Greg Costikyan on the Future of Mobile Gaming
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Dec 15 08:00:00 GMT 2004

The future of mobile gaming depends on breaking out of simply making arcade-classic retreads, and on developing an infrastructure that supports multiplayer.

Greg Costikyan knows games. An accomplished fantasy novelist, old school board game designer, and online and mobile game designer, he's also worked as a gaming consultant and was Unplugged Games's Chief Design Officer. Recently, Costikyan started working for Nokia Research. I interviewed him by phone, where he spoke from his home office in New York City about the latest ideas in mobile games, and why their success as a business is holding back their full potential for the mobile platform.

TheFeature: What are you doing for Nokia?

Costikyan: I'm part of their technology exploration team, which is not game-specific. We're monitoring emerging technologies within Nokia, and ones in development elsewhere, with a view towards what areas of research Nokia should be looking at and whether there are projects or protectable IP they should develop. Another thing I do is work with the N-Gage publishing team, developing game concepts for them, looking at game proposals, that kind of thing. I'm also involved in a program they call Game Revolution, which is looking at where we want mobile games to go ultimately and what needs to happen, primarily from a technological standpoint, but also from a design and business standpoint to get us there.

TheFeature: So, what does need to happen?

Costikyan: When we're talking about innovation there are a whole series of issues that all have to come together. Some of it is technology, but some of it also is business oriented. As an example, when I first got involved in mobile games, I believed at the time that mobile games could really only be successful if they were multiplayer. Yet, at the present, there are very few multiplayer mobile games that are commercially successful. And part of the reason for that is a kind of consumer reluctance to make a data connection in the course of game play, because there's no real way of anticipating ahead of time exactly what the cost is going to be. In other words, you may be incurring airtime minutes or data transfer charges on a unit-by-unit basis, and you won't really know how much you've spent until your bill comes in at the end of the month, which is not an ideal model for consumers. Now, most operators are offering all-you-can-eat data plans but few consumers have signed up for them because there are not a lot of compelling applications for most consumers that would justify an additional 10, or 15 or 25 dollars a month on their bill. So until there's a critical base of users who have signed up for such plans, presumably for reasons other than game play, at that point maybe it will be more feasible to do multiplayer games.

TheFeature: What are some of the technology challenges?

Costikyan: One is getting an improved network. The technology we have on handsets at the moment that supports current games are essentially things like Java and BREW which are simple little interpretive languages that allow you to essentially do inferior versions of existing games, but they're not always well integrated with the other capabilities of the handset. As an example, J2ME, according to the specification, supports HTTP transport but does not require support for UDP transport on handsets, and UDP is what's used in most online games, because although it's a lossy technology, it tends to reduce latency considerably. And latency is one of the big problems with multiplayer mobile games at the moment. With an HTTP connection over the air you have to plan for five seconds or more latency, which means trying to do anything other than a turn-based game is very difficult. That's something that 3G technology may help address. Nokia has done some lab tests that seem to indicate with a 3G network you can get UDP latency down to the several hundred millisecond range, which is pretty comparable to the public Internet, and starts allowing a lot of action game styles. But it's more difficult to achieve at the present except via Bluetooth, which is of course a local area only technology.

Another part is improved access to other technologies on the phone, location-based being one of them. Nokia recently shipped an N-Gage title called Pathway to Glory, which is the first mobile game I've seen that uses voice over IP for in-game voice communication. This is one of the things I think is vital to making multiplayer mobile gameplay work. In every online game, even the simplest, like Hearts, or Backgammon, there is a chat facility. And being able to talk with people while you're playing is one of the major appeals of online gaming, because multiplayer games in particular are inherently social in nature.

Given the difficulty of inputting text on a mobile device, being able to use voice makes absolute sense, and after all, these are voice devices, right? However, given the way data technology has been implemented on mobile phone, it is essentially impossible to make both a conventional voice and a data connection simultaneously, which I find astonishing, because this strikes me as key for a whole slew of mobile applications and not just games. For example if I'm looking up restaurant listings on my phone, I want to be able to chat with my sweetie at the same time about where we're going to go to dinner. However, unless you are going to put in two sets of circuitry and make two simultaneous connections, there's really no way to do it other than by doing it all as data and packetizing the voice and doing voice over IP at the same time. However, with current networks, the bandwidth is kind of not there. The reason the N-Gage title works is it's a World War II title and it's a single duplex, somewhat fuzzy voice, which makes perfect sense in the context of the game because it sounds a lot like military radio.

TheFeature: What's Bluetooth's role in mobile gaming?

Costikyan: Well, I have the N-Gage version of Red Faction, which has a Bluetooth multiplayer mode, and if I happen to be within 30 feet of someone else who has an N-Gage and happens to has the same game installed in his device, we could play multiplayer. This hasn't happened yet [chuckles]. So one of the things I'm encouraging the N-Gage people to do -- and they are in fact doing -- is to do games with a free, beamable thin client so I can beam it to you and you can connect to my device and we can play, so we don't both have to have the same game installed. it's useful also from a viral marketing perspective -- if you like it, maybe you'll go out and buy the game.

TheFeature: In an op-ed piece you wrote for Gamasutra about the state of mobile gaming, you seemed pessimistic about the future of innovation mobile games. Why is that?

Costikyan: I'm worried that the existing structure will wind up being set in stone, because it is successful from a business perspective. It's supposed to be something over $100 million in the US alone per year for mobile games, and it's growing rapidly. But if we're going to do something other than arcade game retreads, we need to break out of this mold somehow.

TheFeature: Do you think the monetary success will stifle the creativity of mobile games?

Costikyan: I don't think you're going to see huge innovation coming out of the companies like Jamdat or Mforma, because they've got something that's working for them, but typically innovation comes from smaller operations and out of weird directions anyway.