The Mobile Multiplayer Advantage
By Carlo Longino, Mon Sep 20 20:15:00 GMT 2004

Wide-area connectivity separates mobile gaming platforms from those that are merely portable, and the possibility of anywhere, anytime access to multiplayer games is a significant benefit.

Next-generation portable gaming devices like the Sony PSP and Nintendo GameBoy DS have gotten a lot of attention, and rightly so. They offer immense improvements over previous efforts in nearly every area, and both have Wi-Fi access built in to allow for multiplayer gaming: the PSP will be able to connect to the Internet, but the DS will initially only support P2P connections. Making interactivity an integral part of video games is one of the most significant paradigm shifts to ever hit the industry, and clearly Sony and Nintendo are keyed in to that -- but why offer multiplayer capabilities, then tie users to within a short distance of each other or an access point?

The specs of a portable gaming machine like the PSP are incredibly impressive, and blow away any mobile device for certain. But the wide-area access that a phone-based platform can offer is an undeniable benefit, one that could tip the tastes of devoted multiplayer fans away from the established portable platforms, and sets the stage for quite a race -- will the game manufacturers be able to integrate phone functionality for data connectivity before phone manufacturers can catch up with their gaming hardware?

The first version of Nokia's much-maligned N-Gage device supported "shadow gamers", where users could download other players' profiles to their device and compete against them, a most basic form of multiplayer. But the company announced back in March the first mobile multiplayer online role-playing game, Pocket Kingdom: Own the World, and is following it with other similar games. But multiplayer games are making their way further down the handset food chain, and aren't all about wizards and warlocks and elfin warriors. Some mobile first-person shooters already support multiplayer via Bluetooth, as well as the "shadow" feature, and will soon also support the live connection of multiple players.

And the network connectivity isn't just limited to linking up players. One game developer has added a "wake up" feature to a fishing game where users cast their virtual line, then later the phone rings to let them know they've got a bite -- which, minus the phone ring, isn't too unlike the real thing.

It's a pretty safe bet that devices from the likes of Sony and Nintendo will far outsell phone-based gaming devices, both because of their flashier hardware, but also because of their well-established developer community. But as advanced handsets make their way deeper into circulation, the legion of programmers making Java games for mobile handsets will ensure there will be no shortage of games using network connections to enhance their interactivity. And offering users that interactivity, with the anywhere, anytime access that only mobile networks can provide, will give mobile phone-based gaming a major boost over the less well-connected but more technically impressive portable platforms.