Towards a Methodology of Mobile Game Design
By Justin Hall, Thu Mar 31 08:45:00 GMT 2005

Announcing an independent mobile gaming special interest group: the spirit of knowledge sharing and cooperation for mobile play developers.

This year's Game Developers Conference covered mobile multiplayer frontiers and aspirations the for mobile media, but perhaps the most promising sign for innovative mobile gaming to come out of the GDC was an emerging methodology of mobile games design. Not only did participants discuss smart techniques for making play on small screens, but they laid the groundwork for future conversations around innovation, demonstrating a fortuitous alignment of mobile media makers around the creation of better mobile play experiences.

Design for Mobile

Proof of deepening mobile game design studies was abounding at the conference. One session examined the "Psychology of Small Screen Game Design," where New York-based researcher and entrepreneur Karthik Swaminathan delved into cognitive psychology to explore the tiny bounded parameters of mobile displays. Swaminthan described the limitations of the medium, and explained strategies for creating potent images and managing pattern recognition, as tracking many details and many moving objects in a small area can be difficult without careful visual composition. His points seemed intuitive, like his advocacy of marked visual contrast, but his words was well-taken after a demonstration of some licensed mobile and GameBoy games where you couldn't discern the main character from the busy background.

Swaminathan's exploration of a mobile media methodology was just one demonstration of increasing specialization: the Game Developers Conference hosted three separate panels considering audio design for mobile games. And the GDC Mobile proceedings included hefty papers, like "Game AI Development of Car Racing on Mobile Phones using Fuzzy Logic." After years of watching stiff-shirted panelists present variations of Tetris and bemoan access to carrier portals, these kinds of geeky discussions showed mobile gaming has reached pre-pubescence, if not adolescence.

In spite of John Carmack's recent enthusiasm, mobile games projects are rapidly outgrowing some of their small-scale development roots. As the scope of games expand in complexity, so budgets, content assets and labor required will expand as well. The game industry will see increasing amounts of marketing, and even more elaborate licensing deals. This growth may not lead to innovation if the game mechanics remain mired in pre-mobile digital play. But now mobile game designers have some homework they can do if they're interested in innovation that suits the empowered handset. And, these conversations will continue after the GDC as mobile game development has a new advocate.


The Game Developers Conference has been tightly integrated with the International Game Developer's Association. The IGDA is an independent body charged with spurring conversations across the world of game development. They host conversations online and at the GDC about intellectual property, diversity, quality of life and other areas of interest in game development. Now, mobile technology is on the radar of the IGDA.

To spurn innovation and encourage dialog, the International Game Developers Association started up a Mobile Game Development Special Interest Group (MGD SIG). Playing to the IGDA's status as independent, the Mobile SIG will work with all makers of mobile games. The first public meeting was this month, at the Game Developers Conference. A small crowd of speakers, academics, developers and publishers gathered around Swaminathan and the Mobile SIG's fresh-faced chairperson, Kurt Uhlir, an independent technologist and mapmaker NavTeq's business affairs manager. He explains the Mobile Game Development SIG's unique role: "there's no group that includes every part of the value chain in the [mobile] industry."

Citing continuing evolution in the mobile games space, Uhlir explains that the roles of publisher, distributor and developer are still being codified. There's still a sort of frontier operating mode, where mobile developers often have to be able to do everything: pitch, develop, market and distribute their games. He expects the Mobile SIG to provide independent technology sharing, expertise and business advice for these folks who have to understand both new technologies and new business models.

Starting this year, the SIG will be publishing white papers covering mobile game industry issues, including new technologies like location-based services and using cameras for capture of in-game assets and movement control. Another white paper will explore the mobile gaming ecosystem, helping developers and aspiring developers understand the range of publishing and distribution options, which could be wider than many people suspect with the advent of independent payment mechanisms and increasing numbers of mobile game publishers.

These publications should be useful, if briefly accurate in the quickly evolving mobile space. Establishing a basis for ongoing conversation about mobile game development could be the more important contribution, promoting knowledge sharing between mobile media makers. More basic work remains for the academics and the special interest group: defining mobile play. As Uhlir points out, even the most basic of games, Tetris, is often categorized any one of five different ways on carriers' mobile game portals. If each carrier has a different naming and sorting mechanism for mobile games, how might players know what to expect from a play experience?

Hopefully between publishers better informing players, developers informing themselves and academics informing anybody, a more literate mobile game medium will take shape. With the basics established and agreed upon, work can begin on more advanced concepts -- the more profound potential for truly mobile play.