Let the Gaming Begin
By Eric Ransdell, Tue Sep 10 00:00:00 GMT 2002

It may not be long before mobile phones are perceived to be the greatest form of thumb candy - thanks to wireless gaming.

It is a little known fact, but there are currently more than half a million alien fish breeders living in Europe and the United States. With the earth’s environment degraded and its oceans plundered, they have chosen to become inter-planetary fish farmers on the second Jovian moon of Europa. To the rest of us they appear as ordinary human beings – bankers, high school students, nurses, even policemen – but in their spare time they are breeding exotic species of extraterrestrial fish such as Siamese Catfish, Drummen Bass and Atomic Eels (which have a frightening tendency to explode) so that people here on earth may continue to enjoy the freshest sushi and sashimi in the galaxy.

The game they are playing is UK-based nGame Ltd.’s Alien Fish Exchange - a WAP-based game that was launched in 1999 and has since gone on to become one of the most popular wireless games on this planet. Yet for the future of wireless gaming, Alien Fish Exchange is only a preview of things to come. With Sun’s Java and Qualcomm’s BREW development platforms promising to enable arcade-style, multiplayer games over 2.5 and 3G handsets, mobile gaming has the potential to become one of the biggest stars in the ever-expanding wireless universe.

“It’s going to be massive,” says Jithma Beneragama, International Business Development Manager for Shanghai-based Linktone, a mobile service provider, “because the phones are already there in the hands of hundreds of millions of people around the world. So it’s not like you have to get these people to go out and buy an entirely new system like an XBox, they’ve already got the hardware, they’re using it every day and they’ve been conditioned to upgrade when it’s technologically justified. Now it’s just a question of ramping up the infrastructure and the content so these people realize this thing they carry around in their pockets is as useful for gaming as it is for communicating.”

Analysts agree that the potential market is huge. Datamonitor Technology predicts that by 2005 wireless gaming revenues in Europe and the United States will reach $6 billion. The Gartner Group estimates that by 2004 there will be 13 million wireless gamers in the U.S., 40 million in Japan, 102 million in Europe, and 177 million worldwide. Though no one is predicting that wireless gaming will surpass PC or console-based games any time soon, the fact remains, as the Yankee Group pointed out in a report, that with 1 billion mobile phone users worldwide, wireless gaming has far and away the biggest installed base of any existing gaming system.

For now, the question is how to take advantage of that installed base. One of the main reasons SMS became such an overwhelming success was because it utilized a single protocol that could be deployed across different networks and handset models around the world. But from EMS to WAP, standards have only gotten more complicated without a corresponding increase in the quality of graphics, animation and game play that would warrant operators and consumers paying to upgrade.

Coffee Clash

What Java and BREW represent is the wireless industry’s first real opportunity to bring a level of gameplay to handsets that can compete with other gaming platforms in the consumer market. “The big thing about Java and BREW is you’re not only dealing with one sense any more, you’ve got pictures going, animation, movement, sound - it’s like a proper computer game,” says Linktone’s Beneregama. “If you look at the people who want to play games, whether those are computer, console or online games, they have a certain expectation of how those games should look and feel and both Java and BREW have the potential of meeting those expectations.”

But many problems must be overcome before that potential can be realized. Particularly with Java, which is expected to be the development platform of choice for the world’s GSM networks with 29.7 million Java-enabled handsets already in use. “Java is just not standardized,” says Henry T. Yeh, chief operating officer of Com2Us Corp., one of the world’s foremost wireless game developers with operations in Japan, Korea, Europe and the US. “If you look at Sun's website, there are over 50 versions of J2ME right now mostly due to different screen sizes, sounds, vibrations, lights and APIs.”

That represents a huge challenge for the wireless industry because games written for phones running one variation of Java won’t be able to play on handsets using a different form of Java. Unless the industry settles upon a Java standard, the situation could become analogous to the current status quo where developers, manufacturers and operators are dealing with dozens of different protocols and no clear winner is emerging.

“We have games on more than 20 wireless platforms at last count,” says Yeh of Com2US. “It’s a pain but it’s one of our competitive advantages. And the fact is it is bad for the industry. We do want a standard so only the quality and game play will determine the winner, not the one with the most developers to port into myriads of phones.”

Because of the problems with Java, many industry analysts believe BREW has a real competitive advantage. Not only has it been designed to be both 3G and backward-compatible, but it’s standardized because Qualcomm controls its deployment in its CDMA chipsets. Not surprisingly, it is BREW that predominates the world’s only operational 3G networks in Japan and Korea.

But for BREW to become the dominant wireless gaming platform, the majority of the world’s networks would have to switch from GSM to CDMA, an event that is as unlikely to happen as Apple’s operating system overtaking Microsoft’s Windows. So for now, despite its disadvantages, the industry is anticipating that Java will ultimately become the dominant gaming platform if a common standard can be agreed upon. To that end, Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, and Siemens have established the Mobile Games Interoperability Forum in an effort to develop a wireless gaming standard.

Battle of the Titans

But the industry’s biggest players aren’t going to wait for a standard to be settled upon before making their moves into what they anticipate will be a huge wireless gaming market. The last 24 months have seen a flurry of partnerships between wireless operators, manufacturers and mainline game companies.

On the operator side in the US, for example, AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS have all partnered with New York-based Unplugged Games to provide multiplayer games to their customers. On the handset manufacturing side, Motorola has a deal with Japan’s Sega Corporation and Nokia has a host of partnerships with third-party game developers such as Supedo, Kuju Entertainment and iomo.

Beyond that, console and PC-based game developers such as Electronic Arts and Konami are all entering the fray with their own wireless offerings. And companies such as Disney and Warner Brothers are exploring the possibility of porting their content into the wireless gaming space.

One of the most interesting developments is happening in Japan, where Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. has partnered with NTT DoCoMo to bring its Playstation games to its i-Mode phones. With DoCoMo exporting i-Mode to Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands this year, and England’s Vodaphone in a similar agreement with Sony, Playstation could become as ubiquitous on mobile handsets as it is in the world’s family rooms and college dormitories.

And, of course, there is Microsoft, which has made no secret of its desire to impose itself on the wireless world in much the same way it dominates the world’s desktops. Microsoft’s wireless platform uses some of the same code that is in its XBox gaming console and the Redmond-based behemoth is mounting a furious campaign to encourage manufacturers and developers to adopt its standard rather than that of its arch-enemy, Sun Microsystems. The Microsoft Network has also been exploring the idea of a wireless MSN offering which will include gaming.

So is wireless gaming really going to be the next big thing? Already in Japan, the world’s most mobile nation, games and entertainment account for 52.5 percent of total mobile phone use. Europe and America still have a long way to go before games account for more than half of all mobile usage. But with everyone from Sony and Disney to small garage-band development shops setting their sights on this new frontier, it may not be long before people stop thinking of their handsets as telephones, but as the world’s latest and greatest form of thumb candy.

Correction: In a previous version of this story we reported that Microsoft had formed Wireless Knowledge, a joint venture with Qualcomm to create next-generation mobile games. We stand corrected, Wireless Knowledge is now wholly owned by Qualcomm and its core businesses are consulting, professional services and applications for advanced wireless technologies.

Eric Ransdell is the former Silicon Valley Bureau Chief for US News and World Report magazine. Now living in Shanghai, he covers mobile technology in Asia.