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A Game in the Hand? - WBT talks to Spiffcode and Handmark about mobile-game development

A Game in the Hand? - WBT talks to Spiffcode and Handmark about mobile-game development

Gaming on the move has always been the poor cousin of console and desktop gaming, generally limited to the various incarnations of Solitaire or basic puzzle games. It wasn't until Nintendo's GameBoy that companies started to take handheld games seriously. But even with dedicated hardware, the capabilities were very limited, and taken up only by teenagers and younger, never achieving the lifestyle acceptance that Sony managed to embody with PlayStation.

The inclusion of "Snake" on all Nokia handsets has certainly had an impact on what people expect from a handheld. While very basic in game play, Snake still offers a real-time (as opposed to turn-based) game where reactions are key. But with PDAs rapidly becoming phones, and increases in memory and processors outstripping the ability of most of us to buy them, the device in my pocket now has as much processing power as my desktop had five years ago, and the games are starting to match up.

"Warfare Incorporated," from Handmark, is an example of the new generation of mobile games, resembling the desktop game "Command & Conquer" from Westwood (which in turn draws from the original "Dune" game). Warfare Incorporated is a real-time strategy game involving the gathering of resources that are then used to manufacture buildings and men with which to defend and attack other computer-controlled players. While not alone in this market, it makes a shift in the kind of games available on the move, offering set scenarios and "skirmish" games that can last several hours (albeit played in short bursts). Not to mention, it's quite a lot of fun.

Many aspiring programmers hope to write games one day. It's the more glamorous side of software development, though the reality may be longer hours and less pay than in, say, banking software development. The games industry is littered with failed projects and lost investments, at least partly because of the complexity of development and marketing. Not many people, or companies, are good at both, so the load is often split with a publisher marketing games developed under contract.

This is the situation we find with Warfare Incorporated, developed by Spiffcode in Seattle and marketed by Handmark in Kansas. We took the opportunity to talk to both of them about their relationship, games development, and the problems of product registration...

WBT: Perhaps we can start by talking about the relationship between Handmark and Spiffcode? It's not rare for games developers to be eclipsed by their distributors; is that what we're seeing here?
Spiffcode/Handmark:
We have an excellent relationship with Spiffcode in that we've chosen to work together on this exciting project. Warfare Incorporated marries the strengths of our two companies. The initial development was carried out by Spiffcode, who involved Handmark when they started to get close to release. Handmark worked with them to get the different versions working, and manages the sales of the game.

WBT: There are a lot of misconceptions about how much effort it takes to create a game. What sort of a team does Warfare Incorporated involve, and how long did it take to evolve?
Spiffcode/Handmark:
It took nearly 30 months for Spiffcode to create Warfare Incorporated, with two primary developers working full time. Contractors were used for the artwork and sound, then Handmark assisted with the final quality assurance to prepare the product for commercial release.

WBT: Taking Warfare Incorporated as an example, what sort of steps are involved from conception to launch?
Spiffcode/Handmark:
After development and testing, Handmark developed a launch campaign that involved creation of a brand image, logos, packaging, messaging, and working with our PR team to craft press releases and provide prerelease review copies and supporting marketing material. In addition, we launched a drive-to-Web campaign for our existing registered users and with third-party sites such as Handango and PalmGear. Other efforts include coordination with our device partners and, in the case of Warfare, the coincidental launch of TapWare Zodiac. Worldwide sales are through the Web, but in the U.S. there are also boxes and posters for in-shop display.

WBT: What sort of development environments do you use? I assume most of your development is done in C++, but it would be interesting to know more about the tools you use.
Spiffcode/Handmark:
Warfare Incorporated is written primarily in C++ with a lot of 68K assembly language and a little ARM assembly language used to achieve the performance we wanted for Palm OS devices. The Palm OS version of Warfare is compiled by the (free) GNU (gcc) compiler and PRC tools. The Pocket PC version is compiled by Microsoft's Embedded Visual C++ (also free). People may be surprised to learn that most of our development time is actually spent editing and debugging on PCs within Microsoft's Visual Studio .NET (not free) rather than on devices or in emulators. WI's architecture isolates game code from host platform specifics so once we have it doing what we want on Windows, where the VS.NET coding/debugging environment is quick and powerful, we can build/test the Pocket PC/Palm versions with high confidence they'll run the same way. This has been a tremendous time saver.

In addition to these third-party tools, we wrote several of our own for creating levels and animations and for converting graphics, sounds, and other data into formats suitable for efficient use and storage on handheld devices. These tools are written almost exclusively in C# using Visual Studio .NET. We plan to release the level editor to the public soon so everyone can create new missions for Warfare Incorporated!

WBT: So, given the amount of time and resources invested in a game's development, it's got to be quite a risky business?
Spiffcode/Handmark:
Yes, and no. It was certainly a risk for Spiffcode because they began development long before Handmark agreed to partner in marketing the game. On the other hand, Handmark has experienced great success with brand-name quality titles. In the case of Warfare we were building a new brand for a level of game.

WBT: What kind of sales figures will be needed to make a game like Warfare Incorporated profitable?
Spiffcode/Handmark:
Well, we can't be specific. Handmark is one of the few companies in the industry with the marketing and sales strength to make significant application investments pay off. It requires knowledge of multiple channels through a variety of delivery mechanisms. We invested in Warfare for the long haul; it's going to become an evergreen title for Handmark.

WBT: I very much hope it turns out to be successful; I'm looking forward to seeing more games of this quality. Any planned already?
Spiffcode/Handmark:
There are some exciting new games from Handmark coming in the next few months, but we can't "let the cat out of the bag" and preannounce any titles.

WBT: It seems that just about everyone is trying to cash in on the mobile games market at the moment. Do you really think the market is big enough to support so many mobile platforms?
Spiffcode/Handmark:
Quality products, top brands, and market segmentation are important in an early market. Handmark has an established track record accomplishing all three of these. Handmark today is the number one publisher in the PDA space, but right now all of our focus is on opportunities with wireless devices. PDAs with Wi-Fi, merged devices, and other smart phones represent a market that's an order of magnitude greater than the historical PDA-only opportunity.

WBT: I don't know if you've had a chance to play with an N-Gage yet, but Nokia is betting an awful lot on its success. What's your honest opinion of it?
Spiffcode/Handmark:
It's a very interesting concept and Nokia is likely to own a share of this emerging market for multifunction wireless devices. Nokia has some work to do with the N-Gage, but in the long term Handmark is committed to supporting all handheld mobile devices.

WBT: Of course, Nokia is pushing the network play aspect of the N-Gage as its main feature, and that's the first question people seem to ask about Warfare Incorporated. So will we see a multiplayer version?
Spiffcode/Handmark:
Yes. We have announced that the first version of multiplayer Warfare Incorporated, working over Bluetooth and TCP/IP, will be available soon.

WBT: There was a time when many PC games companies decided that games without network play weren't worth developing. Do you think we'll see the same sort of explosion in network games on handheld devices? This seems particularly important given Nintendo has announced their wireless edition of GameBoy. They obviously think group gaming is going to be very big indeed.
Spiffcode/Handmark:
...and they were not entirely right; there are successful games that are not on the Net. But multiuser play is very exciting and will be a part of the Handmark game strategy in the months ahead.

WBT: I don't mean to be taking advantage of my position, but I registered my copy of Warfare a week ago and have not received my registration yet. Are there problems or you just don't want me to see the rest of the game?
Spiffcode/Handmark:
Sorry about that. We are seeing more and more problems with spam filters blocking our registration e-mails, so that may be what happened to yours as well.

. . .

As it turned out that's just what had happened. The registration had been identified as spam and was filed away. We have now seen the rest of the game, and can happily report that it continues to be fun. We're looking forward to seeing more from Spiffcode. We've seen what mobile gaming can offer and we want more of it.

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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