Each year in early May, worldwide entertainment software makers crowd into the Los Angeles Convention Center hoping to be noticed by video gaming's tastemakers. At E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, their two storey temples to digital distraction threaten peace of mind with deafening din and dizzying artificiality. Loud booths blare the screams of dying pixels. Scantly clad models stand to lure twitchy gamers for photos, posing before impossibly beautiful computer landscapes.
Amidst this spectacle, mobile phone games seem mostly humble, maybe cute. There were no gesticulating leprechauns or hired strippers promoting the future of fun for our pockets. No thirty-foot jumbotrons showing off screens from wireless Blackjack. Mobile phones may have been a necessary accessory for most attendees; few were paying any attention to how they might soon be using their phones to entertain themselves.
But up above the dense din of the conference floor, backroom corridors and panel discussions were buzzing with new enthusiasm for mobile entertainment. Mobile games have been recognized by mobile service providers as a useful way to help customers part with their money. Increasing numbers of users have game ready phones, making for an ever-larger pool of players. And for the first time, there was talk of creating games for hardcore wireless gamers.
Still some of the first flush of wide-eyed optimism was off at E3 this year; a few of the wireless game developers present last year have shrunk or disappeared. But the potential for the industry has expanded; the stakes are higher and some of the early leaders are emerging. Digital Bridges and nGame are two of the most active mobile phone game makers, with dozens of games published in multiple countries. These publishers are actively reaching out to the mass market, hoping to energize millions of poor lifeless handsets for gaming on the go.
The mass of gamers play games of quiet desperation
At a conference where beefy dudes in dyed green goatees pose for pictures with ladies clad in renaissance-faire-fetish leather thong bikinis, gaming culture would still appear alien to middle aged moms, if not dads. But E3 largely ignores the fact that in spite of the successes of some rarified entertainment software, Microsoft Windows Solitaire is still the world's most popular computer game. Digital Bridges and nGame want to reach the Windows Solitaire playing audience; they seem to be aiming to find slightly more engaging version of Solitaire that might somehow involve using minutes on a mobile phone network; something to appeal to the intermittently playful, something that will excite mobile service providers to include these game companies on their top web services menu.
Some believe this is where the money is in mobile gaming, "Placement, placement, placement" said Anders Evju, a Vice President at Digital Bridges, as Alex Green, Vice President at nGame nodded his head emphatically alongside. As casual phone users begin to surf with their thumbs, these men vie for a spot at the top of their wireless web entertainment lists. They are hoping to make active players of the folks who ignore the wealth of titles produced by the adolescent-male focused electronic gaming industry and choose Solitaire since it's free, available and entertaining, in that order. These are the gamers who have made Snake and other single-player games included on mobile handsets more popular than any game requiring access to the wireless web.
Both Digital Bridges and nGame agree that ordinary folks are not likely to pay for games on their phones. As Alex Green from nGame pointed out, even once they're online people are generally thrifty with their play: most folks log on and enjoy only the free games. It's very hard to drive the mass of gamers to pay-for-play, when they can just as readily be distracted by complementary entertainment.
Up until recently there hasn't been much money involved in free games on mobile phones. Both nGame and Digital Bridges shared stories of approaching skinflint American mobile phone service providers, each of them had a similar experience: Early on, the providers asked: how much are you going to pay us to include your games in our service plans? Then a few months later, they were willing to accept the game company content for free. Finally, recently, mobile phone service providers in the US have agreed to pay the wireless game companies something for their content, perhaps even a share of the minutes used by players.
To foster mobile provider good graces and catch the eye of the mass market, nGames and Digital Bridges are making plenty of licensed games, featuring familiar faces from movies, television, comic books and music. Before you have a chance to use your phone to play games with anyone you know, you're likely to have the chance to take on Britney Spears or Scooby Doo first.
Reaching out to the hardcore
But no guy and girl programming in their garage are going to cough up cash to use a recognized drawing of a guy in tights for their 30k mobile phone app. While licensing may be designed to appeal to the mass market, other mobile phone game developers are hoping to sell their games directly to serious gamers. For years, mobile phones seemed to be the last place anyone would ever expect to see dedicated "hardcore" players. The screens are too small, the buttons too tiny for most young male fingers. The graphics on handsets are bland and tasteless compared to sweet PC and console eye candy; in the words of Quake and Doom game designer John Romero, recent PDA and mobile phone games are "blocky-ass."
Now it would seem either that mobile phone hardware has evolved enough to support more serious games, or perhaps the right kinds of games will soon entice serious gamers. Scott Orr is a long-time game developer. At Electronic Arts, Orr developed some of electronic gaming's biggest sports franchises, including John Madden Football, as well as racing, hockey, and college football titles. After seeing an increasing trend towards online play, and with an eye towards the untapped market for mobile phone games, he's founded Sorrent, a mobile phone game development house. With over twenty years experience building games, Orr is taking his company in a different direction from that of Digital Bridges and nGame. Sorrent's first game Snapshot Live Football offers head-to-head American football match-ups with no noticeable latency over WAP. Orr hopes that serious gamers attracted by serious gameplay will be willing to pay a small premium to subscribe to his games.
If Orr is right, and hardcore gamers are willing to pay for games, then mobile phone games might be sold more like PC and console games - directly packaged and purchased by people with preferences. This would allow small game shops to come up with more unusual gaming concepts and see them supported by mobile gaming enthusiast audiences.
If they will buy software, would hardcore gamers be willing to pay for gaming-enhanced mobile phone handsets? This was the question from veteran game designer Noah Falstein. For the last few years the PC industry has been largely driven by people willing to shell out for water-cooled video cards and high horsepower processors to manage increasingly complex interactive entertainment. Perhaps these people would be willing to pay an extra $100 for a phone that can display 3D graphics, or keep track of sixteen other players exchanging information and game plays on the screen simultaneously.
The mobile phone is a built-in buddy list, and friend tracker, a perfect place for encouraging multiplayer online gaming, these game makers all agreed. But few of the mobile phone games on display at E3 this year had much to do with innovating mobile phone multiplayer. Companies seem to think that they must first gather more gamers with their thumbs around the phone, and then there will be a place for someone to make some new sorts of games.
Perhaps the hardcore gamers will push this market; it would only take a few applications to get a group of dedicated players always on, always playing. And then if they could buy phones customized for this kind of entertainment? We might finally see the kind of technological arms race that has made modern PCs capable of producing multimedia like talking paperclips alongside ordinary word processing.
Once our phones are able to display 3D worlds and simultaneous chat and data exchange with friends all over the world, you just might have the hardcore gamers to thank for pushing mobile phone hardware standards.
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.