Small screens run deep
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 4 (April 2006)

Small screens run deep

Rich 3D game content is starting to flow on mobile phones

By Jenny Donelan

For several years, the business of mobile gaming has been a game in its own right-a waiting game.

In particular, when it comes to 3D content on handsets, “everybody has been waiting for everybody else,” says Michael Schade, CEO of mobile 3D game developer Fishlabs Entertainment. Developers have been waiting for handsets powerful enough to support their applications, while handset manufacturers have been waiting for enough applications to justify upgrading the handsets that can handle them. Both parties have been waiting to see which APIs will reign supreme, and carriers have been struggling with issues like bandwidth, compatibility, and customer interest.

“There hasn’t been critical mass,” says Schade. “That’s why everybody is waiting.”

The only parties not waiting for 3D mobile gaming to take off are the end users themselves, the great majority of whom seem content to shuffle through solitaire games at the bus stop, unaware that developers are burning the midnight oil to create richer, more complex content for them. When that content does arrive, however-and it is starting to-users will notice, say experts and vendors alike. The situation is somewhat analogous to 2D and 3D games on PCs-people weren’t clamoring for 3D applications, but what they saw, they liked, and weren’t ever going back to 2D.

What’s not in question is that users are playing, or at least willing to play, some kind of game on their mobile phones. In a recent survey conducted by Sprint, the carrier determined that more than half of US wireless phone customers use mobile phones for something other than talking, and one-third of respondents said they at least wanted to play games on their phones (the survey included users of voice-only phones that don’t allow downloads like games).

The global story is even more impressive. According to Robert Tercek, chairman of the GDC Mobile conference, nearly 200 million people worldwide have downloaded games to their mobile phones thus far. “This makes the mobile gaming audience the biggest gaming audience on any platform, even bigger than the Game Boy crowd,” he notes. “These numbers dwarf those of console game players, which hover around 50 million. And mobile gaming is growing by 50 percent or more each year.”

Indeed, new mobile titles, most of them 2D, are announced every month, so the market is lively. Recent examples include Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones and King Kong: The Official Mobile Game of the Movie from Gameloft, iWin’s Mah Jong Quest, and a Dilbert game scheduled to ship this fall from Namco Networks.

But the 3D aspect is what’s hot. “2006 is all about 3D games,” says Sanette Chao, public relations manager for Gameloft. And though not everyone has the phones to handle the 3D content, there certainly are a lot of those phones out there: approximately 100 million 3D-enabled Java-based handsets worldwide, according to Fishlabs’ estimate.

However, it would be a mistake to view games as the killer app for mobile phones. Last year, ringtone downloads exceeded those of games. And according to a recent report from analyst firm In-Stat, US consumers have expressed greater long-term interest in mobile music service, meaning downloadable files or digital radio, than in gaming. But of course, they haven’t seen the rich gaming content of the future, either.

A Mobile Market

There are other changes afoot in mobile gaming besides the push to 3D. Game goliath Electronic Arts announced late last year that it was going to buy Jamdat, a major mobile game developer whose titles include Tetris, Bejeweled, Collapse!, NBA 2006, and many others. Such a move obviously indicates a strong interest from the PC and console side of the market. It also indicates a willingness to try new approaches.

“[EA’s] acquisition of Jamdat, a master at the mobile space, clearly shows that EA understands the need for a different approach in order to be a successful mobile games publisher-the console-game business models don’t apply in the mobile space,” says Paul Beardow, chief technology officer of mobile game publisher Superscape. “Some have tried to take the console experience to the mobile space. Most have failed because the way [mobile] games are played is very different-generally, they are arcade-style, five minutes of fun rather than hours of intense play.”

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Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones (above) is part of an established title, while King Kong: The Official Mobile Game of the Movie (below) is tied to a popular movie, making both more viable mobile titles than most others. Images courtesy Gameloft.

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Another big change for companies involved in US mobile game development involves the relative positions of the market. The US has always trailed Japan, Korea, and even Europe when it comes to state-of-the-art mobile applications and handsets. But that may be changing as the US market itself grows and evolves. According to a recent report from UK-based analyst firm Screen Digest, “Japan and Korea, once regarded as the powerhouses of the mobile games industry, have seen their position eroded. During 2005, the Western markets of Europe and, in particular, the US have seen rapid growth-now accounting for 52 percent of mobile games revenues.”

Technology-Enabled Evolution

Hurdles for mobile gaming implementation involve compatibility and reliability. The phone you buy from one carrier, for example, may support that carrier’s game titles and no others, because some aspects of content delivery and performance are hardwired to the actual phone. In terms of reliability, long-term play can be frustrating when you lose a signal, even if it’s only every now and then.

However, technological advances that will help overcome these hurdles are appearing from almost everywhere. “Today, neither the mobile network nor the mobile handset presents a significant obstacle to 3D mobile gaming,” says Tercek. “Of course, there are still hundreds of millions of legacy handsets in the marketplace today. So, most publishers of mobile games must address two segments: the vast number of legacy phones that can only depict a game in two dimensions, and the growing number of high-end phones that offer 3D graphics.”

Hardware acceleration and new processor designs are enabling those more powerful handsets. One approach to the issue of bandwidth is V Cast, a content-delivery network from Verizon that is powered by the company’s EV-DO network. Right now V Cast is enabling the majority of 3D mobile gaming in the US. It’s implemented by a so-called Brew API on V Cast-compatible phones, which Superscape’s Beardow describes as “probably the best gaming handsets out there today.”

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With its fast-paced action amid 3D rendered environments, Massive Snowboarding represents a major step forward in 3D mobile game development. Image courtesy Gameloft.

Superscape’s own Swerve Client, developed in collaboration with chip developer ARM and mobile software company Sinjisoft, is a software engine that implements the Java Mobile 3D Graphics (M3G) API, formerly known as JSR-184. One version of the Swerve Client is for 3D accelerators, and helps reorganize graphical data for optimal performance on different platforms. Beardow says the company is also working on additional versions that take advantage of new instruction sets and vector floating-point capabilities found in the latest ARM processor for next-generation handsets.

“These processors, coupled with 3D acceleration, will take mobile gaming to a new level of performance and end-user experience over the next year or so,” predicts Beardow.

As far as APIs go, Java and Brew have percolated to the top and are now the two leading platforms used to download and run applications on mobile handsets.

New Titles

All these advances are making 3D gaming a reality. A recent title in this area is the Java-based Massive Snowboarding from Gameloft. The game comes with eight slopes in four environments, all rendered in 3D. The quality of the graphics is superior to what was available last year at this time. “[It’s] the ultimate boarding simulator that’ll make you forget that you’re on your mobile phone,” the company literature states optimistically. And in fact, the title does push the envelope in terms of graphics.

Another 3D game, from Fishlabs, is Galaxy on Fire, a sci-fi adventure that received an award from the German electronic magazine Airgame for its graphics, atmosphere, play, and so forth. Fishlabs started out developing the game for Sony Ericsson handsets with HI Corp.’s 3D Mascot Capsule game engine. However, the company ended up writing its own middleware to optimize the play and graphics. The game is based on Java, and a Brew extension version is in the works.

The Casual Connection

Conventional wisdom has it that the primary audience for the mobile game market are the so-called casual gamers, who flip open their phones to kill a few minutes. The titles that are popular, notes Beardow, are racing and other sports games, as well as brands, meaning popular titles (such as Tetris) from other platforms and tie-ins to media events such as movies.

“Brands will be the key at the end of the day,” Beardow says. “People recognize a big brand...the mobile game doesn’t have to be the same as the console game, it just has to preserve the crucial elements of the brand and retain its image quality.”

Moreover, most experts don’t believe that there’s anything other than a niche audience for a complex, long-playing mobile game. And, the Sprint survey would seem to support the casual gamer theory. Out of the participants surveyed, 57 percent said they had played games in the doctor’s office, 52 percent while commuting, 37 percent while at the airport, and 32 percent while in the bathroom.

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Galaxy on Fire, from Fishlabs, uses high-end 3D graphics for a longer-than-most mobile game that also incorporates short action sequences. Image courtesy Fishlabs.

But while agreeing that the casual gamer connection exists, Fishlabs’ Schade isn’t so sure that users, console gamers, and others won’t be attracted to the right game with a bit more depth to it. Galaxy on Fire, with graphics quality he describes as close to that of the Sony PlayStation 1 console, has a fairly involved story line but is still very popular.

“Everybody told us, don’t make such a long, complicated game, but it worked,” says Schade. However, he notes that while there is an overarching, long gameplay, the title also has short action sequences for those waiting-room situations.

As far as the future of the market is concerned: “It’ll grow rapidly, though I think there will be competition for the end users’ attention with games vying against music and TV,” says Beardow. “But when the user has five minutes to kill at the bus stop or during lunchtime, then nothing beats tearing around a track in a fast car or blowing things up while venting the frustrations of the day.”

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

Computer Graphics World April, 2006
Author(s) :   Jenny Donelan