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Playing Games on Handhelds

Playing Games on Handhelds

Mobile games are often seen as the killer application for 3G phones, not to mention the driving force behind advances in hardware and device architecture (as games have been on desktop systems for years). But while devices specifically designed for mobile gaming, such as the Nintendo Gameboy, have their place, the market for games on multifunction devices, such as PDAs and phones, is still largely unproven. This article looks at the current state of play in mobile gaming, and the next developments, in an attempt to identify the potential market for such applications.

The success of the Gameboy took even Nintendo by surprise, not only because it made a lot of money, but also the demographic that chose to use it. While Sony was redefining the home games console as a lifestyle choice, Nintendo was creeping from satchels and school bags into suitcases and handbags. Travel by tube and you'll be surprised not to see at least one adult engrossed in a mobile phone or PDA. The fact that adults want to play games on the move therefore seems clear, but it appears they would prefer not to have a dedicated device if possible. Whether this is due to a reluctance to be seen with what is regarded as a "toy" or just a wish to avoid carrying multiple devices is debatable, but the result is the same.

Modern mobile phones always include some sort of Light Cycles derivative, basic animation, and interaction, often with two-player networked play (over IR, and increasingly Bluetooth). The success of these games has been enormous, with Nokia even featuring "Snake 2" in their television adverts. Of course, there is nothing wrong with basic games. "Tetris" was extremely popular and offered only a very basic premise - the ability to rotate falling blocks so they fit together requires only two keys and basic animation. But most games are reliant on more complex interaction and displays, something that until now few mobile devices have been able to provide.

It's not just a matter of processing speed, though this is clearly important. The small screen available on most mobile phones is unsuited to graphical games, without the color depth or resolution games players have come to expect. But this is changing. Modern mobiles such as the Nokia 7210 have proper color screens, and wireless devices like the iPaq certainly have the capability to run modern games.

In fact, the Nokia 9210 has been seen running "Doom," probably the best-known graphical game, if at a fairly low resolution and speed. Given adults' reluctance to carry devices dedicated to games, this seems the ideal route into their pockets. By adding games to something that can be perceived as a device for work, the games companies can open up a whole new market for their products.

Are general-purpose devices suited to the kind of game playing users expect? Basic puzzle games are all very well, but for modern graphical games it might seem that more processing power is needed. The Pocket PC platform probably leads the market when it comes to mobile gaming on nonspecific devices, and the range of games available is surprising. In addition to the normal "Space Invaders" type games, with synchronized sound and scrolling backgrounds, we are now starting to see real-time strategy games becoming available for the platform.

Commanding armies and managing resources is something users are familiar with on desktops and games consoles, but is the availability of that kind of experience on the move really compelling?

Squeezing in Another Dimension
Simply holding information on a 3-dimensional space in memory is beyond the capability of most mobile phones in use today, the memory requirements being too high, but the next generation of devices won't have this problem. Rendering the scene is more difficult in that the application has to work out not only where the various 3-D objects are in space, but also where the viewing point is so it can calculate what portions of each object are visible at the current time.

Once that is known, it can start to work out the perspective for each visible plane, so it can be distorted to look right, and then apply a texture to the surface so it looks somewhat real. When those stages are complete, it's necessary to start thinking about where the light source is coming from so the visible objects can be illuminated properly, through a process known as ray tracing, and shadows can be created to give a proper 3-D feel.

All this has to take place once for every frame that is displayed, which for a typical game will be 20-40 times a second. In desktop machines these demands have led to the development of specialist hardware, known as 3-D acceleration, to take care of some of the processing and release the processor to get on with working out the game physics and interaction. For the moment, mobile devices are dependent on their processor to provide all the functionality and, until very recently, it has not been possible to render three dimensions on a mobile device.

However, Fathammer, a company based in Helsinki, specializes in getting this complex rendering task to work properly on mobile devices. By writing code at a very low level, and taking advantage of various mathematical tricks, they are able to show genuine 3-D applications running on Pocket PC devices, the Gameboy Advance, and even the latest Nokia mobile phones! They firmly believe that adding a third dimension will prove the catalyst for mobile games, and that once users see the world in 3-D they won't want to go back.

Certainly the company's demonstrations are impressive. Flickering light illuminates a female face as the viewpoint rotates around the room, shadows fall and vanish as the light source is covered or revealed; the overall effect is stunning, and their demo-reel certainly comes in the cool-things-to-have-on-your-handheld category.

Fathammer intends to license their technology to allow others to work in 3-D on a variety of devices, but they also believe that long-term it will be necessary for device manufacturers to include 3-D acceleration as standard in much the same way it now comes with desktop machines. But it still remains to be seen if those who want to play games on the move already own a Gameboy, while those without are happy playing Snake 2.

The Networked Advantage
Of course, today's mobile devices have one advantage that sets them apart from their desktop equivalents - wireless networking. The same people who bought a computer with the intention of "doing some work from home" and the reality of playing games are now buying a network on the same premise. Even the most technically illiterate can now play games online, and are frequently expected to. Mobile devices already have this networking built in, so the successful games are going to take advantage of this as much as possible.

Ericsson allows you to upload your best scores on "Erix" to their WAP site, but that's only touching the surface, and while connecting to the Internet has its appeal, local networking is more sociable, with Bluetooth providing the ideal transport mechanism. The ability to turn to a friend and play a quick two-player game is compelling, where playing against strangers over the Internet may be less so. This social setting lends itself to the idea of mobile games as a time-filler rather than an occupation, while Internet play seems more suited to the kind of commitment users will make to the desktop experience.

The nature of wireless networks can also lend itself to new types of games. Games based around trade could be designed to work among anyone within radio range, and swapping of resources could take place between strangers who, literally, pass in the night!

Of course, none of this will stop people from developing epic games on mobile devices, but it remains to be seen if they will achieve any significant success. It seems that the lack of processing ability, combined with smaller screens and ergonomic factors (if you're sitting down at a desk you may as well use a desktop computer with its larger screen and higher power CPU, so we can assume you are on the move) will hamper games on the mobile, but by taking advantage of the unique features of the platform, it will be possible to create whole new experiences that may well prove more compelling than killing aliens ever was.

SIDEBAR
Civilization on the PalmPilot Anyone?

I recently bought "SimCity" for the PalmPilot for a friend of mine. She has always been a big fan of SimCity, having played all its various incarnations on desktop machines, and was very keen to be able to play it during her morning commute. The problem she found is that a great deal of the game is spent waiting for things to happen, for resources to be gathered or disasters to strike. When sitting at a computer, such waiting may be acceptable, indeed desirable, as an opportunity to consider plans of action and put together a long-term strategy. But when the purpose of playing the game is to be entertained during a journey, there's a need for a more active involvement in what's happening, something basic puzzle games can provide more effectively than world-spanning epics. A good game on a desktop should draw you in to the action, causing you to lose your sense of disbelief in the same way as with a good film or book. A mobile game, however, is designed to entertain you when you're bored and need some distraction.

Given this limitation to action-based games involving little in the way of long-term commitment, it's interesting to look at the most popular games of this type available on the desktop. While the basic games will always have their place, it is those offering 3-D animation and movement that dominate the genre. Getting these 3-D worlds onto a mobile device isn't easy, but can just about be done.        -B.R.

More Stories By Bill Ray

Bill Ray, former editor-in-chief (and continuing distinguished contributor to) Wireless Business & Technology magazine, has been developing wireless applications for over 20 ears on just about every platform available. Heavily involved in Java since its release, he developed some of the first cryptography applications for Java and was a founder of JCP Computer Services, a company later sold to Sun Microsystems. At Swisscom he was responsible for the first Java-capable DTV set-top box, and currently holds the position of head of Enabling Software at 02, a UK network operator.

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