Game Makers See Growth Market in Mobile Phones

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Growth in the gaming industry may come from a surprising platform: the cell phone. The problem is that it's hard to design compelling and addictive games for use on an instrument with a tiny screen and little memory.


Video game developers are turning their attention from designing blockbuster games for the X-Box or PlayStation systems to cell phones. Those downloads are expected to fuel the growth of the game industry.

NPR's Robert Smith has the final report in our series on changing cell phones.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

I'm about to race a tiny, digital car through the miniature streets of Paris, on my cell phone.

(Soundbite of video game)

But the amazing thing is that I'm racing against David Hague(ph), who's playing on his cell phone across the room.

Mr. DAVID HAGUE (Game Loft): Behind me you're about 210 feet.

SMITH: Okay.

Mr. HAGUE: And you're catching up quickly.

SMITH: So I'm not doing so bad?

Mr. HAGUE: No. And you just passed me.

SMITH: Hague is with Game Loft, the company that designed the Asphalt Urban GT Racing. By using high speed cellular phone networks, you can race anyone with the same technology anywhere in the world.

Mr. HAGUE: It really adds a lot to all of the games. The direct competition with other people just makes it so much more real.

SMITH: And when you're playing this with someone across the country, around the world even, I mean there's not a huge delay?

Mr. HAGUE: No, it's exactly the same as you and me sitting right next to each other.

SMITH: Cell phone games have made huge technological leaps over the last couple of years. What used to be a few simple games that came with your phone, like solitaire or brick breaker, has morphed into hundreds of selections that allow you to play in 3D or against real live opponents.

The problem for companies is that only a small fraction of people with cell phones know how to download the games.

Schelley Olhava is a gaming analyst with IDC Research.

Ms. SCHELLEY OLHAVA (Analyst, IDC Research): When people purchase a cell phone they really get it for a number of reasons. It's not necessarily about games. They don't first and foremost think, oh, I wonder if this handset is going to let me play those really cool games or play any cool games.

SMITH: But with the lure of one billion potential customers around the world with cell phones, developers are trying to unlock the secret of what people want in a wireless game.

The game consoles like X-Box and PlayStation rely on explosive action, with these intense graphics and sound. On the cell phone, most people want what are called casual games. Something easy to play while they wait for a bus.

One of the most popular games, installed on 50 million phones around the world, is Bejeweled, a game that requires you match up similar-shaped jewels to create three in a row. If it sounds simple, that's the idea.

John Vechey is one of the founders of PopCap, which designed the game.

Mr. JOHN VECHEY (Co-founder, PopCap): It's kind of like a meditation thing. You know, when you play Bejeweled you sit there and you're just doing a very simple exercise for not much time, and so it just allows you just to kind of refresh yourself a little bit, when you're in the elevator, you're on the subway. And I think it becomes this addictive thing.

SMITH: Vechey says the key to cell phone games is realizing that the people who use them come from a very different demographic.

Mr. VECHEY: This is not the traditional hardcore gamer of the 16-25 year old male. You know, this is predominantly female, it skews older. One of the great things about casual games is you don't have to have a history of playing games to enjoy a casual game.

SMITH: With that in mind, cell phone game designers have been more open to games that require strategy instead of action, that can be played with one hand and paused easily. But the biggest challenge is trying to deal with all of the limitations of getting those games onto a device that was never designed for them.

At the New York City Offices of Game Loft, a room full of young men are hunched over their computer screens designing new software for cell phones. The mantra here is think small. Even their most complex games are under two Megs memory. That's less than a single song on an iPod.

The games have to be seen on the tiny screen and heard with a little speaker. Pierre Garneau(ph) and his team are designing a cell phone game based on the television show The OC.

Mr. PIERRE GARCNEAU (Game Developer, Game Loft): You have to limit the number of characters, the number of movements they can have, because cell phones are so limited in space. So you have to consider all these constraints yet make something really exciting and interesting and interactive.

SMITH: His co-worker, Steven Liung(ph), is an artist on the game. On his screen is a design for a little digital night club with the hip OC characters looking like they're made out of legos.

Mr. STEVEN LIUNG (Artist, Game Loft): Everything is drawn large and then scaled down smaller, and so all the detail goes compacted into a small little space so it looks that much better, let's say.

SMITH: The design of the game will take months, but whether or not it's successful is in some ways out of their hands. Cell phone games are sold mostly through the cellular providers and people tend to buy the ones that providers prominently display or whose name they recognize.

It's telling that even with all the technological innovations, one of the best selling games for the cell phone is 20 old, the vintage computer hit Tetris.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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