Mobile Gaming: Present and Future
By C.J. Kennedy, Mon Apr 02 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Gaming Week kicks off with a look at the mobile gaming market. Right now it's growing faster than ever thanks to the convergence of handheld gaming devices and mobile phones.

Buzztime Inc. recently announced that over 1 million U.S. customers had played their wireless games, just 49 days after Sprint PCS launched the service. The tone of their February 12th press release was that of pleasant surprise: People like phones that do more than talk and check email!

With frustration I looked down at my own phone. What was a surprise to Buzztime was no surprise to me. How many times have I waited at a bus stop, wishing my mobile phone could do something more fun than triple-touch-type?

Current wireless offerings just can't meet demand in the U.S. I tried Buzztime games - nothing more than trivia questions. Yahoo! Mobile's portal offers Video Poker, Four-In-A-Row, Black Jack, and HiLo. Please! I would rather play an old-fashioned game of marbles or jacks than HiLo.

Part of the reason I was disappointed is because, for over a decade, we've been collectively spoiled by another handheld gaming platform that a mobile phone just can't measure up to - the Nintendo Gameboy

It's hard not to compare these offerings to the Gameboy. It has a 160x144 pixel resolution on a 2.6-inch screen and, most importantly, Pokemon games. Why can't the Mitsubishi T250 phone, with 96x108 pixel resolution on a 1.5 inch screen, provide a few compelling games, or even just one?

Part of the problem is that networked games like Yahoo! Mobile's Black Jack reside not in the handset itself, but with the portal or carrier of choice. But shouldn't this add options to games, namely competition and community, instead of adding - God help us - word games?

Profit potential

In the U.S., offerings for the youth market are extremely limited. Today, mobile phones check email, stocks, news, and horoscopes, and that's about it. U.S. operators are by-and-large ignoring a market that many predict will be comparable in profitability to the m-commerce market as a whole.

Consider these projections: On March 16th the Strategis group downgraded its outlook for the U.S. m-commerce market to $5 Billion by 2004, while Datamonitor Technology predicted $6 Billion in wireless gaming revenue in the U.S. and Europe by 2005. The Gartner Group also predicts $6 Billion will be spent on mobile gaming worldwide by 2004. That's not pocket change.

Roope Mokka, an analyst at Ovum, says "The video game market is as big as Hollywood. Add that to wireless penetration rates in places like northern Europe and this would seem to suggest a massive market." NTT DoCoMo, the world's most successful mobile provider has 18 million i-mode subscribers. But Sony, the world's most successful gaming manufacturer, has 30 million PlayStation jockeys.

Gartner predicts that the 18,000 wireless game players in U.S., 3.8 million players in Japan, 1.1 million in Europe, and 4.6 million worldwide today will explode to 13 million users in U.S., 40 million in Japan, 102 million in Europe, and 177 million worldwide by 2004.

Current offerings

"I clearly see an industry move from business applications to consumer applications," offers Mark Frankel, Director of Product Management for Qualcomm CDMA Technology. Frankel is promoting Qualcomm's CMX chip technology, which has added animation abilities to their cartoon characters.

Scott Edison, Business Development Manager at AT&T, explains they have re-launched their PocketNet service on March 12th with other games in addition to Buzztime's offering. Games such as "Gladiator" by JAMDAT and "Jumble" by Mobliss, and their "Surf Lounge," aimed at Generation Y are now available.

JAMDAT's Gladiator is one of the best games offered today, combining basic graphics with networking ability. The game allows users to create a warrior and fight other characters at the Roman Coliseum. Since the game launched on Oct. 23 more than 340,000 users have played over 720,000 games, running up 3.25 million airtime minutes. The game is fun but basic, limiting profession choices (mercenary, centurion, barbarian, or acrobat), weapons, and combat (the combatants' bodies are divided into three zones high, middle, and low, which you can attack or defend.)

Another notable game is Mercenary Princes by NGame Ltd., which combines Tamagotchi with Ultima III to allow the user to trade goods across a medieval world. Mercenary Princes was a 2001 British Academy of Film and Television Arts nominee for "Best Game - Mobile or Networked," along with ChuChu Rocket by Sega and Pokemon by Nintendo. Although Mercenary Princes has created a rich fantasy world, the choices and action are still quite basic.

3G Fantasy

The success of these early games has brought about a rush of announcements regarding new partnerships and technological advances in mobile gaming.

The introduction of GPRS services followed by 3G networks promises to greatly increase speeds of data exchange and enhance the whole experience. "At the end of last year we had 14.4Kbps speeds over out networks," says Dan Willinsky, spokesperson for Sprint, the first U.S. carrier to promise 3G networks.

"With our 3G announcement, by the end of the year we will be offering 10 times faster speeds, and by the end of next year we will be offering 300Kbps of data transfer. This means you'll see a number of new trends, as handsets offer larger, color screens, and more interactive games. Right now we are in what is comparable to the Pong era of mobile video games. The changes will be night and day. In the future you will see more of a PC experience. In 2-3 years the trend will be more towards junior Gameboy-type offerings."

The large market potential has caught the eye of traditional video game heavyweights as well. On February 5th Sony announced a partnership with NTT DoCoMo that will create PlayStation games for DoCoMo's i-mode phones, and also for DoCoMo's partners: AT&T Wireless, Telecom Italia, KPN Mobile, KG Telecom, and Hutchinson Telephone Ltd.

Not to be outdone, on February 20th Sega announced a similar partnership with NTT DoCoMo.

Equally promising is the recent flurry of announcements regarding mobile game development platforms. On January 31, 2001 Qualcomm announced an open applications platform named BREW, and already wireless game developers like Chasma, Inc., Namco, FluxNetworks, Brighton Corp., Digital Net Works, and Softbank Mobile Corp have signed up.

On March 19th, Sprint and Motorola announced they'd soon be conducting Java 2 Platform Micro Edition (J2ME) lab trials. The platform has enormous potential, with 2.5 million Java developers already familiar with the language.

On March 21st, Motorola, Ericsson, and Siemens announced that they were working together on a universal mobile games platform for the industry. To top it off, NGames, producers of Mercenary Princes, is also planning a developer's platform.

What the future holds

The good news is that the industry is beginning to pick up steam, and it's doing so quickly. Forrester Research reports that of the twenty gaming companies they interviewed (Electronic Arts, Nintendo and MSN Gaming, to name a few), only 20% are currently developing games for the wireless market. However, 70% are planning to begin development by 2003.

Tyrone Lam, President of Buzztime, suggests that until wireless games work out the problems of high latency, the games produced will be unlike any on the current market: "What you will see in the future will be a lot more like interactive T.V." We will be able to use the graphics, but the games will be based on trivia or trying to predict the plays in a sports game."

Alex Green, VP for Business Development at NGame Ltd., offers up his own prediction: "The future is not on high graphic, low latency games, but on community games which allow SMS abilities, chat, buddy lists, and micro leagues. Despite what a lot of handset manufacturers and middleware manufacturers tell you, it will be a long time before we see anything similar to a Gameboy title over in a handset."

The first generation

Nintendo will be the first to break for center stage. On March 13th they announced the new Gameboy Advance, with basic wireless connectivity. The company predicts 24 million devices will be sold by March of next year, giving it a strong foothold in this converging market.

The other obvious pick would be the NTT DoCoMo (the largest wireless services provider in the world) and Sony (the most successful console manufacturer in the world) partnership as the team most likely to succeed in the wireless gaming market. With NTT DoCoMo’s huge installed base, they have a lot of influence on the industry as a whole, and can get out there first with an established platform.

A much less obvious pick is Microsoft. The company already offers games over the Internet and on March 13th, announced that a subsidiary called Wireless Knowledge is already working with Qualcomm to create next-generation games for the mobile platform.

Monday kicked off Gaming Week on TheFeature. Be sure to check back daily for original reports, interviews, analysis and discussion covering the mobile gaming industry.

After spending the ninties working in a copper mine in Australia, managing a coffee shop, starting a literary journal, and teaching in the South Bronx, C.J. Kennedy started covering the wireless industry. C.J. is currently the senior staff writer for, and has covered the industry for M-Business Magazine, The Wireless Developer Network, Wireless Business & Technology, Wireless Related, and The Industry Standard.