Unplugging Games
By Justin Hall, Wed Apr 04 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Justin Hall interviews Greg Costikyan, Chief Designer at Unplugged Games, to talk in-depth about the future of gaming on your mobile.

Greg Costikyan is among the most well respected living game designers. Hes been making games since wargames were in vogue (the mid-1970s). He is responsible for many of the best-loved franchises in role-playing games, including the brilliant games Toon and Paranoia, as well as the RPG based on the Star Wars franchise. A frequent speaker on gaming, hes the author of several novels, and many well-respected articles.

Greg is currently serving as Chief Design Officer at Unplugged Games, a leading American wireless games and gaming technology maker. Even in these dour economic times, Unplugged Games recently secured $2.5 million in funding. They currently have two games up on the SprintPCS and Verizon wireless web services.

Greg is a seriously smart guy who knows how to play around. So when he turned his attention on the world of wireless gaming, we knew we had something to learn. We corresponded with Greg to find out how hes approaching game design for the small screen, and what potential he sees for wireless gaming markets.

Hall: What design constraints and opportunities does the wireless gaming platform offer?

Costikyan: Well, the constraints are certainly severe from the standpoint of the PC/console game market: tiny little black and white screens, a sucky passive browser with no application management on the handset - not a thin client, but an anorexic client - small black & white bitmaps at best, and limited (if any) ability to poll a server for updates. Also very limited controls, and a dreadful text-entry interface. Not to mention the fact that you have to assume latency of more than 1 second.

But there are some strong advantages, too: phones are inherently networked devices, so multiplayer is feasible (and maybe mandatory; on the wireline Internet, 90+% of gameplay, and 99+% of paid gameplay - is multiplayer, and I expect the same will be true on the wireless web). They're ubiquitous; people carry them constantly, and can play when and where they want.

At present, we're designing primarily games that can be played in five-minute sessions - if you've got an hour, you'll find a console or PC, and you need to be able to interrupt for a phone call. We believe strongly in games that have a persistent element - so that each five-minute session builds toward a larger gameplay experience. We're designing games that are multiplayer in some fashion, although in some cases the player interaction is not realtime; and we're building mainly turn-based games, to reduce latency issues.

I've long maintained that technology has nothing to do with the merits of a game; NetHack is still one of the best games I've ever played, and it's pure ASCII. And fans of 80s games will tell you that the very constraints the early video and computer game pioneers labored under encouraged games superior to much of what's available today, because all they HAD was good gameplay - they couldn't rely on well-rendered 3D crap or whatnot for a goshwow factor.

The technical limitations of the platform are severe, but that doesn't mean we can't do cool games.

And, of course, the technical limitations will relax over time. With J2ME and the BREW initiative, we're already starting to see some kind of application management, with the ability to have something worthy of the name of a client application on the handset. Color, better resolution, and larger screens are coming. A lot of people in this space are yearning for the fabled day of 3G, but we view 3G as nice but not particularly relevant - streaming video is wholly irrelevant to gaming, greater bandwidth is nice but not essential, etc., etc. We're looking more toward incremental improvements - application management, better displays, packetized voice and the ability to make simultaneous voice and data connections (highly important for encouraging socialization during gameplay) etc.

Incidentally, the very limitations of handsets at the moment has one strong advantage, by my standards: Because we can't use the enormous art, graphic, and sound assets that have become essential in the world of PC and console gaming, our costs of development are far lower, and our development cycles far shorter. Thus, we can be far more experimental, and get a lot more games up in a shorter period of time.

Hall: You boast of these technological limitations, and perhaps they can lead to some inspiring, more pure gameplay. But we haven't yet heard of any games seizing the American mobile phones market; perhaps due to lack of WAP phone penetration. What other games are out there that you really admire?

Costikyan: The best wireless games I've seen so far are both from nGame, a British operation - Alien Fish Exchange and Dataclash. Alien Fish Exchange is a game of fish-breeding, with Tamagotchi-like elements, and some clever fish graphics, given the limitations of the screen. Dataclash is a game of competing hackers with a sort of collectible-card appeal, with the difference that you can steal "cards" from other players by raiding their data store - two player combat, in a sense, in a persistent environment, with the ability to get involved with all the players in the game.

Both are available on AT&T Pocketnet and Sprint PCS at the moment, and both seem to be getting quite a lot of use, given the small number of people using wireless data services at present.

Hall: You have been designing for the lowest-end technology wireless market in the world. Have you seen the i-mode games? Is your appetite whetted for the color/music/graphics future of wireless gaming?

Costikyan: Actually, in terms of wireless data networks, the US has at least one technological advantage over Europe, at present. Most European operators implemented WAP over SMS, meaning that when the SMS gateways get overloaded (which happens a fair bit), downloading a new WML deck can take several seconds - or even several tens of seconds. When Europeans say "WAP sucks," they usually don't understand that that's only partly true; what sucks in their carrier's implementation of WAP.

US handsets are far inferior to those in Europe, the fact that we have four incompatible wireless standards is idiotic, etc., etc. - all true. But at least the US carriers' WAP gateways aren't overloaded with SMS traffic. Wireless data latency is a lot less of an issue here.

As for iMode - sure, I'd like color handsets, and handsets with high resolution, and the ability to use HTML-C instead of WML or HDML, and all that good stuff. (Although keep in mind that, until DoCoMo started releasing the J2ME handsets, iMode was still a passive browser environment - a much better one than WAP, but still without any client side application possibilities. Essentially, you were stuck doing Web games.)

But it'll happen here too.

Hall: What future wireless game project you're working on most inspires you?

Costikyan: At present, I'm most excited by VOID RAIDER, which we'll be releasing next month. The high concept is "Star Wars meets Tamagotchi." You're a space privateer, with letters of marque and reprisal from your government, prowling the void for enemy merchant ships. There's a ship management aspect - if you don't fraternize with and train your crew, they turn into a bunch of drunken layabouts and your weapons and engine systems go to hell - as well as combat (sometimes you'll run into an enemy starship - and engage in combat with another player over the wireless network). And there's a persistent world aspect as well; you gain in rank and money over time, buying bigger ships and better equipment, and being promoted by your service.

Hall: Were interested in how a man who has designed wargames and pen and paper role-playing games found himself excited by wireless web game design.

Costikyan: There are really two sides to that question: How I became excited by the opportunity, and where I see what I'm doing now in the arc of my career.

In 1999, I was working as a game industry business consultant, with clients including Viacom, Mattel, France Telecom, and Sarnoff Corporation. One of my gigs was with Roland Berger & Partner, a German management consultancy that had a contract with British Telecom to assist them in figuring out their strategy for wireless data services; they contracted with me to assist them in looking at wireless games. As a result, I did a fair bit of research into the technology, and started to get interested, not only because I thought I could see how to do some interesting games with this technology, but also because I didn't think much of the products available from the earliest pioneers of wireless games - and because the history of mobile phones replicates precisely the hockey-stick projection venture capitalists like to see in business plans but that all too rarely occur in real life (11 million mobile phones to 750 million worldwide in one decade).

In short, it was obvious to me that there was a real business opportunity here; that someone was going to make a lot of money pursuing it; and that there was no a priori reason why that someone shouldn't be me.

Now mind you, money is not what motivates me, on the whole; if it did, I'd be an investment banker. But game work is scarce in New York, where I'm nailed by history - I lose custody of my kids if I move out of the area - and this struck me as an eminently fundable opportunity. And one, moreover, for which the technical skills exist in the New York area; we have few solid C++ programmers with graphical programming and game industry experience, but we have plenty of people who've developed large client-server applications, and the telephony heritage of northern New Jersey means there are quite a few people with wireless experience in the area.

As for the artistic side, I've followed the market throughout my career, in essence; when I first started designing games, the only real game markets were for mass-market boardgames and wargames. I moved from wargames to science fiction and fantasy boardgames, to paper roleplaying games, to online-only and computer games - and am not moving to wireless games. Each medium has its own aesthetic and potential; figuring out how to do really good work in a new medium is an interesting challenge in its own right. And quite often, a medium can be unexpectedly successful with game styles that don't work, commercially, in other media. For example, there are "massively multiplayer" non-digital games - they're called live-action roleplaying games (LARPs), and they're quite interesting, but they're almost inherently non-commercial, staged by enthusiasts. The Internet allows massively multiplayer games to become a commercial style.

Similarly, no one would have anticipated that Bingo would be the single most played game on the Internet; I imagine quite a few people laughed at Steve Kane when he launched Gamesville, but he proved that millions of people - largely middle-aged women, an audience conventional console & computer games have never effectively reached - would play Bingo and similar games online. Kane, incidentally, is someone who hasn't received the attention he deserves by the game community; Uproar and Pogo.com and Flipside.com are basically all imitations of Gamesville. He essentially pioneered the ad-supported, mass-audience game on the Internet, and deserved to be recognized for such.

The point here is that successful mobile games may in some cases be direct analogs to currently successful game styles - Snake is, after all, a primitive arcade-style action game - but we're also going to see quite novel games becoming successes. As an example, a number of operations are working on, in essence, Tamagotchi clones - wireless pets of one kind or another, which makes perfect sense given the small screen size and the limitations of the medium. But that's only the first step; the next is to figure out what made Tamagotchi appealing, and how to take the same basic style and apply it to a very different fantasy backdrop and environment - and how to leverage the network, and the multiplayer interaction it permits, and combine it with a Tamagotchi-like experience to create something quite novel and compelling.

In other words, the console and PC world is, at the moment, caught in a rut; despite the fact that the best-selling games usually are highly innovative (viz. THE SIMS and ROLLER COASTER TYCOON), it's very difficult to get funding for something that doesn't slot neatly into the categories the publishers think they know how to sell. Of the 1000+ games demoed at E3 each year, there are perhaps five titles that actually look innovative and interesting. In wireless, the door is wide open; we can try lots of different things, we have to work to figure out what's going to work, we can be far more creative, in a fundamental way, than you an in the conventional market.

It's a shame, therefore, that so many companies working in wireless games at the moment are basically doing thinly-veiled versions of Rock-Paper-Scissors, Hangman, or Tamagotchi.

But that, of course, means there's an opportunity for people who have a bit more creative vision.

It's Gaming Week on TheFeature. Be sure to check back daily for original reports, interviews, analysis and discussion covering the mobile gaming industry!

Justin Hall just recently finished eighteen months as "Director of Innovation" at Gamers.com, a web site about video games. He works as a freelance writer and gaming consultant, and he's bootstrapping his own TV talk show.