Postcard from GDC Mobile 2005: Academic Experts on Mobile Game Design

Instructors at Helsinki and Lancaster universities think the answer to mobile game stagnation lies in student developers, and took the opportunity to discuss their programs and progress in a panel discussion on mobile games in academia.

Moderator Matthew Bellows

A group of academics from Lancaster and Finland formed the panel for Academic Experts on Mobile Game Design, as part of the Mobile Games track at GDC. Along with moderator Matthew Bellows, the two-man teams talked about how they went about teaching their students to design for mobile systems, and what sorts of games came out of the students' projects. On the panel were Marko Turpeinen and Fernando Herrera from the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology (HIIT), as well as Paul Coulton and Reuben Edwards from Lancaster University; the informal title for the panel discussion was "It's a phone, not a console!"

Turpeinen spoke first, presenting the results of his research, which was a joint project between the HIIT and the University of Helsinki, with additional contributions from University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He listed the main aspects of modern phones as mobility, sociality, connectivity, personalization, and media creation. "From our point of view," Turpeinen said, "all of these aspects are underused in current mobile games. I think that's one of the great promises still for this industry. One of our goals was to look at these features of the phone and look at what would make them interesting for game development."

"We deliberately started to look outside the field of current mobile games and looked into four different cases of communities that exist right now, and try to understand how they link to mobile gaming," said Turpeinen. The four cases included the PC game Neverwinter Nights, studied for its focus on freely available module creation tools; live-action role playing (LARP) groups, for their method of creating communal narratives as they go; Habbo Hotel, a popular online PC game in Europe, for the unique user-initiative "games" within the game; and the sport of geocaching, which Turpeinen explained "was the closest to a mobile game that was organized by the people themselves."

The Helsinki team learned some important lessons from those studies, namely, that community gaming often depends on "playmakers," people there to make fun experiences for others. They also found that mobile games can benefit from user-created content and community-based innovation. Some other insights came from Turpeinen's work with Futurice on the Mobshare program: "The idea here is that you can easily share pictures with your mobile phone, and the way to make it easy is to allow just to select people you want to share with on your contact list. That's one of the things that's given on a mobile phone, you have all the people you want to be in touch with already in the phone. "

Turpeinen then highlighted the Multi-User Publishing Environment, an attempt to recreate Multi-User Dimension (MUD) environments on mobile phones. MUPE, according to Turpeinen, "is a tool, a platform, that was started by Nokia Research Center. We're working together with Nokia and we've launched a site called Here's a game concept, MUPEland Yard, that was developed on top of MUPE - if you're familiar with the game called Scotland Yard, here's a version of it. Actual places in the real world have hints and sort of treasures that the robber is after, and when they get there you take a picture of these tags that reveal the items physically located in those places."

Paul Coulton, from Lancaster University's Communication Systems department, was next to speak on his work in teaching students to develop mobile games. Coulton, too, emphasized the need to take advantage of mobile phones' unique features: "In terms of what we're interested in, it's about driving mobile games beyond the traditional platform. Just porting a single-player game onto mobile to me isn't a mobile game, it's a handheld game. If you want to leverage the unique possibilities of mobile, you have to use the communication aspects."

Coulton's group is a university spinoff group called m-ventions; students go through a 12-month full-time program, 6 months of which are spent learning the systems and 6 months spent developing a project. Coulton's students work with Symbian, BREW, Java 3D, Python, and Flash Lite; as he explained, "We tend to teach all of these, we don't want to get into a software engineering argument over which is best." Still, he doesn't pretend that all languages are created equal: "We tend to teach Brew to our undergraduates because it's a nice introduction to the Symbian, which has a fairly steep curve, and it's not something the students take readily to."

"In terms of the types of things we do, Brew's quite nice, because it allows users to develop things fairly simply," Coulton said as he demonstrated a colorful platform game running on a BREW emulator. "It teaches you to develop simple tile graphics, artificial intelligence. From those who work with Symbian, this is fantasy football," he said, showing another emulated demo. Coulton's laptop battery died before he could finish demonstrating a third game, called Tinpot Dictator, but it was just as well given that his allotted time simultaneously expired.

Matthew Bellows, the panel moderator, kicked off his questioning by asking where pressure to change mobile gaming would come from, and who would drive the shift from the current glut of arcade classics to the experimental new forms created by the students.

Habbo Hotel

Helsinki's Fernando Herrera suggested that the answer "might not necessarily be traditional video games," citing board games and children's games that require no technology at all. The panel then discussed the growing emphasis on 3D hardware in mobile handsets, and at what point it became a detriment. "All of the support toward turning 3D hardware into a phones is just trying to turn phones into a console," said Lancaster's Reuben Edwards. "There's not been enough of thinking, what will a phone do that a console can't? We heard earlier about how to use pictures, so think about not just a game where you can link in pictures, but how you can design the game around pictures."

Reuben picked up his students' Tinpot Dictator idea again to further explain his point: "You're not sitting down in one place, it's a game that can move with you, so the idea with Tinpot Dictator is that you can pick up weapons of mass destruction and take over different parts of the world... you can go to different locations and then based on that location, you can move to different places."

As often happens in professional discussions on mobile games, the subject of standardization came up. "I'm not expecting MUPE to solve that problem," Turpeinen said. "A lot of things have progressed in Java, so I think there are things you can think of as ad hoc standards, but there's quite a long way, and I hope it's just an early phase in the industry. But yeah, I think it's still a big problem with the standards." Even worse, noted Herrera, "It's not just about standardization, but getting standards to work properly. Even if you're using standard stuff, it's a hassle to get things to work across handsets and across operators."

The last question, on how the industry get the innovation it needs, got an answer from Turpeinen. "I think for academia, what we can offer are sort of more experimental ways to both the conduct and the business side sort of prototype them. An example there, we are working with people at Stanford University, who are behind the Creative Commons license, which is a way for people to make their innovations available in mostly noncommercial ways. One thing the gaming industry might look into is, are there new ways to license content? What happens when you use user-created content along with professional content?" Herrera agreed, saying "If you give them tools that allow them to create something, many times they will make something that's very novel that a company couldn't do."


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