Wireless Games: The Next Two Years
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Mar 27 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Venture capitalists who've been pouring money into the coffers of wireless game developers can stop worrying about whether or not handhelds are too small to be successful game devices.

A recent study carried out by Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at Warwick University has revealed that people under the age of 25 have somehow developed thumbs that are ideally adapted for punching tiny keypads on phones, PDAs, and GameBoys. It turns out that young people are the first generation of human beings to have thumbs that are both more dexterous and well muscled than their index fingers, which are the traditional digit of choice among older adults.

The director of the research project, Sadie Plant, notes that young Japanese mobile phone users even refer to themselves as belonging to oya yubi sedai, or "the thumb tribe." These new mutants are able to work a keypad with lightning speed, blazing over the individual keys with an economy of motion and control that makes 30-year-old observers feel positively geriatric.

This new adaptation to miniaturized technology is welcome news for everyone who's got a stake in the wireless game industry, but there's still plenty of work left before wireless games take over the world. Game developers, hardware manufacturers, and wireless operators need to learn what kinds of games will attract users in different countries, and they still need to come up with better game controls, despite the newly discovered mutant thumb phenomenon.

To find out what's in store, let's take a look at the way things are today in the world of wireless games, and how they'll be different in the next couple of years:

Pay to play

TODAY: Free . Ever since the World Wide Web was introduced to the masses in the early 1990s, people have expected to get content for free. They figured, "I'm already paying for my Internet connection. My monthly fee should include the content, too!" And for years, Web sites have concocted all sorts of harebrained schemes to deliver free content to users.

TOMORROW: Fee . While US customers don't like paying for content, Europeans are happy to pay $2 billion a year for ringtones and logos. In Japan, pay services on i-mode and i-appli have turned into huge cash cows for NTT DoCoMo. Users in the US might not like content fees, but that's what's in store for them too. Many Web sites are giving up on advertising based models, and they're starting to charge money to give users access to their content. Whether or not this is going to work on the Web, it'll at least get US-based mobile users used to the idea that you've got to pay to play.

Sharing the revenue

TODAY: One pie, no knife . Japan is going like gangbusters, and one of the reasons is that it's easy for game developers to create games on DoCoMo's platforms. The US wireless games markets is floundering in part because operators there don't have billing technology that can handle revenue-sharing with developers and technology partners. US operators are also notoriously mule-headed when it comes to negotiating.

TOMORROW: A slice for everybody . Wireless games will constitute an awfully big pie. According to Datamonitor, a UK-based industry analyst, 198 million users will be playing wireless games in the US and Europe in 2005, generating $6 billion in revenue. For wireless games to take off and reach these kinds of numbers though, operators, content providers, developers, and technology providers are going to have to figure out how to work with each other. This will happen once carriers incorporate software that can handle billing, reporting, and customer relationship management systems for wireless games. Wireless game billing platforms such as Pinpoint's Fuel platform and Unplugged Games' MobileStage are removing the barriers between operators and developers.

Game complexity

TODAY: Keep it simple . When it comes to designing games, developers don't have a lot of slack space. Mobile screens are small and colorless, keyboards are tiny and hard to operate (for most of us, anyway), processors are puny compared to consoles and PCs, and wireless connection speeds are still turtle-slow in most areas of the world. As a result, we see a lot of Tetris and solitaire type games on mobile phones. And guess, what - people love these games.

TOMORROW: Keep it simple . As connection speeds get faster, and screens get more colorful, it's important not to forget the platform and the customer. Screens are going to stay small (at least until cheap retinal scanning displays hit the market, but that's deeper in the crystal ball than I'm peering into here).

There will be plenty of opportunities for innovative wireless games, especially those that use location-sensing technology to add a new dimension to multiplayer games with persistent worlds, but the emphasis should be on simplicity. Case in point - When Nokia introduced a more visually complex version of the popular "Snake" game, users complained. They like the earlier, more primitive version better. The newer version's fancy graphics made game play more difficult, not less.

While games should be simple to play, that doesn't mean they'll be easy to write. The best ones will incorporate all advantages mobiles have to offer, namely, portability and wireless connectivity. A game of backgammon against a software opponent is fun, but backgammon with another mobile user is even better.

Here's another thing to consider: Most mobile users are different from 15-year-old kids wired on Mountain Dew, planted in front of their 35-inch televisions as their fingers dance across the buttons and joypads on their controllers. To be sure, hardcore gamers will be an important market for wireless mobile gaming, but the majority of users will be people looking for a simple diversion while they're on the train or waiting for the movie to start. Mobiles are for everyone. Games that can appeal to 9 year olds schoolboys as well as 76-year-old retirees will rake in the dough.

Look for much better game controls for handhelds, too. Nokia recently announced a line of XPress-On Gaming Covers that reconfigure a mobile's keys in a more traditional game controller layout. Until then, keep your thumbs limber.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.