Fun on the Run
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 2 (Feb 2005)

Fun on the Run

Games, the “next big thing” in wireless for some time now, still lag behind ring tones, photographs, and wallpaper when it comes to mobile phone downloads. But even if cell phone users would rather answer to “Nyuk nyuk nyuk” (to cite a popular ring tone) than spend a few minutes noodling with Tetris, the mobile gaming market is still a fairly big thing, and destined to become bigger, according to many experts.

Technology market research company In-Stat/MDR predicts that by 2009, US mobile gaming services will generate $1.8 billion annually. In-Stat/MDR also calculates that 78.6 million subscribers in this country will be playing mobile games in 2009, which represents a tenfold increase from 2003 levels.

Mobile carriers and content developers are banking on the public’s appetite for games to go, and this seems a reasonable assumption. For example, according to Jacob Hawley, CEO of game developer TKO Software, his company has sold as many mobile titles in the last quarter as it has in all the previous 18 months. This past fall, Virgin Mobile USA announced its first suite of downloadable games, aimed at the carrier’s youth market. And, all the major carriers—Sprint, Verizon, etc.—now offer game packages, and many are involved in R&D that promises to advance and enhance the state of mobile gaming.

What exactly is the current state of mobile gaming? New titles appear each week, and although they’re looking better all the time, there’s no handset version of Myst or Kingdom Hearts just yet. And, there may never be. In the short term, the limitations of hardware and the variability of carrier signals restrict the use of rich 3D graphics. In the long term, mobile phones may not be a user’s platform of choice when it comes to the lengthy mystery solving or role-playing required for games such as those mentioned above.

Most popular now are arcade-style mobile titles like Pac-Man, card games such as poker and solitaire, sports titles, and games with ties to popular licensed properties such as movies or cartoon characters. The reason behind the popularity of these relatively simple titles has as much, if not more, to do with users than with technology. “Most cell phone gamers stick to the familiar, such as old favorites or sports titles they instinctively know how to play,” explains Superscape chief technology officer Paul Beardow. “You can guide them into new playing experiences, but unless you have that element of comfort, players won’t go far with you.” One way to view the situation is that while every owner of a game console can be presumed to be a gaming enthusiast, the same cannot be said for every owner of a mobile phone.

Superscape has a great deal invested in taking mobile gamers into that farther country. This past fall, the company announced a collaboration with chip developer ARM and mobile software company Sinjisoft to deliver “console-quality” 3D applications to wireless devices through its Swerve Client software engine.

In the meantime, many of the most popular mobile games actually look a bit like 3D, and may even be called 3D, but are essentially 2D or “2.5D.” One example of 2.5D is Gangsters’ City, due out later this year from game developer Mithis. In this title, players will battle and outwit each other in an urban setting with a 3D perspective. And then there is high-end 2D, including Eorlas, a fantasy title also due out from Mithis this year.
AMF Xtreme Bowling, a 3D title designed to run on Superscape Swerve-enabled mobile phones, allows players to compete in a variety of settings, including classic wood lanes and flashing neon “Xtreme” la

Although they are few and far between, 3D games do exist for the mobile platform. One such title is DBi 3D-Pool, developed by Distinctive Developments and distributed by Digital Bridges in the US this past fall. The game offers a variety of camera angles (not just a “top-down” view of the pool table), as well as shadows and other indicators of depth and angles.

Even while developers and carriers are busy making and marketing 2D, 2.5D, and, in some instances, 3D games, they are also setting the stage for the next generation of 3D titles. The requisite factors for next-gen content—which are 3D-ready handsets and 3D APIs and middleware for wireless game developers—are finally coming together to make 3D over wireless not only a reality, but also the norm.

Handset manufacturers such as Samsung have announced 3D-capable models that should show up in US stores this year. On the software side, developers are using the OpenGL ES (OpenGL for embedded systems) API and the Java Mobile 3D Graphics (M3G) API. “M3G is incredibly powerful,” says Superscape’s Beardow. “Games can have multiple cameras of different types and multiple light sources. Geometry and scene objects are only limited by available memory.” And carriers (Virgin and Vodafone, for example) are beginning to offer content based on a 3G network, which is “the cell phone equivalent of broadband,” explains Paul Maglione, senior vice president for publishing and marketing at Digital Bridges, and will, therefore, enable the transfer of larger and more complex files over wireless.

And Superscape already has announced partnerships with handset vendors such as Motorola and Siemens for its aforementioned Swerve 3D software client, which will enable a wide variety of interactive 3D applications based on mobile content APIs. The Swerve client is also optimized for small download sizes and for saving memory and download time—important factors in the world of wireless, in which handsets do not yet possess anywhere near the computing power of a Windows workstation or a console, and where broken carrier signals are the rule rather than the exception.
Eorlas, an upcoming fantasy “platform” game (meaning players must “jump” characters from spot to spot a la the Mario series), takes place in a visu

Without question, 3D wireless content is clearly on the way. But the bigger question is, do users want it? “The answer is, we think so, but we don’t know,” says Maglione.

According to Clint Wheelock, director of wireless research for In-Stat/MDR, 3D graphics will make mobile gaming more attractive to wireless users, and will drive some degree of sales and usage. However, he cautions that 3D isn’t a “silver bullet” for mobile gaming, and the inherent limitations of a tiny handheld screen can never live up to the kind of performance that the “active gamer” segment is looking for. “The mass market for mobile gaming will be the ‘casual gamer’ segment, or those users who are most interested in card games, board games, and puzzle games,” he adds, “and these are all genres that just aren’t improved much by 3D graphics.”

Wireless game players aren’t looking for graphically rich titles with intricate plots. “Rather, the games have to be fast and fun,” says TKO Software’s Hawley. Developers at Mithis agree. “People like simple games that have a moderate learning curve and are fun to play,” notes project manager Ferenc Thier. “People play mobile games while sitting on a bus or train, and they simply cannot play complex games that will require hours of play for each level.”
In 3D Pool, the pool table and cue are both 3D objects produced in 3ds max. The table can be viewed from any angle, not just overhead.

It’s tempting to conclude that 3D gaming is a case of marketers creating a market for their wares. But the crux of the situation seems to be that 3D over wireless will make subtle yet important differences. According to Jason Ford, general manager of gaming for Sprint, users will appreciate 3D content because it looks prettier, though “most people won’t even know why it looks better,” he claims. So even though those solitaire games don’t need to be played in 3D, he says, they’ll look nicer in 3D, and that look will eventually become what users expect to see on those tiny screens.

At Mithis, where 2D content is still the major focus, Thier believes that 3D gaming is the future, and that it will allow developers to create more appealing and exciting games. “It was the same with PCs when 3D games appeared,” he notes. Newer technology will enable better-looking games with some different elements of play, he adds, and also will enable multiplayer online games.

But, cautions Mithis lead programmer Peter Moraliysky, developers can’t simply take a 2D game and make a 3D version. “Sometimes this just breaks up the gameplay,” he says, “and makes the game more confusing, which takes away the fun value.”
Dracula, at left, is a 2D mobile title from Mithis. Gangsters’ City, at right, is an upcoming “2.5” title from the company that will provide the illusion

And fun—especially fast, simple fun—is where it’s at with wireless. “It won’t be 3D-ness that attracts more gamers,” maintains Moraliysky. “It will be the games that use it in the right way.”

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at