Whither Mobile Multiplayer?
By Carlo Longino, Tue Mar 23 21:00:00 GMT 2004

Nokia's announcement of the first mobile massively multiplayer online role-playing game for the N-Gage last week at CeBIT hasn't made many waves. Will this week's announcement of mobile multiplayer support for J2ME turn the tide?

Nokia said this week that SNAP Mobile, a mobile multiplayer gaming system it acquired last year from Sega, will be released for Sun's J2ME later this year, allowing Java game developers to easily add in a mobile multiplayer element. This should be good news not only for developers, but for gamers who have been waiting for a richer experience than that proivided by today's mobile, but unconnected, games.

Pocket Kingdom: Own the World, the N-Gage MMORPG announced last week, does that as well, and answers one of the primary criticisms of the N-Gage: what's the point of building a game machine around a phone if there aren't any online games? An RPG was supposed to be the ideal N-Gage game, since there are hundreds of thousands of people addicted to Web-based games like EverQuest and Ultima, happily paying monthly subscription fees. But the quiet reaction to Pocket Kingdom's unveiling might call into question the demand for mobile multiplayer.

TheFeature's Justin Hall has been calling for mobile multiplayer for some time now, simply saying, "Single-player games are a waste of devices built for human communication." And he's right. So has the dark, dark cloud of pessimism that's hung over the N-Gage since its launched just damned it and anything connected to it by association? It's hard to imagine another reason that Pocket Kindgom's been essentially overlooked, especially given MMORPGs' fanatical followings.

But adding SNAP support to J2ME should cause a much bigger splash, and make mobile multiplayer available to a much wider audience. Pocket Kingdom is limited to the N-Gage, which apart from making it guilty by association, also limits its potential audience. But a Java mobile multiplayer game, available across multiple platforms and handsets, doesn't face this problem.

It's these sorts of issues that have plagued mobile game development -- and mobile application development in general. Delivering a working product too often means developing different software versions for different handsets, then having to work with individual carriers should you want to deliver an online element. These barriers have kept a lot of popular wired MMORPGs from developing mobile franchises. But by adding multiplayer support to Java, it's suddently not difficult to see successful Web-based MMORPGs developing mobile products, which would make things particularly interesting.