You’ve just landed in a strange city with loads of time on your hands. You take out your mobile and start playing your favorite games on it. But suddenly that’s no fun. You’ve beaten the computer too many times. You switch to GPS mode and tell the network that you’re “Game”. You immediately see many dots spread over all across the city. They’re mobile gamers who’re “Game” too. That’s when you match your skills in an action-packed game with a total stranger.
After the games are over, you get an SMS that your mobile gaming partner wants to meet you. Now, should you meet her or him? You chuck the danger and raise the stakes. You SMS and challenge your partner to catch you and so begins an exciting chase through the city, which you track on your mobile screen as one dot chasing another. Welcome to the future. This is just one of the possible scenarios that mobile gaming could hold. And it’s not too far away.
If you’ve played board game Scotland Yard, then you’ll see that the hit game can be reenacted in real life with multiple partners. For the uninitiated, in Scotland Yard, five players chase an elusive Mr X throughout London city by train, taxi and bus. If it’s so exciting in the living room, imagine doing that in real life!
3D and 3G
So what does it take to get all the games going on your mobile screen? We asked GPU maker ATI’s Senior Architect Raj Koduri, the man who helps your games get faster, better and more complex. “All you need is 3D graphics, a 3G phone and the right graphics card”, he says matter of factly. Well, 3D graphics are already here and most global networks are switching totally to 3G in 2005, so that shouldn’t be a problem either. And how long will it take a mobile graphics card to support a game like say Doom 3? “One to two years at the latest,” says a confident Koduri. Already, ATI’s Imageon chip helps PDAs and smartphones offer crisp images and streaming video with MPEG4 technology.
Another limiting factor is that games are on only in Java-enabled mobiles, which were pretty expensive. But with the prices of Java handsets falling, more and more people will be able to afford them. And multiplayer gaming will be ready to take off.
How it will take off
So what are the reasons for the growing popularity of mobile gaming? We asked LG, strong backers of mobile gaming, who claim they were the first in the world to bring a cricket game on the handset. Explains Praveen Valecha, product group head (mobile phones), “The mobile is the only tool that’s available with you at all times and at all places. In fact, it was found that in Southeast Asia, 60 per cent of traveling time is spent on the phone.”
So mobile manufacturers are trying to pack more and more into a mobile phone. In fact, gaming is the new cash cow for service providers and it has become even more lucrative globally than downloading ringtones. Datamonitor research has said that in 2005 itself, more than 200 million people (80 percent of wireless phone users) in America and west Europe will play online games with wireless devices. The situation in India is encouraging too. Mobile gaming revenues touched $26 million in 2004, about 5% of the global market, according to Instat-MDR research. The projecting figures for 2009 are a whopping $336 million and everyone wants to get a piece of the pie. There’s money to be made both in downloading and playing the game, as against getting just a flat fee for a game license.
Praveen Valecha says, “Mobile gaming is one of the favorite pastimes of students and teenagers and it is this market that will ensure that mobile gaming becomes a complete industry in itself. And people love team games and strategy games, so multiplayer gaming is the next big thing.”
Mobile gaming is also one of the fastest-growing activities among the tech-savvy in India. The reasons for the current boom are Bluetooth, high-res graphics, connectivity and color screens.
While Ninetendo’s Gameboy (150 million units sold till date) and Sony Playstation are pure gaming devices which are already huge, the future may well belong to mobile cum gaming devices like Nokia’s N-Gage.
Macrospace’s “Fatal Force: Earth Assault” is a multiplayer game where players can join forces in a co-operative mode with nearby friends or play against each other in the more familiar last one standing wins style. Another multiplayer mobile game Everquest has around half-a-million subscriptions in Europe alone.
In India, Nokia is serious about the gaming business. “N-Gage QD Challenge Mobile Gaming Championship” covered 26,000 gaming enthusiasts across 47 cities, in six weeks. The winner walked away with a cool one million rupees. The N-Gage game claims to be the first mobile and connected game deck to feature online high-quality 3D multiplayer gameplay over Bluetooth wireless technology and GPRS.
Nokia and gaming are here to stay. Declared multimedia business director, Gautam Advani, shortly after the championship, “India is a large country with a predominantly young and technology-savvy population which makes it an ideal market for mobile gaming. The N-Gage Arena will be the place where gamers meet and create virtual communities, share their experiences, find new challenges and make friends with players all over the world.”
The pancake phone
While the Nokia N-gage has been touted as a gaming device that’s also a phone, its “difficult to phone” features has deterred some people at least. Gaming freak S Sayed, who works in IDC India, chucked his mobile phone and bought the N-Gage. He says, “As a gaming device, it’s one the best devices I have held. Maneuverability and flexibility are great. There are no complaints there.” But the problem came whenever he tried to make a call. “It’s like holding an elephant. You feel as if there’s a pancake plastered on the side of your face,” he said. He wanted a device that would both be a mobile and a gaming device, but he found it very difficult to make calls. Sayed, since then, has chucked his N-Gage and taken a Nokia 6600, where he “manages to play” some of his favorite games.
Mobile gaming might rank as one of the novelist ways of connecting with anyone at any time on this planet.
(This article appeared in Living Digital magazine in January 2005)