"Is That a Game in Your Pocket, Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?"

There's no doubt about it: wireless gaming has huge promise. But before this new format can really take off a few more pieces of the technological puzzle must fall into place. Once they do we will have the opportunity to create entirely new entertainment experiences that can compete, both in terms of satisfying players and generating revenues, with those provided by more established platforms like PCs and game consoles.

Wireless gaming has huge promise, but before this new format can really take off a few more pieces of the technological puzzle must fall into place. Once they do we will have the opportunity to create entirely new entertainment experiences that can compete, in terms of both player satisfaction and profits, against the more established platforms like PCs and game consoles.

Jumping the Gun

Wireless application development has gotten off to a rough start. It was at one time hailed with messiah-like praise as the next big driver of Internet growth, but later demonized by many as an overhyped, underplanned boondoggle.

In Sweden, frequently cited as one of the world's wireless hotbeds, venture capitalists have pumped millions into application developers with sketchy business models and few or no customers. When usable delivery channels failed to materialize on time the result was predictable - widespread collapse.

Wireless entertainment, identified early on as one of the most promising application areas, has not been exempt. Several efforts to launch for-pay games have met, at best, with lukewarm response.

However, the fact is that wireless entertainment has hardly had a fair chance to prove itself. A quick look at the history and immediate future of wireless gaming will help to explain why.

First Steps

Mobile gaming is anything but new. It has been with us for decades, first in the form of specialized handheld devices like the Nintendo Gameboy and its predecessors, and more recently bundled with many cellular telephones.

As soon as cell phones began sporting reasonably large screens, manufacturers started shipping them pre-loaded with single-player games such as Snake and Memory. But while these simple, free-standing games are good for a nostalgia boost or to occupy a spare minute while we're waiting for the bus, they can hardly compete with the experiences provided by a Playstation 2. Neither do they contribute something unique to the corpus of interactive entertainment, aside from sheer portability.

Warmer, Warmer

To begin realizing the true potential of wireless gaming we have to incorporate the main element that sets cell phones apart - remote communication without a fixed line - into the games themselves.

Once computer games not only move out of our houses and offices but also are capable of communicating with a remote server or peer, the world becomes our playing board.

The square cage of the TV or computer screen gives way to the multi-textured, poly-aromatic, splendidly fractal Real World as the context for our interactive entertainment. An entirely new generation of games, freed from the shackles of fixed location, can relate gaming experiences to a player's changing position within the city.

Or so we thought. Unfortunately, the earliest technologies that have allowed us to step in this direction, Short Message Service (SMS) and first-generation Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), have nasty Achilles Heels.

SMS is a convenient tool for precisely what its name implies: sending individual 'short messages'. When it comes to creating multi-turn experiences it is hopeless, thanks to its clumsy user interface, maximum message length of 160 characters, and relatively high cost per message.

First-generation WAP's heroic flaw, on the other hand, is that it must initiate full-time, or 'circuit-switched', network connections whenever data is transmitted, rendering it similarly expensive and inelegant.

Who wants to pay to send ten SMS messages just to play through something as trivial as a trivia game? Who has the patience to wait as their circuit-switched WAP phone dials up to download each succeeding step of an adventure game - or the pocketbook to keep the connection open full-time?

The Big Break

The key step forward for wireless entertainment will come when this awkward type of connection is no longer necessary. In other words, when the phone is permanently online, like a fixed PC on a LAN. This can only be achieved through the addition to the wireless radio network of Internet-like 'packet-switching' technologies such as General Packet Radio Services (GPRS).

With GPRS, data (including voice) moves in packet bursts between the phone and the wireless network, allowing seamless and far less expensive interaction between the user and Internet applications.

GPRS will arrive in many American and European networks during this winter and throughout 2002, and when it does it will finally launch the revolution for which we've all been waiting.

But it's not the only tool that will help to enable the vision outlined above. In addition there are Mobile Positioning Systems (MPS), network-based technologies that allow your phone to know its current location and tailor any number of services accordingly.

Once we have generated a decent number of 'always connected', positioning-enabled phones, we will finally be able to give the idea of wireless gaming a real spin.

A Wireless Adventure Game Concept

What could one of these advanced wireless games look like? To get a more concrete idea, here's just one concept we've developed at Houdini:


The setting is Earth, year 2017. Genome maps of most major animal and plant species have been completed, cloning and gene-manipulation are everyday facts, and biotechnologists are moving to the forefront as leaders of a sweeping scientific revolution. As the full implications of these breakthroughs spread like shockwaves from an earthquake epicenter - age-old diseases cured, the human lifespan extended, new pest-resistant food plants and meat-bearing creatures 'manufactured' - few aspects of human society remain untouched.

But not everyone is happy about these developments, least of all those who stand to lose great fortunes in the wealth shifts that will inevitably follow. Chief among these are the Mechanics, a loose confederation of mechanical technologists led by the Armstrong Group, Earth's largest tech conglomerate. The Mechanics see the genetic movement as a direct threat to the global hegemony of their machines, and they've launched a covert crusade against the biotech community and its guiding corporate, Helix Biogen. In order to join their secret war, both sides are recruiting vast private armies of volunteers and equipping them with weapons designed for urban battles unlike any before in human history.

In the game, players sign up to fight on the side of either Helix or the Mechanics. They create their own unique genetically altered creatures (Helix) or advanced fighting machines (Mechanics), and then 'train' their creations to fight by playing small single-player games in their phones. Players score overall game points by winning head-to-head mobile confrontations with members of the opposing forces.


Sample Mechanic drone. Illustration by Peter Bergting, Houdini.

These battles are set in the context of a continually evolving story, presented in weekly episodes via the player's phone or on the game website. The game's main play will take place through the phone, with the help of several mini-applications including:

  • Profile Updater: users create their own character alias and profiles, which can then be downloaded into their friends' phones (or enemies', when they are fighting).
  • Character Builder: players construct their own creatures or machines. They can buy design components from the many options using credits they earn in the game.
  • Training Game Selector: with each new episode or edition a new set of small, single- player training games become available that fit into the game's overall plot. Players train their creations by playing the training games.
  • Combat Manager: finally, the head-to-head confrontations take place with the aid of a combat manager. Players pit their creations against each other one by one. The combat is simulated on a server, and results are returned to both players' devices.

Mobile Positioning is used to sense when an opponent is nearby, at which point the player can choose to join battle or attempt to run. Running does not always ensure escape.

Could a game like this approach the goal of providing an interactive entertainment experience equally engaging and satisfy as recent PC or console games? It's hard to say, but just imagine how it could transform the urban landscape as projected in our mind's eye - from drab everyday to adventure-filled, complete with lurking dangers, secret conspirators and real-time opponents - and you get some sense of what games like this might someday achieve.

The bottom line

Finally, if you remember, there was another aspect to our vision for the wireless gaming future: significant revenue generation. Here as well the long-term prospects are strong, thanks to a unique advantage cell phones boast over other gaming platforms. Specifically, these devices have secure payment mechanisms built-in, and phone service is already tied to a monthly bill.

With easy, secure micropayments just a click away, it should at last be possible to gain that Holy Grail of online content delivery: a functioning business model.

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