Why I can’t get interesting games on my handheld
We just got back from Barcelona where the 3GSM conference was held this year (formerly festivities were held in Cannes.) I used to think I wanted to move to Amsterdam, but now after seeing Barcelona, I’m not so sure, what an incredible town.
The conference was big (early estimates were 33k+ people, and it felt like more), located at the spectacular Fira de Barcelona with great parties, fireworks, and terrific exhibits, giveaways, and even a few discoveries.
I went looking for pixel pushers and games. I found plenty of both, but what I mostly found was blockage and dumassedness. Several companies (a list too long to put here) had games on display, chip builders, handset suppliers, publishers, developers, aggregators, and even a couple of carriers.
But no one, not a single person, could tell me if a given game was available on any of my phones, or even what phones any of the games I asked about were available on. It was “We’re talking with the carriers,” or “We’re in discussion with the publishers,” or “Uh, I dunno.”
Games, like those we play on PCs and consoles, don’t translate well to a cell phone. Games on a handheld like the DS or Gameboy are more similar to what could work on a handset, and the PSP is kinda in the middle ground, much better than a DS, not nearly as good as a PC. So if you’re expecting the same kind of experience on your phone or PDA as you get at home on the PC or console, forget about it.
There are two major problems with games on phones: the physical problems, and the carriers.
The Physical Problems
The physical problem is two-fold, screen size and resolution, and controls/UI. The average high-end 2.5 or 3G phone has a QVGA screen at best. VGA is coming, but not until the end of this year and then only in the very expensive phones. The screens are typically 1.5 x 2-inches, and limited to 16- bit color. Screen sizes are getting a little bigger, some as large as 3.6-inhces (diagonal) and color depth is expected to hit 18-bit on the high-end phones maybe next year. Worse yet, there is no common standard of expression for a mobile phone screen. Some use pixels but never mention physical size, some use diagonal but never mention aspect ratio, and others mention number of colors. This is out of either ignorance or misdirection to get the prospective buyer to look at some other feature.
Then there's battery life. Who in their right mind wants to watch their battery meter decline? A hi-tech phone game will use up battery fast, and when it runs out, that leaves you with no phone.
I have seen and played some games on phones that were actually fun. There is a certain type of genre that works on a phone and several that don’t. FPSs don’t work, you can’t control them, and with a couple of exceptions, they look and play like crap. In-Fusio promises to change all that with Halo (some time next year); however, they said it would not necessarily be the same experience as one finds on a console; and we saw some great demos at Imagination Technologies, Nvidia, Nokia, and TI’s stands, but not for sale yet. (We’re talking with the carriers…da da da .)
Games that do play well on a phone are racing games, SIM games like Everquest or the much anticipated Da Vinci Code. Some sports games work well, and simple fighting games, but they aren’t easy. And the most popular are the puzzle games like Bejeweled and sites like Neopets.
But regardless of what game genre you like it’s up to the carriers if you can get it, and get it on the particular phone you have. The carriers don’t seem to have a clue about how to deliver games, what games to offer or to make it easy to get and then play, pay, or try a game.
The supply chain to get a game on your phone is torturously long and complicated; in fact it’s almost a miracle any games get on to phones at all.
There have been dozens of panels at various conferences, and dozens of articles written and dozens of user surveys, and consumer analysis, and demographics done on games on mobile phones, and as far as I can tell, even though the carriers are paying for a lot of this research, they have successfully managed to ignore every bit of it and keep on frustrating the consumers and suppliers.
Will it ever change?
Yes, of course it will change, but probably not this year. One carrier, most likely a Korean, will figure it out. They will understand that users want to try a game before they buy it, and want to be able to get to the game catalog in two clicks, three max, and want to own it (but some may want to rent), and some will want to play on-line with others. Some carrier, somewhere in the world will wake up one day and say, “How come Nintendo, and Xbox Live, and Sony are so damn successful, and we’re not?” And then that person might actually remember, there is a report in his or her desk that tells him or her why, and then – this is the real science fiction part of this scenario, they might read it, or at least the executive summary.
And when that one enlightened carrier starts to show how much money it is making, all the others will copy it, and you and I will finally be able to have mobile games on our phones. In the mean time, continue carrying your DS or PSP, and get on a PC or a console whenever you can.
Oh, and one more thing, if you’ve never been to Barcelona, go as soon as you can.