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Event Wrap-Up: BREW 2004

The BREW developer's conference has grown from its roots as a small gathering of developers and executives interested in an obscure new technology into a large summit of companies, small and large, invested in a platform that generates millions of dollars. Ralph Barbagallo brings you the highlights from this year's show.

I can't claim to have attended every BREW developer's conference, but I've been to most of them. BREW 2004 was my third, with the very first show occurring during the Spring of 2001. This year was the first time the venue at the Harbor Island Sheraton sold out completely, and next year they're moving the show to a larger spot. What started out years ago as a small gathering of developers and executives interested in an obscure new technology called BREW has matured into a large event focused on a platform that generates millions of dollars for large and small companies alike. Perhaps the success of BREW can be gauged by the bands that play at the show: last year Kool and the Gang played, whereas this year the B52s took to the stage.

Gaming has always been a big part of BREW, but this year the main conference was slim on gaming lectures. Instead, the focus was on enterprise applications -- a market that BREW has had a difficult time selling into until recently. The real meat for game developers took place in a special day-long session after the main conference had concluded. Qualcomm used this day to talk about its new 3D gaming platform, which it is creating in conjunction with ATI.

Before I get to this exclusive additional conference, there were a few interesting items revealed during the regular show. Despite the myriad of beginner sessions, business panels, and rudimentary API discussions, there were a few exciting developments during the normal presentations.


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The BREW Welcome Reception.

Of course, there was a lot of talk about BREW 3.0. The SDK has been available from Qualcomm's web site for quite some time. However, many fellow developers simply blew this off as BREW 2.0 (which was announced at BREW 2002) is just now gathering momentum on new devices. Even still, most of us are knee-deep in BREW 1.1 as we try to support the millions of legacy devices out on the market.

Among the 3.0 discussions were some intriguing new interface features. BREW 3.0 now has skinnable interfaces, including the ability to entirely replace the phone's "desktop" environment with not just a simple wallpaper bitmap, but a fully interactive BREW application. The line between desktop theme and BREW applications are blurring, and it was a little unclear as to how this feature would be used in the real world. For game developers, it is possible to embed some kind of game directly on to the phone's interface as part of a branded theme pack. However, all I saw were some Flash demos -- nothing really in action.

From a business standpoint, the most interesting technology announcement was the new Value Billing API developed for BREW 2.1 and 3.0. This extension class allows your BREW application to charge the user for additional content and features. The example on display was of a bowling game that allowed the user to pay 25 cents to download different bowling alleys based around licensed characters and themes. Using Value Billing services requires new agreements with your carrier partners, and agreeing on price with them as well.

It remains to be seen whether users are ready and willing to be nickel-and-dimed for minor updates. Regardless, Value Billing provides exciting new opportunities for developers and publishers to generate additional revenue through their applications. Of course, to those of us still writing BREW 1.1 code, this feature is largely useless. It was said during the show that there is a possibility of the Value Billing module being made available for earlier versions of BREW, pending some security issues that must be worked out. Otherwise, substantial use of this API may be still some time off.

The Show Floor

Although the exposition floor was the same size as last year, there were a lot of newcomers to BREW 2004. Game companies were in full force, as represented by developers and publishers such as 4 Corners Development Group, Indiagames, MFORMA, and Macrospace. An impressive array of new devices from handset manufactures like Kyocera, Motorola, and LG were on display, which hammered home the fact that handset conversions and porting will become an even a bigger logistical nightmare than it already is. As screen sizes scale up from the old 120x130 standard to QVGA (240x320) and potentially VGA displays in the near future, developers will face difficult decisions in terms of what display(s) to support.


brew_03.jpg

From the show floor at the BREW Partner Pavilion.

Which brings me to the next show phenomenon: porting houses. Last year I heard a lot of business proposals and examined potential deals involving converting existing titles to a massive amount of handsets for a per-device flat fee. Some clients told me they would really love to hand over their code to a company that is dedicated to converting titles.

Well, this year their prayers were answered with several companies providing just this very service. Firms such as Axiom Testing, Fingertwitch, Z-Axis, and even NSTL with their new Apprelay service are getting into the business of providing handset localization and conversion services in addition to QA and testing. In the case of Axiom, True Brew certification is guaranteed -- if it's bounced out of NSTL, they pay for the retest.

Last year I figured that the meager amounts of money being paid out for handset ports made starting a business (especially domestically) dedicated entirely to conversions was a dead end. This year, while dining on some of killer tiramisu, a wise man told me, "In the gold rush, the people that made the real money sold the picks and shovels." So while we game developers are frantically trying to find some gold in the form of a hit game, these conversion houses are making money whether we fail or succeed, by taking on porting work from small developers and major publishers with long-term contracts.

The Presentations

There were a few good keynote speeches from carriers this year that I couldn't miss. Vivo in Brazil outlined the explosive Latin American and South American market and proved very receptive to working with outside developers and publishers in discussions on the show floor. Although trailing behind the US and South Korea, Latin America and South America may be the next big frontiers for BREW, with many new carriers offering services all over the region. Vivo showed impressive growth figures and a wide variety of handsets and content for this exciting new market.

But everyone was waiting for Verizon Wireless to step up to the mic. With a talk-show style discussion clocking in at a scant 30 minutes, Verizon representatives displayed some impressive numbers and laid out their plans for the future. They announced that 70 million BREW downloads have been recorded to date -- contrasting that with last year's number of just under 9 million. Out of the 70 million figure, 34 million downloads were from January to May of 2004 alone! Verizon seemed keen on games that utilized new technology, including the upcoming high-speed EVDO data network and the coming onslaught of 3D phones. They showed two games during their presentation -- the first being Floodgate's Swashbuckler, a multiplayer tall-ship combat game using EVDO for real-time multiplayer performance. Also, an impressive 3D truck racing game was shown as an example of the new high standard in mobile game graphics and performance. The message was clear: Verizon is fully behind gaming, and more important, the company will select titles based on the games' quality and their use of their upcoming technologies.

ATI Drops the Imageon Bomb

The day after the main show ended, Qualcomm and ATI held an exclusive additional session focusing on their new long-term plans for 3D gaming with BREW. 3D has been an issue at every BREW conference I have attended. In 2002, Qualcomm engineers showed a simple untextured, lit model of an airplane spinning around at single-digit frame rates on a prototype chipset as big as a pizza box. Last year I saw a early build of a 3D game with Playstation One-quality graphics running on another prototype chipset -- this time able to fit inside a rather large and clunky handset shell. But this year, Qualcomm dedicated an entire day of technical presentations and demos to their new 3D platform.
Prior to the show, the announcement had been made of ATI and Qualcomm's cooperation on mobile 3D solutions. However, at this all-day extra session, both companies revealed their plans for the immediate release of new 3D handsets, as well as advanced platforms launching in 2005 and 2006. The current 3D solutions (dubbed the "Multimedia Platform") on the way this Fall include the 6300 and 6500 chipset -- which isn't necessarily hardware-accelerated 3D, but 3D graphics can be achieved with various licensable middleware or by using your own custom rendering code.

Sporting some early 3D features is Kyocera's Koi, due for launch on Verizon and other carriers soon. On the show floor, a very early version of Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts was playable on the Koi using the Swerve 3D API for BREW. The visual quality was somewhere near the PlayStation One -- except this year this was on an actual production handset, not some glued-together prototype.

The big news was the use of ATI's new Imageon chipset in upcoming handsets, to be deployed in 2005 in the "Enhanced Platform", and in the higher-powered "Convergence Platform" in 2006. The Convergence Platform sports some truly impressive specs, and all upcoming platforms have a set of tools and APIs that will probably make BREW the leading platform for mobile 3D.

table1.gif

Multimedia vs. Enhanced vs. Convergence Platform Graphics. Source: David Lignon, Qualcomm.

All new platforms use OpenGL ES as the 3D API of choice. Higher-level middleware solutions, such as Mascot Capsule and Swerve, will be made available for licensing (as we have seen with Kingdom Hearts). Regardless, at the lowest level the new OpenGL ES specification is fully implemented. In fact, ATI was distributing sample code on a CD that can be run on a PC and migrated to a handset later.

The presentations outlined the capabilities of each platform. The Enhanced Platform as described was decent: about 100k polygons per second (untextured) and all the standard OpenGL features like Z-buffers, p-buffers, alpha blending, fog, matrix stacks, vertex arrays, and so on. The Convergence Platform for 2006 was jaw dropping: 3-4 million polygons-per-second performance.

These new handsets were presented with a hypothetical handset picture that was a flip phone with a rotating face (see the figure below). When the face was set flush against the handset, it looked more like a Sony PSP than a phone. This concept device includes analog buttons with a console-style control pad and a pair of shoulder triggers. These newer handsets not only have astounding graphics performance, but the latest in EVDO network technology giving PC-scale latencies and bandwidth. It was stated that in the test lab people are already playing Counterstrike on their laptops using EVDO networking equipment.

The primary game on display for most of the presentations (and in a rolling demo on the show floor) was THQ's MotoGP. An ATI representative stated that it took a mere 2.5 months for THQ's developers to convert the Xbox code to both the Convergence and Enhanced platforms. This involved moving the physics and rendering code to fixed-point, as well as reducing the detail on the geometry and texture resolution. Despite this decrease in graphical quality, the results were stunning. Crumbs from my complimentary continental breakfast were dropping from my mouth as I stood agape at the visual quality of this new generation of BREW games.

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Prototype Of An Enhanced Platform Phone.
Source: David Lignon, Qualcomm.

Yes, I definitely am enthusiastic about this next generation technology. But after the euphoria of so many new tech goodies wore off, I began to contemplate the reality of the situation. What does this mean for my simple 2D creations such as Cali Surf, Track Athlete, and my upcoming catalog? Here they were showing me conversions of Xbox games -- products that take a few years and several million dollars to develop, being slid over to mobile phones for a pittance.

Meanwhile, on the show floor publishers were crowing about their multiplayer "Texas Hold 'em" poker games running on puny screens with blips and bleeps for sound. Or stuttering side-scrolling platform games based off of lousy movie licenses. Or even highly innovative multiplayer games such as Entelepon's Multiplayer Snake,that while fun and technically impressive, are firmly planted in this generation of 2D phones and tiny screens. How are we to leap through 10 years of hardware generations in mere months? I know how much dough I make off of my sales-which isn't bad. But to suddenly boost development costs by an order of magnitude overnight? Even some of the anonymous success stories whispered on the show floor of apps making outrageous fortunes can't possibly make up for the drastic increase of production costs with this new generation of games.

Frankly it felt like ATI wanted me to sell chips, whereas I want to sell games. At times, these can be two diametrically opposed goals. Qualcomm emphatically pushed technical innovation, urging developers and publishers not to make "last year's game this year." This means exploring new opportunities in networking, messaging, and 3D to advance the quality of content. During ATI's presentation, company representatives stated that "2D is dead" and explained that they are feverishly working to bring big-name PC title such as Black and White 2 to mobile devices using their existing developer relationships. Giving examples of the kinds of game quality they expect on these upcoming handsets, the PC version Quake 2 was shown as a benchmark game for the Enhanced platform and the PC version Unreal Tournament shown as an example what they expect for Convergence platform content.

Am I to abandon the huge user base of 2D phones, some even pre-BREW 2.0, to exclusively embrace this new technology? Even by the time I finish my first 3D game with an extended development cycle, the 3D handset marketplace will still be smaller than those with legacy devices. Yes, the sales of color handsets exploded and replaced monochrome almost overnight-but the adoption of color handsets was really driven by camera phones. The addition of a camera had a practical use with the side-effect of inducting the buyer into the wireless gaming marketplace. 3D technology has no major practical use aside from games -- therefore, will these handsets really be a hit with the mass market or will they appeal to a minor subset of the marketplace? I've got no problem riding the bleeding edge of technology, but there's got to be some upside for the developer -- and the upside I'm looking for is sales.

With that said, Qualcomm is currently reviewing game concepts and loaning out precious few development kits to key developers in order to provide content for the first handset's launch next year. But there are still many questions. MotoGP seems to be an extreme example. I'm still selling simple arcade and card/puzzle games in decent numbers on Verizon and other BREW carriers worldwide. Am I to believe that suddenly the critical super-casual base of wireless gamers will vanish to make way for hardcore gamers that want conversions of high-end PC and Xbox games on their handsets? If so, will the user base expand enough to finance the development of these increasingly complicated games? Are we going to have to increase the average price of a mobile game to $20-30 to compensate for higher development costs?


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Trying out phones in the BREW Partner Pavillion.

Surely, despite the move to 3D, the casual user base remains. Just because you can develop Unreal Tournament for a cell phone doesn't mean your customers actually want it. So far, mobile phones are not a platform for the hardcore otaku gamer. Much like color phones eventually became commoditized as prices fell, so will 3D. The uptake of new phones is enormous -- and largely by people purchasing a phone, not a gaming platform (at least for the time being).

Despite my apprehensions about such an abrupt jump in hardware technology, it may be fatal to assume the migration to 3D will be a slow one. We all know that eventually the chipsets will be cheap enough to deliver on even the most inexpensive handsets. We may just find that by the time we've finished arguing over the benefits and pitfalls of moving to 3D content, the market will have already moved there regardless. The wireless gaming industry seems to be changing that fast.

Even with my muted skepticism of this new era of high production value wireless games, there is something to be said for developing for the bleeding edge of handsets. I've heard some talk about developers developing for the Sony PSP exclusively -- trying to remain small and focused while jumping into a new market early. However, devices such as the PSP are powerful enough for an in-house team to perhaps convert over their existing PS2 or PC games themselves.

These new portable gaming devices from Sony and Nintendo offer nothing technically that can't be done on an existing console. Even if you focus on these platforms exclusively, in some cases you're competing with the same developers. You can't really innovate technologically on the Sony PSP. And unless games that involve slicing fruit with a stylus become all the rage, the Nintendo DS is in the same position.

So, how do you create unique content that not just any console or PC shop can shovel onto a platform and crush your studio with? Perhaps wireless is the answer. By utilizing technologies unique to wireless-such as a constant net connection via EVDO, GPS location services, and messaging--it is possible to create an entirely unique game experience that can't be duplicated on the PSP and also can't be achieved by shoveling over some PS2 conversion to increasingly powerful handsets.

If you create a flagship game for these new platforms, it will get the attention of hardware manufacturers, publishers, and carriers. Verizon representatives were very clear about their desire to get games that take advantage of new handset features -- so by going all-out on a new platform you could gain a distribution advantage over existing shops that target older handsets. But you will have to gamble whether the customers will be there by the time your first game is released.

Forks In The Road Ahead

I left BREW 2004 both hopeful about the future. I'm hopeful that the market is rapidly expanding and that with a growing customer base there still is room for the independent developer. But I'm left wondering if the increasing disparity between handset capabilities, as well as the push to 3D, will fragment the market and make choosing the right platform to support within BREW a complicated and potentially deadly decision. Being in the wireless game industry soon after its inception, I've become accustomed to changing my business strategy over the years. Therefore, encountering this type of fork in the road isn't too daunting. But, for many larger companies where the stakes are higher, it may be.



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