Conquering England While Waiting for the Bus
By Howard Wen, Tue Jan 15 00:00:00 GMT 2002

How do you bring a classic game to WAP, while making sure nothing gets lost in the translation?


How do you bring a graphically rich PC game to WAP-enabled mobile devices? That's the question Atomic Planet Entertainment, a video game studio based in Middlesbrough, England faced when they took on making a WAP version of Defender of the Crown. Released in 1986, the original classic was a showcase for the Amiga computer's then superb graphical prowess.

But if the game's big appeal was its graphics, what's the point of making a WAP version? "Defender of the Crown stood out with its turn-based strategic game play, mixed with a variety of sub-games," explains Jason Falcus, Development Director of Atomic Planet. "While the graphics did play a big part in the presentation of the original, underneath was a very addictive, strategy-based game, which translates perfectly to wireless systems."

Atomic Planet put together a demo of their WAP rendition of Crown and presented it to Cinemaware, the game's publisher. After one of Cinemaware's founders, Lars Batista, saw what Atomic Planet had achieved, he was sold: "It was a very impressive adaptation of our game that not only stayed true to the original but proved to be better than any other WAP game application we had ever seen before."

Overcoming platform limitations


When they set out to bring ‘Crown’ over to WAP, Atomic Planet was keen to dispel the notion that WAP games are limited to simple amusements like tic-tac-toe clones.

To depict the original Crown's artwork within the confines of a black-and-white, low-resolution phone screen in a way that would remain true to the original, Atomic Planet employed artists who had experience designing game graphics for PCs and game consoles dating back to the 1980s. These artists pulled off a surprising job - they managed to transform a series of black-and-white pixels into images that are not only very appealing to look at but surprisingly close to the original. Defender of the Crown WAP features screens that resemble (in an "iconified" manner) the original's familiar playfields, like the catapult and jousting sequences.

The most vexing problem was how to represent a map of England, which is color coordinated in the original game. This map keeps tabs on all the territories that the player must conquer, where different colors represent areas that the player's opponents control. To bring this necessary element over to WAP, Atomic Planet's designers devised a shading pattern scheme that, despite the limitation of the platform's display, works quite well.

Focusing on game play


Preserving the original game's play proved to be the best way to compensate for WAP's graphical limitations. Crown has that aspect that every WAP or wireless game needs, Atomic Planet believes, which is addictiveness - its ability to keep bringing players back for another session as they try to conquer England and defeat all the enemy lords.

Additionally, short gaming sessions are important, says Falcus. "The player should be able to complete them in a 5- or 10-minute session, so that they can dip in for [a few] minutes while waiting for a bus, and continue to conquer their little universe."

A wireless game should also offer a wide variety of play and expand-ability. For Defender of the Crown WAP, Atomic Planet plans to offer new gaming maps, which players will be able to download, and prizes to win.

Console, meet wireless


Thanks to Atomic Planet's success with its WAP version of Crown, Cinemaware is looking at converting more of its classic games, like Rocket Ranger, to WAP and considering development on other platforms such as J2ME and BREW. "To a great extent we want to use Defender of the Crown WAP as the first test case to build on future ideas and products," says Batista.

He even foresees that wireless devices could be tied to game consoles. Cinemaware plans to incorporate wireless game play aspects into their console titles, starting with a PlayStation 2 version of Defender of the Crown. Expanding wireless gaming to include some type of connection to game consoles could have huge implications. In one scenario, which Batista imagines, a player-character could be created and "trained" on a mobile phone. Then when you arrive home, you download your character to your game console and use it in a game.

"It will be a great day when you can seamlessly transfer data and game information from your console to your wireless device, to your PC, and so on," says Batista. "That could have a huge impact on future possibilities of game development."

More devices mean more wireless games


The developers at Atomic Planet have their own ideas for future wireless game concepts, but most of them are dependent on technology that hasn't been released yet. They anticipate that in the next year or so there will be a large-scale introduction of Java-based phones with color screens in the North American market.

It's such a prospect that convinces Falcus that wireless and WAP gaming will become mainstream in the very near future, and not confined to a niche market. "All it needs is a few more killer apps like Defender of the Crown," he says. "Up until now there have been far too many poor quality games that don't capture the public's imagination.

"I think, both internationally and in the U.S., wireless gaming in general will be even bigger and will soon supersede WAP. The huge number of new wireless devices coming out over the next couple of years, combined with the increased awareness of wireless games among consumers, is going to help drive this forward."

Howard Wen has covered gaming for Salon.com, Playboy.com, Wired, GameSpot, and O'Reilly Network.