use the camera, to "tag" or grab physical areas for your team.

A Flowering of Portable Gaming

The Gizmondo is designed with built in mobile multiplayer and location-based potential. But it's not clear that any third round game device is going to sell against the inertia of Nintendo and the media-rich marketing of Sony. Add the TapWave Zodiac, featuring a large touchscreen, BlueTooth and Palm support, and Nokia's embattled N-Gage now emerging with a more robust software library, and we're suddenly witnessing a flowering of portable gaming - when a wide-range of devices permit play between people, away from their computers in the midst of their everyday lives.

With GPS and location based play added to the mix with mobile multiplayer, a platform for new types of shared playful experiences has arrived. Games like Mogi that use our environment and our buddy lists are now the prototypes for tomorrow's mobile entertainment. It's possible to look at all these announcements from E3 and see balkanization, confusion in the market, tentative rather than bold steps. But all the major corporate business development surrounding mobile gaming is proof that there's some serious innovation happening here. If people have affordable tools to track their location, take pictures, scribble drawings and share that with their friends, we will see an exponential increase in the potential for collaborative play.