The Fantasy of the Forever Game
By Justin Hall, Tue Aug 29 00:00:00 GMT 2000
Someone's going to build the first big massively multiplayer wireless game, and it's not only going to make them a huge pile of digital cash, it's going to change the world. When the communications devices that hang from our hips connect us directly to fun with our friends, the time we spend in the wireless world will be less about making plans and more about role-playing, block stacking, and raising little creatures together as one big distracted human family.
Already people are playing games through their PDAs and phones, transmitting gameplay through the sky, using the wireless web. According to a recent Red Herring article, "Now the hot thing to do on wireless application protocol (WAP) phones is to play games."
But being on the cutting edge of roving distraction isn't necessarily fun. Wireless web connections reach speeds exciting in the 1980s: 9600 to 14.4kbps. Typically, the displays are black and white, and most are smaller than a belt buckle. With most wireless web games, you send each of your moves to the server and wait for a reply. Playing Blackjack on WirelessGames.com, between each hand you'll have a few seconds to contemplate strategy and guess what card comes next. Not exactly engaging interactive gaming.
However, this video of 3G mobile terminals in action shows a step in the right direction:
Choose Quicktime (688k) or Real (244k)
But it's going to be a while before we see rich 3D worlds through our mobile devices. Nintendo just announced their next generation portable gaming device, the Game Boy Advance and even it doesn't support 3D graphics. It does, however, have an as-yet-undefined wireless component, where it will plug into a mobile phone to play games against other people. if you look at Game Boy Advance screenshots you'll see that they look far more enticing than most WAP games look today; still they are probably years away from being wireless. Even granted the limited technology on hand, if the right story is being told, people will respond. Great software can make a relatively primitive device worth many hours of your time.
I used to carry a PDA, a Palm Pilot, with a few games on it. The leading adventure game for the system, Kyle's Quest, had an open system and an adventure creating tool. Nearly 40 user created games emerged, allowing me to wander everywhere from Gilligan's Island to Arkham Asylum in my Palm! Tetris drove the success of the first mainstream portable game device - Nintendo's 1989 Game Boy. Tetris is a beautiful game of simple geometric block stacking; a game that appeals to a incredibly wide range of people.
Snake may be the closest thing to Tetris on a mobile phone - a simple addictive single player game. But it doesn't utilize many of the communication capacities of wireless. Take a popular video game, connect all the players, and put the game in everyone's pocket, we could see an explosion in the scale of games as we know them.
Imagine little critters inhabit your phone. You breed them, to collect different species. You trade with other breeders for the creatures or resources you need. Eventually your creature competes with other creatures, or battles with them, to establish your place in a heirarchy and to enlarge your collection. These are now familiar game concepts, thanks to the success of Pokemon, the monster collection video game cultural force, and Tomagotchi, the electronic keychain gadget-pets. These games emphasize collection, which is great for game manufacturers. Players have to buy additional supplements or games to "Catch them all" and if they get their friends hooked they can harvest their friends for additional creatures as well.
Early wireless game pioneers have not slept through the Pokemon craze. nGame's Alien Fish Exchange looks like a nice mix of Pokemon and Tamagotchi, using the wireless web behind it to inspire competition. In the game, you breed fish from a moon of Jupiter for restaurants across the galaxy looking for rare species to feed their customers. They were definitely inspired by virtual pets like Tamagotchi; reading about the game design gives a good sense of their design inspirations and the decisions they were forced to make bringing the game to WAP.
Wapagotchi (soon to be renamed) was one of the first early WAP entertainment successes. You've adopted a young being from Mars and you must feed and entertain them. Entertaining usually means playing some kind of simple game-within-the-game, and eventually as your being evolves, you'll see your standings in comparison to other Wapagotchi parents.
Both Alien Fish Exchange and Wapagotchi are definitely single player experiences; the games center on resource management and your relationship with your pets. Someday wireless may offer a ready pool of challengers when you're ready for your creature to fight or interact. Besides virtual pet breeding and combat, the next frontier is a wireless game that you play in active conjunction with other people.
As popular as Pokemon has been, it's a trend that will soon run out of steam. The eye-grabbing revenues in gaming these days come from massively-multiplayer online role-playing games. According to Forbes.com, "Almost 40 million Americans now play [online games] regularly, and the market is projected to hit nearly $800 million in revenue within three years."
EverQuest is the most popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Over 200,000 PC users currently subscribe, paying $10 a month to keep a character alive in a virtual world. Everquest is not alone; Asheron's Call, Ultima Online, and the upcoming Shadowbane each host thousands of users logged into their PCs, running around in their underwear, fighting beasties in mythical lands. And the players are chatting, celebrating their birthdays there, having guild meetings; it's the Virtual Community in a graphically vibrant form.
While wireless may connect you to your community, it's not quite ready to handle those kinds of graphics or player interactions. Wireless adventure games today are mostly interactive fictions, like the classic game Zork; unfolding stories that respond to sentences from the player. The LudiWAP Adventure Games add to Zork a few pictures and pre-typed sentences. It's similar to Hairy Harry's House, another WAP adventure game. There's a picture for each location in the game, and you choose your next destination from a menu. These games have been designed to work better with the limited interface of a mobile phone, still there's no presence of other players. Looking at the structure of WAP, this may be about as good as it gets for adventure games today.
Next generation wireless could serve as a framework for a rich fantasy worlds where people can explore social relationships and impossible adventures. These are the heart of role-playing. If you doubt the capacity of devices this small to render robust fantasy worlds, check out DragonBane for the Palm. While the game's plot is a bit thin, the graphically rich world offers a genuine escape from any airplane flight.
Now imagine if you had a fantasy character alive in that world. A half-elf from a broken home who was trying to make a living as an itinerant swordsmen. Or a brave pirate who enjoys wearing bright clothes and searching for treasure. Or maybe a cunning cybersleuth with elite computer hacker skills. Alongside the mundane existence you are experiencing now, that world waits for you to continue the fun with your online friends.
Now imagine your mobile device is your access to that world. When you power it up, you've powered up a true portal - beyond the flat screen is a deep world of social relationships and high adventure. People already refer to EverQuest as "EverCrack," joking about its addictive quality; imagine if you didn't have to stop playing EverQuest anywhere you went. This scenario may not appeal to everyone, especially people who haven't been brought up to enjoy electronic entertainment. But increasing numbers of people are; according to a recent poll in Newsweek, 80% of American teenagers play videogames. As they grow up, the idea of carrying games around with them all the time may seem like fun.
I work for Gamers.com, which is a great education in the young world of gaming. We have an online database with everything from information on traditional pen and paper role-playing to the latest PlayStation 2 and X-Box news. We're WAP-ifying our giant games database later this year, so we can help our Gen-Y audience find their games in the wireless world.
As a gameplayer, I'm excited for the day when I no longer have to carry both a mobile phone and a Neo Geo Pocket Color. I hope that the companies making mobile devices will develop friendlier hardware interfaces to facilitate people spending hours at a time gaming on the wireless web. Today few mobile devices are built to be gripped and pushed at the way a game machine is. Try playing an hour of games on a mobile phone, or a Palm, and an hour on a Neo Geo Pocket Color, and you'll see which is more ergonomically suited to the task of fun. I dream of a device with a small joystick that you could hold sideways to play games between adult-sized hands, that could connect to the wireless web and find a movie time tonight for my girlfriend and me.
Imagine a kid raised with that device that plugs her into a worldwide network of games at all times. We will have harnassed thousands of years of technologial development so that she can game collectively and continuously, experiencing life in remote worlds, feeding and sustaining her virtual pets. It'll be like she's using her imagination, only she'll be paying a monthly subscription!
A child of the Digital Age, Justin Hall has a deep attraction to the world of videogames. Now the Director of Innovation at Gamers.com, he's been a writer, web publisher, oft-cited speaker, and all-around gaming aficionado for all of his adult life.