The Moment for Mini-Games
By Justin Hall, Tue Mar 02 19:00:00 GMT 2004

"Until the packets become cheap, mini-games will rule."

Most game companies haven't figured out how to entertain people with each other. Mobile multiplayer awaits. In the meantime, the event horizon for single-player games on the mobile device seems to be foreshortening.

G-Mode stands for "Groovin' with Mobile Delight EntertaiNet"

G-Mode must be a busy company, because it took me over a dozen phone calls and emails and references to get time in their Tokyo offices last fall. I was making the rounds of Japanese mobile content providers, to see if anyone had anything innovative to offer.

I was hung up on mobile multiplayer. I thought the only appropriate game for a networked device had to involve other people. So I sat in a quiet office near Shinjuku station and I quizzed them on a few of G-Mode's multiplayer ideas. They were feeding me the same responses as I'd gotten in all the other meetings. Barley tea, the stale smell of cigarette smoke, and frustration with pricing plans. Packets were simply too expensive to support mobile multiplayer.

G-Mode had an alternative ideal for modern mobile entertainment: mini-games. Mini-games are nothing new - "mini-games" usually refer to small games embedded within larger games. If you play through Sega's Panzer Dragoon Orta on the Xbox, for example, you'll end up participating in some combat cart races, entirely separate from the dragon-flying action of the main game. Mini-games don't typically grab center stage, they're like extras on a DVD.

But G-Mode has focused their game development strategy on extras. Short, quick mini-games, designed for compact play experiences. I picked up G-Mode's Clay Shoot game as an example. Within seconds of picking the application, I was thrust into simple gameplay - aiming and shooting at clay pigeons. Immediate gratification.

Immediate gratification arcade action isn't anything new on mobile phones. Most downloadable games lack the story arcs and cut scenes of most console and computer games, even games for Nintendo's portable GameBoy Advance.

What makes these mini-games different is the profusion of short-attention-span entertainment. It's a million dancing pixels of the same shade of excitement. G-Mode has made over 300 games. A few of their games have licenses, like Tetris or Lord of the Rings. But they described themselves as refugees from traditional console and arcade development, the more hide-bound worlds that have been feeding games to mobile phones. Most A-list mobile phone games are adaptations of PlayStation or arcade classics, making for an easy nostalgia play but not always quality gameplay. G-Mode was proud to say that they make games only for keitai (Japanese for mobile phone).

Their games are grouped together into clubs, menus, subscriptions. The usual: for 100-300 yen you can take your pick from a few games grouped around a theme. They pride themselves on their game descriptions - there's no graphics on DoCoMo's i-mode content menus, so they have to be witty in just a few words. You have to be funny and short, just like the games themselves. There has to be a better way to package short-attention-span entertainment.


warioware minigames!Nintendo is the premier electronic toy maker; most of their games play best with a very young crowd. But now and then Nintendo sneaks something savvy under the radar, rewriting the rules for other game makers.

WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgame$ is a good example. A sleeper hit on Nintendo's evergreen GameBoy handheld, WarioWare featured over 200 mini-games, all arranged for back-to-back five-second play. That's right - five-second play. A game appears on screen. You have five seconds to figure out what the game is, how to play, and execute your moves. You win or you lose that mini-game, and then another one pops up. Bang bang bang.

Fortunately most of the moves are twiddling the gamepad, pressing buttons rapidly, or pressing a button at the exact right moment. Not too complicated in themselves. But figuring it all out fast is a terrific challenge. Whiplash!

WarioWare is all about timing. Demanding action-game zen mindstate. It's an odd twist - facile five second games that seize your attention. Because if you look away for a moment, you'll definitely miss a critical part of that tiny problem-solving exercise.

It's completely hectic, unpredictable. Loaded with pop-culture and historic game references, WarioWare is chaotic, infuriating and intoxicating. Electronically absorbed in public, like fielding a series of incoming calls while driving, or dispatching a batch of SMS messages while riding a bike downhill.

Mini Moment

G-Mode has a game called Unou Paradise that mixes up mini-games. They're making ten new games a month, a steady stream of material for further sampling. WarioWare-style mini-games show the game industry is catching up to the sampling of the porn industry. Movies are made and then cut up into samplers. You extend the lifespan of product by remixing it up and recompiling it as a new mix. So you end up with a narrative, and pieces of that narrative end up in a video for people who only like red-headed nurses.

Games made of up other mashed up games are not new. Shiny Entertainment's big budget Matrix video game had fighting, driving, running, exploration - different flavors of game organized around the Wachowski's cyberpunk theme. WarioWare has upped those stakes, by shortening the play time to five seconds and drawing from a staggeringly broad range of aesthetics. It's dizzying whiplash, watching your portable device tap-dance rapidly to entertain you, while you try to keep up with your thumbs. Where can mobile games go from here? As Tomoyasu Sasano at G-Mode said to me, "until the packets become cheap, mini-games will rule." Online multiplayer on the mobile will seem relaxing by comparison.

Justin Hall writes and speaks on intimacy and stimulation, here and sometimes on