WE3: The Wireless Entertainment Expo
By Justin Hall, Tue May 22 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Wireless games were vibrating in the pocket of E3, America's largest electronic gaming conference.

Most of the aisles were stacked tall with television-based titles, but you could still hear the distinctive blips & beeps of mobile gaming from some booths. Further investigation into just what was generating them paid off - as I discovered what was undoubtedly the most astonishing product demonstrated at the show: the G-cluster.

Nestled in the midst of the low-rent alleys of E3's far-flung Kentia hall, a group of bright young blond Finnish folk stood about sharing iPaqs with the likes of MC Hammer. Using a high-speed network, they distributed the code required to play the latest PC games over wireless connections to these handheld devices. Each of these machines, no matter how small the screen, or what the interface, could display the rich graphics of modern PC entertainment software.

After years of seeing only Solitaire and some cutesy animated Palm titles, it was a real shock to hold this small ordinary store-bought PDA in my hands, with a wireless connection, playing a high resolution state-of-the-art PC game. Of course the on-screen text doesn't look so great, and pointing and clicking small buttons with a stylus isn't terribly fun - but many gaming experiences are well suited to this format, and when you add multiplayer, things can get beautifully out of hand.

The young leader of the crew, Mika Peltola's eyes lit up as he described the Quake sessions in their office. "You can play against someone and walk around them, go up to them, push them around."

G-cluster plans to offer the connection as a location-based entertainment service for cafes, airports, and many other consumer hotspots. Anywhere you're likely to spend a long time waiting, they plan to rent you a unit. To reach the audiences they might expect at these locations, they initially plan to offer their service with a wide range of genres: parlor, puzzle, and strategy games, as well as traditional action titles like Tux Racer.

Raising the stakes for wireless gaming

In the past, we've seen people trying to make rock paper scissors look like hot stuff on a small screen. As a result, when you put today's library of existing handheld games up against most PC titles, they look pretty thin. But that's changing fast.

With a small staff and a miniscule budget, it's far easier to program a rich handheld game than it is a PC title. On top of that, there's a huge number of independent developers out there working hard to create software that can work within the narrow constraints of handheld platforms. As a result, expect innovation to continue in competition with the PC gaming world in the coming years.

At this year's E3, large wireless dreams were abounding. A one-man E3 crew from Hong Kong, Felix Sum, was showing off his "Business Online" game. The game simulates many levels of business, from stock-brokerage to brand building and ultimately economic policy-making - all taking place online, in conjunction with other players. Imagine managing your stock portfolio or making an emergency decision to develop your multiplayer online business from the subway!

Traditional genres making the transition

Besides the innovators and the dreamers, there were those sharing what now seems strikingly familiar; single player games for the small screen. Parlor games, shooters, racing most all the genres from the rest of game playing have been prepared These wireless game companies were by and large Asian, providing new but familiar content for markets used to playing around with their mobile phones.

The Korean market was richly represented in this respect; eSofnet had screenshots to share. Each of their games appeared to be a direct interpretation of a tried and true game model from years past: cards, catch the falling stuff, dig holes to trap bad guys, drop bombs on submarines.

Just the fact that these exist is a sign weve come a long way. Last year, any wireless game was a tantalizing glimpse into the future - now these titles seemed thoroughly mired in the past. Already weve seen enough games for these platforms that were hungry for innovation.

America got its first taste of Nokias snowboarding game for the 9210 Communicator here - the large phone-turned-computers are not available in the US. Nokia was also running video clips of one of their next generation games form this platform, a top-down 2D soccer game that looked to be quite frenetic. Also on the horizon, a golf game they werent ready to show but likely to be a hit with the type of folks who carry a Communicator phone around.

The industry matures (just a little)

Another sign that wireless gaming has arrived; Not only was there a full two hour wireless gaming panel, but it was packed solid. Eager business people sat at attention listening to a panel of experts weigh in on the future of this medium. Moderator Vince Broady from GameSpot.com began with this suggestion: either mobile phone games are going to be another free value-added service for large sites, like the games on portals today, or mobile gaming will end up as another serious platform for play, like the XBox or Playstation 2, perhaps rivaling even the GameBoy Advance in complexity.

Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Billy Pidgeon seemed to agree; he believes that we aren't in the era where wireless gaming resembles Pong, but rather Tic-Tac-Toe, meaning we've got a ways to go before we see the richness possible.

Motorola's Juan Montes stated a commonly held belief: short, readily digestible game experiences are ideally suited to mobile phones. He pushed existing brands from other industries as the best way to create these experiences now - for example, a game trading on the "Survivor" mythology brings more to the table in thematic weight, even if the game-play is thin.

Oren Tversky from Symbian shared this intriguing vision; someday you might purchase games as part of a personalized mobile phone package. For example, an older lady might purchase a phone with a desktop background of a family photo and a version of Solitaire. A young bloke might pick up a phone with a hot car for a background and a skateboarding game. Graham Stafford of Nokia, and the last panelist, seemed to agree.

This is probably a short-term vision, however. Most panelists believed that mobile phone games would be downloaded in the visible future, so the user can try and buy the suite of games that will keep their particular thumbs happy.

Small (and nimble) companies take the lead

Interestingly, out of todays major players, software publishers like Sega, EA or Activision, and platform manufacturers like Nintendo or Sony, none are making a major push into this area. Small wireless game studios like nGame, JamDat or Unplugged Games, are todays mobile pioneers.

Billy pointed out that the scale and demographics of the mobile phone market for games bring a radical departure from the traditional world of modern video games. Selling Tony Hawk [skateboarding game] to this audience is like selling Motorhead to music lovers in general. This is where large co-branding deals or simple, familiar gameplay is likely to connect with this audience.

Moderator Vince pointed out that the mass market is used to playing simple games for free, from online publishers like Pogo and Gamesville; but its not clear that eyeball grabbing for advertising is going to make these games financially worthwhile.

Between the visions of serious PC gaming made real by G-cluster, to the dreams of mass-market success shared by the panelists, its clear that wireless is the least exploited gaming platform with the most potential customers. Panelist Billy Pidgeon pointed out that Nintendo has more experience with small screen gaming than nearly any other company in the world, but they are being deeply cautious in the wireless market.

With no clear leader in the emerging market, theres a lot of opportunity. But even with all the excitement bubbling at this years E3, it could still be years before we see the right mix of games that will turn the bulk of worldwide mobile phone users and wireless PDA users into avid gamers.

Justin Hall wrote his first article exploring technology culture in 1990; since then he's written over 2,000 web pages at Links.net. Today he writes and speaks on electronic entertainment and he's bootstrapping his own TV talk show.