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Mobile games

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Myopic Rhino


I was browsing our news the other day, and again encountered something I've seen fairly often. When we have news posts about mobile gaming, particularly ones mentioning speculation about the growth of mobile gaming, there's invariably a few people who come along, pooh-poohing this entire segment of the game industry. Mostly, their arguments against the potential of mobile gaming are based on anecdotal evidence, e.g. they played a few games on a single handset, and those games sucked, so why would anyone pay for cell phone games?

I can understand skepticism regarding some of the numbers being thrown around about the potential size of the mobile gaming market (e.g. $7 billion by 2008), since these numbers are guesses at best, and are far too reminiscent of the types of things people used to say about the market for PDA games several years ago, which of course never really materialized. But...

1) Even if the numbers being thrown around are overly-optimistic, the fact remains that there is significant growth in this area. Hundreds of millions are being made on mobile games now, and with better gaming handsets coming out and new markets opening, that number is increasing rapidly. So even if mobile gaming is unappealing to some people, it's clearly true from the numbers that there are lots of people who enjoy it.

2) The cell phone market is very different from the PDA market. Besides being several orders of magnitude larger, people are upgrading their cellphones every 2 years on average, and because the technology is advancing so rapidly, every time they upgrade, they are getting a device that is better suited for games. Also, the distribution models on phones are much better than they are on PDAs.

Granted, the mobile game industry isn't without its challenges. Variance among handsets means a huge porting effort if you want to make your game widely available, and some handsets simply aren't well-suited to gaming. But standards are emerging (i.e. OpenGL ES) and developers have become very efficient at porting to multiple handsets.

As for handset design... I have sitting on my desk a prototype phone that we (QUALCOMM) made. Here's a photo of it:

This isn't intended as a commercial handset. Rather, we use it as a development platform, as well as something to show to handset manufacturers to give them an idea of what a gaming phone should be (and hopefully, they'll improve on the idea).

As you can see, the thing has a joystick, d-pad, shoulder buttons, and can "transform" into gaming mode. The screen is about the same size as that of a GBA, but higher resolution (320x240), supporting 16-bit color. It also has hardware accelerated 3D (exposed through OpenGL ES) on par with the Playstation. We've been working with developers like EA, Ubisoft/Gameloft, etc., with developing early 3D games for it, and I honestly enjoy playing games on it.

I think it's unfortunate that many small development studios and individual developers have missed out on opportunities offered by mobile gaming. At least until recently, the bar for entry was fairly low, both financially and coming up to speed technically, so this has been an area where someone who wanted to start their own dev studio or even just break into the industry could have done so fairly easily, at least in comparison to other platforms. That's unfortunately changing now, but if you currently have experience as a mobile game developer, you're in a good position. Pretty much every major game publisher is trying to establish a presense in mobile. To do this, many of them are buying up as many mobile development shops as they can. If you have experience in mobile AND 3D, you're golden.

In reality, the window of opportunity for breaking into the industry relatively easily through this route probably isn't closed yet, so if that's something you're looking to do, I'd suggest not being too quick to dismiss mobile gaming.
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Aren't there a lot of compatability issues a develoer has to deal with when entering the mobile gaming market? I've heard that the phones are all so radically different in capability that it makes development rather challenging.

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That's has to be the best design for a mobile gaming phone I have seen to date. Your also right about the mobile market, I don't know how many Indy development companies I have seen spring up over the last five years, especially in the last two, that have made at least a decent niche for themselves. Also, technology for mobile platforms is only getting better, as such I can only predict escalating sales for the mobile market. Development gets cheaper, hardware gets cheaper, and if designs like the phone in the post actually see the light of day for the consumer, I don't see how it can lose. Not to mention not having to actually purchase discs or cartridges vs other mobile devices.

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Phone looks great, and I'd have to agree with you. Soon enough the mobile phone will take on the concept of the GBA and other handheld gaming devices, and it should. I paid nearly $300 when the new Nokia 6820 (http://www.nokianokia.com/files/6820_LARGE_OPEN75.gif) came to the market, and that was a nice upgrade from the 6800.

Why not have a cell phone do something like that, instead, make the screen bigger (under the flap), and when you open the phone up, the screen stretches into a bigger area, there is a D-Pad on the left and a couple of buttons to the right.

It'll happen. Everything just takes time.

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There are some pretty good games coming out on new handsets. I think as soon as the J2ME development tools "grow up" there will be a lot more fun stuff.

It's somewhat of a pain having to keep games portable between screen sizes, stack sizes, processor capabilities, broken-ass MIDP implementations (Some allow translucent PNGs. Some don't. How can you tell? YOU CAN'T) and such -- shipping individual binaries for each major model of machine fixes this but defeats the purpose of Java completely.

My experience with MIDP1.0 also seems to be geared to the "least common denominator" -- my phone has a file system, but can I use J2ME to load files from the JAR file and read from them? No, of course not. Because other phones don't.

It'd be nice if jasmin gave me more speed, I'd love to go back to the days of hacking assembly language for the C64 to crank out speed on my S-E T610. In addition, I look forward to seeing people put the .NET VM chip to work. I'd love to make cell phone games with it.

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Aren't there a lot of compatability issues a develoer has to deal with when entering the mobile gaming market? I've heard that the phones are all so radically different in capability that it makes development rather challenging.
That's definitely an issue, and I mentioned it in my post. Most successful mobile developers have become good at dealing with this in an efficient way, however. They are familiar with the limitations of the handsets they work with, and can sometimes even automate part of the process.

It tends to become a bigger issue as you grow. Someone just starting out in mobile development is probably only targeting a few handsets, not the dozens that larger publishers have to deal with. As they build relationships with carriers and publishers and are able to start releasing on more handsets, hopefully by then they have the experience and tools to make things less painful.

Interesting read, Will. I'd largely agree with what they have to say about the current state of the industry, but as we start to see well-designed gaming phones, and games that are designed to take advantage of the unique capabilities of phones, I think we'll start to see more hardcore gamers playing games on phones.

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