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Is Mobile Gaming Ridiculous?

Lance Ulanoff

When I was asked to speak at the third annual Mobile and Online Games forum earlier this month, I was surprised—I'm not exactly a mobile-gaming expert or even a fan. I realized that my presence must have been intended as a bit of counter-programming—perhaps the naysayer voice. Ah, now there was a role I could warm up to. And so I began to map out my speech.

I would begin my speech…

In all honesty, I'm not a big believer in mobile gaming. I just don't get it. I am positively stunned at the size and popularity of this market (huge in Europe, exploding here). There are hundreds of games, dozens of Web sites, and many companies making lots of money producing all manner of games (from the simple golf game to the more complicated run-and-shoot to adult strip poker—in fact, there seems to be a preponderance of the latter).

The audience should feel me warming to my topic.

But what's the attraction of mobile gaming? I mean, look at these things. A typical mobile phone's screen is an inch or so wide and a couple of inches long. What's worse, you play on a keypad roughly the size of a playing card. Who can play an action game without getting a terrible phalanx-based cramp? I guess I understand grown men warming up to these games—those who are too embarrassed to carry around a Game Boy. They're happy to have a mobile phone for business calls and surreptitious gaming. "Look," they say, "I use the phone for work. Pay no attention to the strip poker game on the screen…" But these guys have to be a small slice of the market, right?

And why would the target market—kids and teens—want to play games on a cell phone when they can play on the bigger, brighter screens and more useful controls found on a the Sony PSP, Nintendo DS and Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP?

I also thought the dual barriers of price and the difficulty of getting games onto the phones would surely present an insurmountable hurdle for mobile phone gaming success. And, until recently, high speeds on mobile phones were a pipe dream. Of course now we're watching video on our cell phones.

Hmm, that doesn't exactly support my theory. Perhaps I should strike the previous sentence. Nah, I'm sure I'll resolve it in the end.

So good, now we can download these 5MB to 15MB, $5 to $12 (today's typical sizes and prices) games with ease, but are they playable or compelling?

At this point, the audience might perceive me as antigaming. If they haven't been reading my columns, that would be a fair assumption. But loyal readers know that I own a GameCube, that I have tried Xbox, and that I—well, maybe they don't know this—have been playing first-person shooter games on my PC since the days of Wolfenstein 3D. No, I'm over-thinking this. I know games and can become as obsessed about them as the next person.

I'm sorry, but the new wave of mobile-gaming enthusiasm, heck, even the prospect of speaking at this forum [must remember to insert name of conference here] failed to convince me that I was standing at the brink of something big.

Huh? This isn't going as I had planned. Can I have a change of heart mid-speech? I guess I have to admit that I'm torn. Odd. I thought I knew what this speech was going to be about until a week ago. I guess I can recount what happened and throw myself on the mercy of the stage. Here's hoping no one brought tomatoes.

But that was before two recent events forced me to reconsider my position on mobile gaming.— Continue reading...

The other day my son and I were sitting in the barbershop, waiting to get our haircuts. I took out my Samsung SPH-A660 phone to check if I had missed any calls (a compulsive habit that I once promised never to give into) and my son, bored as always by two seconds of inactivity, pointed at my phone and asked if it had games. I looked at him sideways.

"No!" I blurted.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"No," I admitted.

He pressed, as he always does, so we started looking through my menus. Under downloads, we found, of course, games. There were just three, all Java Brew–powered—demos of Tetris and FOX Football and a full version of Bejeweled. My son was elated over our little discovery. I launched FOX Sports On-Field Live Football and tried to figure out the controls while my son pushed at my arm, begging to play. I believe I ran a couple of plays—though the tackles and first-down completions were purely accidents—but I couldn't really figure it out. So I switched to Tetris, a game I know, and I figured I could play since there wasn't too much happening on the tiny screen. I soon became more focused on getting the darn blocks into the right position before they hit the base than I was on how to use the controls. My son's pleading quickly faded into the background.

"Dad! Let me play!" he almost yelled.

"Awright, in a minute." I had to get that L-shaped cube to the base, pronto.

But it was time for our haircuts. I swear—and I'm not exaggerating—as soon as we stepped out of the barbershop, he asked to play with the phone's game in the car.

Obviously, the mobile-gaming industry already has my son, and without even really trying. I'm guessing that new video games are riddled with subliminal messages saying "Play Mobile Games."

What's worse, it had roped me in, too.

If I relate this next story, the audience will know I've flip-flopped, but I'm hoping they'll accept an honest conversion. Here goes…

Whatever doubts I had about the longevity and viability of this industry were fully erased by the second aforementioned event, a meeting with Immersion Corp.

Founded by a group of Stanford researchers in the early nineties, Immersion is a leader in haptics development and the company responsible for two of the best-known haptics devices: the Microsoft SideWinder joystick and the Logitech iFeel Mouse. Haptic interfaces let people interact with virtual, often 3-D environments via the sense of touch (vibrations, force feedback, tension). The company also does a lively business in the medical field, providing medical simulation devices to teach students how to perform catheterizations, endoscopies, IV insertions, and other procedures without touching real patients.

Immersion is not a hardware company, though. Instead it develops the software that drives motors and force-feedback systems in ways that generate a realistic tactile experience for the end user. In game controls, that can translate into something as simple as a rumble for an interstellar explosion.

Immersion, apparently, can apply the same sort of minute control to phone motors thanks to its VibeTonz mobile player. The company has been working with major phone manufacturers like Samsung to integrate the player. Initially, Immersion worked with American Greetings to offer VibeTonz mobile phone downloads.

But Immersion's software doesn't just turn the mobile-phone motors on and off—which is generally what happens when you leave your phone on vibrate. The company can control the mobile-phone motor in the most minute and exquisite ways, running it in forward and reverse, speeding it up, slowing it down, and more. And the truly great thing about this technology is that cell-phone manufacturers do not need to install new motors. An IBT (Immersion's proprietary format) file, which the VibeTonz player plays, is all that's needed to add a vibration to a cell-phone activity.

In its simplest form, Immersion's VibeTonz lets your phone motor offer a range of responses that can conceivably simulate handshakes, kisses, and high-fives. The first time I heard about this, which was about six months ago, I openly criticized Immersion, telling the executives that there was no way they could simulate any of those actions in anything approaching a realistic manner. I asked them if they imagined someone holding a cell phone up to their cheek to receive a virtual kiss—aren't these screens dirty enough?

Of course, this was before they showed me what they could accomplish with a couple of mobile-phone games.

During our most recent meeting, Immersion execs handed me a CDMA Samsung M330 phone (which became available in the U.S. last week). It contained a motorcycle game. I played the game and it actually felt like a tiny motorcycle racing along, revving, slowing, squealing around turns, hitting an outer wall. Essentially, it felt like my bad real-world driving habits were being replicated inside the tiny mobile cell-phone game. The sensations were, in a word, stunning. The whole experience left me feeling a little woozy.

I figure that by this time I've either emptied the auditorium or stunned them into immobility. Now for the big save…

So, I must admit I was wrong, dead wrong, about this market and for many obvious reasons:

First of all, I've greatly underestimated people's need for distraction and the kinds of usage experiences they'll endure for a little entertainment.

And there are other key factors that will keep this engine humming:

• Better bandwidth. (Thank you 3G and EV-DO.)

• Better graphics. (Thank you ATI and nVidia). Wait until you get a load of the 3-D graphics.

• Larger keyboards and amazing thumb dexterity. (Thank you evolution.)

• Some of the games and sensations are oddly compelling. (Thank you developers.)

• Kids and teens want the games because they have the cell phone with them anyway—inactivity equals boredom, which equals a bad thing. (Thank you television and console video games.)

To sum it up, I'm still not a fan, but I'm also no longer a naysayer on mobile gaming. It's here to stay.

And there's my speech. Not bad. It's believable because it's true, and it should be painless because it's short—models for good speechmaking.

Discuss this article in the forums.

More Lance Ulanoff:

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in PC Magazine.

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