Multiplayer - the Only Mobile Game
By Justin Hall, Fri Jan 03 13:00:00 GMT 2003

Single-player games are a waste of devices built for human communication.

Mobile phones games have evolved at a brisk clip. What began as text characters in black and white just a few years ago is now rich color, all the appearance of an arcade game miniaturized into your pocket. But most of these games are still single player. Imagine one billion people carrying around small portable communications devices capable of talking to each other, around the world. Now imagine them each, alone, playing Pac-Man. It's depressing, a technology tragedy.

Examining a state of the art mobile phone game, there is only one question to ask - is it multiplayer? The rest is just aspiring graphics. Single-player games are a waste of devices built for human communication. There is little use in turning the phone into a video game console - it could be something much more. People love to communicate and mobile multiplayer games could give people new avenues to pursue relationships. Multiplayer games on mobile phones could turn each gamer into a games evangelist, promoting play with friends. Mobile service providers stand to benefit from the resultant increase in human communications.

We are just beginning to see signs of what is to come - a complete gaming environment that makes any phone a parlor, where anybody on your buddy list might be drafted into a game of backgammon, or your character in a far-flung fantasy world might be recruited to rescue friends in their fight against a long-surviving dragon.

State of Multiplayer

The Fall 2002 Tokyo Game Show would seem to have been the best place to see the state of the art in mobile multiplayer gaming. Japan is where Nintendo rose from Atari's ashes; the home of Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Mario, PlayStation. High-speed data networks have proliferated, with two carriers offering 3G mobile connections and wireless hotspots available at the local MosBurger.

But at the NTT DoCoMo booth there were barely any multiplayer games. A group of Japan's most storied game software developers stood proudly within the NTT confines, showing mostly arcade games ported to mobile phones, and a few other experiments. Asked about multiplayer, companies said with a sorry smile that they could share high-scores across the network, or in the case of Dwango's Tsuri-baka-kibun (Fishing Game), players compete to be listed online as having caught the largest fish.

Korean company Mobile Game Korea was at the Tokyo Game Show presenting veritable multiplayer gaming. They had developed a card game that can be played by players matched up across PDAs, PC web browsers and mobile phones. For Mobile Game Kora, multi-player meant multi-platform - the game itself wasn't innovative, it was a technical feat to enable these different devices to communicate.

Most early multiplayer efforts have used available technologies - SMS and WAP may seem primitive now, but they supported some important experiments. Veteran game designer Greg Costikyan points out, "WAP games have to be server mediated anyway, and once you have a server in the mix, you have the basic infrastructure to do multiplayer games." He cites nGame's Dataclash as a good example of early multiplayer, since "It gets around latency by having you play against other player's preplanned defenses when they are offline." This idea of storing up commands from players intent on battling an offline foe is also employed by GameLoft for their ChessMaster games; according to Anne-Laure Desclèves, they offer "delayed" multiplayer gaming where move-notification is sent over SMS.

If gameplay like this catches on, your buddy list might pop with personal messages as well as new moves in an ongoing chess or card game. Games need not be complex or graphically rich to be technically impressive or personally involving, especially on the mobile phone. The fact that a friend is playing with you could provide plenty of engaging interactivity.

Technology of Multiplayer - The Joystick of Babel

The difficulties facing mobile multiplayer gaming are legion. Older, lower-bandwidth data formats and network architectures make for routine delays in sending data. It's not a terrific problem for short messages or turn-based games, but if you want to make a "real-time" game where players can move and see each other move at the same time, you need an immediate response across a robust network connection.

In addition, pricing schemes have not necessarily rewarded game developers for multiplayer games. Mobile content and technology watcher David "DC" Collier comments on the market conditions in Japan: "part of the problem is that the content provider is not compensated for any multiplayer packets. So it's in their interest to minimize connection time so the player is putting more money into the content fee (e.g. paying for the game access which the content provider gets a slice of)."

Efforts are underway to develop a common platform for gaming and multiplayer so content providers can develop once and deploy widely. Founded by handset makers Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and Siemens, the "Mobile Games Interoperability Forum" is proposing a common technical language to be shared by mobile games. They've released specifications on the web, and over seventy partners have signed up. While multiplayer gaming is not their explicit focus, their work would lower technical barriers for game-sharing, first from phone-to-phone, and eventually across providers.

Meanwhile, a number of technology companies are working to build software packages offering the same service to game developers. Sweden's Terraplay promises that their "MOVE" server can be up and running within three weeks of an order, a prefabricated server and software infrastructure for player-versus-player games. Thomas Nyberg, Product Marketing Manager at Terraplay, explains how their systems enable multiplayer games: "Terraplay supports true interactive multiplayer games, synchronous, asynchronous and persistent game models. So games can be turn-based like a match play of golf or a racing game where you can get information about your opponent's position on the race track during the game."

Developing system to provide active information about user states and positions has ramifications for friends and lovers, members of your buddy list, way beyond simply games. Amongst other things, this starts to sound like the means of making dense mobile weblogs. And if these systems make for smooth micropayments, the early multiplayer, multiplatform game systems could usher in a new era of mobile commerce and content.

Roll-Your-Own Multiplayer

Some game designers have skipped building virtual environments, and are using cities for mobile multiplayer games. Based in San Francisco, The Go Game gives small teams mobile phones and digital cameras: the phone, with a WAP browser, feeds clues and challenges; the camera is used to record their completion. It's location-based, multi-player, real-time, all the things

Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) formed the platform for early multiplayer online game development in the 1980s. In Trade Wars, players built small galactic trading empires on a BBS, each dialing in one-at-a-time with their modems at 2400 bauds for their daily allotment of turns. Today the game "Atomic Dove" offers similar text-driven gameplay for mobile phones. Primarily a single player adventure, each phone user with Atomic Dove access can log in daily to use their allotted turns to develop their corner of the galaxy. Players can band into clans within the game, for purposes of mutual defense. It's not real-time multiplayer but it's real people gaming in the same online space.

This idea that real people in groups can enjoy their own forms of multiplayer is being promoted Nokia with a new handheld phone designed for game playing. The upcoming N-Gage resembles a Game Boy straddling a PDA. Besides making phone calls and sending short messages, this device will accept games distributed on removable cartridges. And while ordinary phone gaming suffers from latency issues, the N-Gage touts a capacity for multiplayer games with high speed Bluetooth networks. This is wireless, but the range is only up to ten meters - good if your game-playing friends are in the same room. Not quite the worldwide wireless ideal yet.

There are many mobile phone multiplayer dreams; Kigen from Newt Games promises location-based spy-thriller computer hackery battles with competing factions in the urban environment. They intend to tie computers and mobile devices into something resembling The Matrix. Kigen is a hard core gamers mobile dream, but the future of mobile games is probably not that involving, at least not for most people.

Multiplayer Visions

Kids can be counted on to play games. But to enable conversations and play between a wide range of adults, games must skew towards more approachable subjects. The easiest way to make games compelling for adults and kids alike is to put other people in them.

Increasing numbers of multiplayer experiments abound, and they show some promise, as they have been forced to make due with poor-quality networks and existing communications systems. The pen and paper role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, one of the most influential games of the modern era, was created by people with experience developing games playable through postal mail. It's not improbable that multiplayer games over SMS might lead us to the future.

Standalone games might lose their potence; instead of specific gaming applications, games could be a part of instant messaging. This works quite well for turn-based gaming - put in a few rounds building your empire each day by exchanging messages with a server, or trade moves over the course of the day against a friend, or an evenly matched opponent online. Rather than single-player Pac-Man, there would be an ongoing game that occasionally pushes through your other interfaces or businesses.

But this doesn't necessarily take advantage of high-speed networks and services that mobile service providers are eager to sell. In years to come, game developers are likely to be among the leading providers of immersive communications environments for PCs and mobile devices alike. In that case, games cease to be a dedicated pastime, but instead become a framework for play and routine interaction. Before we start imagining real-time massively multiplayer online role-playing games, however, we should start playing anything, together, across phones, across networks.

Justin Hall has been writing about digital culture for over a decade now, mostly on his web site He splits his time between Japan and the United States, west of the Mississippi.