Mobile gaming

A role-playing game called Samurai Romanesque, produced by Tokyo-based game producer Dwango, lets mobile gamers take a virtual journey through 15th century Japan, battle other players in real time, practice the art of Zen, meet with virtual ladies and even have virtual children. Gamers can visit a thousand different villages and towns, complete with historical castles, hostels, postal stations, blacksmiths, provision stores, teahouses and even liqueur stores. To visit all the game’s locations requires six months of continuous play. The so-called massive multi-player game can accommodate 500,000 battling and chatting gamers simultaneously. Samurai Romanesque, based on Java 2 Micro Edition and part of Docomo’s i-Appli service, is the state-of-the-art in mobile gaming.

With Japan and Korea leading the way, the market for mobile gaming is exploding. According to research firm Datamonitor, mobile gaming generated revenues of $827 million in Asia last year. The European and American markets are small in comparison but catching up fast. With Java-enabled handsets flooding the market this year, the number of mobile gamers is expected to grow exponentially. Last year, the European gaming market was worth $105 million, but the U.S. market just $20 million. However, Datamonitor predicts that in 2006, 150 million Europeans and 124 million Americans will play mobile games, while the global market will grow from $1 billion in 2001 to $17.5 billion in 2006. UK consultancy BWCS is more conservative in its estimates, predicting 200 million mobile gamers and $7.76 billion of revenue in 2007.

Driving the growth of mobile gaming are J2ME-enabled handsets and the deployment of 2.5G networks. Both are needed to offer a sophisticated gaming experience. Packet-switched 2.5G technology provides the ‘always-on’ connection to the web, and J2ME enables users to download part of a game to their handsets. With a peer-to-peer board game like chess, for instance, both players download the virtual chessboard to their handsets. When one of the players moves a piece on the chess board, the handset only sends the relevant data to the handset of the opponent (i.e. ‘E2 to E4’), thus eliminating the need to transfer the entire chess board over the network. Playing a game of wireless chess with a friend halfway around the world will cost mere pennies. DoCoMo’s Java service (i-Appli) attracted 10 million customers in its first year of service, with games and other mobile entertainment among the most popular applications.

Mobile gaming appears to have a near-magical attraction. While most consumers in the U.S. and Europe still rely on slow, circuit-switched (2G) networks and non-programmable handsets with small monochrome displays, carriers and developers are reporting phenomenal rates of growth. Swedish producer Picofun, supplier of games to six European carriers, registered 1.2 million minutes of play during 2001, up from 500,000 minutes in the previous year. The company expects to break the 40 million-minute mark this year. British producer Digital Bridges, supplier to six U.S. carriers, registered 2 million minutes of play in 2001 while average playtime increased from 3-4 minutes to 10 minutes per session. During the first six months of this year, the company recorded nearly 4 million AP games played. Game developer Jamdat released a wireless version of its Gladiator game, and generated 3.2 million minutes of airtime for U.S. carrier Sprint PCS.

Apart from boosting revenue, the growing popularity of Java-based mobile gaming has another important benefit for the industry: it makes consumers familiar with programmable handsets and wireless internet services. Users learn how to download applications, navigate through multi-layered menu structures, and configure their devices to set personal preferences. All this is expected to lower the barrier to multimedia applications, mobile banking, location-based m-commerce and other advanced wireless services.

The explosive growth of wireless gaming is drawing both new and old game producers to the market. American games stalwart Hasbro is working with InfoGrames and Jamdat to develop wireless versions of classics board games like Boggle and Yahtzee. Handmark has ported Hasbro’s classics Monopoly and Scrabble to the Palm platform. The board games can be played individually or in a combination of computer and real opponents. Sega has developed a library of wireless games that users can download to their handsets. The Japanese company claims it has signed up 500,000 paying subscribers. (Game developers are increasingly moving from packaged software sales to subscription-based models to counter piracy and generate a more constant revenue stream. Subscription rates for most wireless games are between $1 and $2.50 per month.)

Not surprisingly, Atari and Amiga, console game pioneers from the 1980s, are reinventing themselves as wireless games producers. In Europe, gamers using Motorola phones (the V60I and the V66I) will soon be able to play such Amiga classics like Pong, Asteroids and Centipede. Atari has announced a new gaming platform, Atari-Anywhere, to recycle its classics. These early video games, with their elementary graphics, are ideal for devices with small screens and limited memory. The industry is also developing wireless versions of conventional video and arcade favorites like pinball, racing simulators, and ‘Tomb Raider’.

Technically more demanding are multi-player role-playing games, already popular on the conventional web but rapidly expanding to the wireless web. British game maker nGames produced ‘Merchant Princess’, a complex multi-player game situated in Europe’s 17th century Hanseatic era. Players take the role of merchants trading furs, fish, cloth, timber and spices. The trading area of the game covers sixty cities, including Venice, Brunswick, Genua, Istanbul and Danzig. Each city has its own commodity, which must be bought at the lowest possible price and sold at the highest price in other cities. Players use horse-drawn wagons to transport the goods across Europe. While traveling, the virtual merchants must fight off bandits, pay toll and road taxes and maintain their wagons (a poorly maintained wagon is temporarily ‘grounded’). Last year, Merchant Princes received a nomination for best game from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta).

Samurai Romanesque screenshotBut for now, the massive multi-player game Samurai Romanesque is, well, the game to beat. Rendered in colour and resembling (8-bit) Gameboy graphics, the game takes wireless gaming to a new level of complexity. Gamers take the role of samurai, warlord or other archetype from Japan’s 15th century Sengoku era. The purpose of the game is to rise in the ranks of Samurai-dominated society. The life span of the virtual Samurai is 50 days, but can be extended when the gamer is successful in seducing a virtual woman and having a virtual child.

The game consists of three Java applications that must be downloaded to the handset: a training application to get acquainted with the game, a multi-player application to participate in the game and a chat application to communicate with other players in real time. The training application consists of three separate applets: Sword Training, Physical Strength Training and in the Zen-inspired Samurai tradition, Mind Training. The training applications can be used off-line and are meant to prepare players for the game, as well as to avoid newcomers being clobbered by more experienced players online.

The Sword Training consists of three mini-games: Flying Bow game, Cutting Big Tree game and Hitting Persimmon game. These mini-games are meant to improve the players’ hand-eye coordination. In Flying Bow game, the player is subjected to barrage of arrows. By pressing the right button at the right moment, the arrows are deflected. Mind Training is meant to learn the virtues of patience, and includes so-called ‘koans,’ Zen riddles of seemingly irreconcilable opposites. Gamers giving the wrong answers lose points and will have to make umbrellas to regain their regain their ranking (making umbrellas was a typical activity of the poor ‘masterless’ samurai in 15th century Japan). Other exercises include memory training: a sequence of numbers flashes on the screen which the gamer has to remember and enter into the keypad. When the gamer interrupts play, a Java applet in the handset sends the score to the server, and retrieve it when he resumes play.

Samurai Romanesque, set in Japan’s ‘warring states’ period, is based on historical, rival fiefdoms. Once a week a war breaks out, each time in a different part of Japan. The server determines the moment and location of the conflict. Players who traveled in the area of conflict during their last online session and belong to one of the warring clans receive a text message telling them they have to report for war duty. A massive multi-player battle follows, involving strategic planning, repaying past favours and cunning. To make matters even more complex, play is affected by actual weather conditions. Supplied in real time by the Japanese Weather Bureau, these conditions are an integral part of the game. If it rains in Osaka, gamers in the region will not be able to use their muskets because their gun powder is wet; if it snows, gamers are limited in their mobility, as the roads are slippery.

Samurai Romanesque screenshotIn another amazing feat of imagination, players can meet virtual women and have virtual children after a successful romance – which explains the word ‘Romanesque’ in the game’s title. The virtual procreation is meant to prolong the life of the virtual samurai. If the gamer fails to seduce a woman and procreate, his life as a samurai is finished. His game is over and he has to start again with zero points. But a successful romance produces a child and allows the gamer to continue play. The child inherits the score and hence the status of the father.

The server determines the place and time of the virtual romance. While traveling from town to town, the virtual samurai may encounter a woman who is in trouble. A picture of the woman appears on the screen with a text saying: “Help me, samurai, I am being chased by a bandit.” If the samurai decides to help, he presses a button on his handset, and is faced with the bandit. He challenges the troublemaker, beats him in a fight, and rescues the lady. He next starts to communicate with her using a preset dialogue. She thanks him, but she will not easily be seduced. She may disappear, and the gamer has to revisit the area where they first met and try to meet her again. When she reappears, he must again communicate with her. If she likes the answers to her questions, and is impressed by him (his status, sword skill and physical strength), she is likely to fall in love.

Making things even more complex, the virtual ladies have different personalities – some are kind and sweet, others are very attractive but proud. In the latter case, the gamer may decide that the lady is not his type and decide to reject her – which may be easier said than done. Some ladies are persistent, and follow the virtual samurai wherever he goes, to the point of annoyance. But if they take a liking to each other, the dialogue becomes more loving and intimate, and after several chat sessions a text appears on the screen of the gamer’s handset saying: “You may go to a Shinto Shrine, and hold a wedding ceremony!” The virtual samurai follows on-screen instructions, and find himself married. From now on, wherever he travels, he will see a portrait of his wife in the status window of his miniscreen.

Is Samurai Romanesque making money for its producers? Dwango is not releasing any figures on the number of subscribers, but confirms that well over 100,000 have tried the game since it was launched in January last year. With a subscription fee of $2.25 that could amount to significant revenue. Dwango is also silent on the investment it made in the complex programming the game required, but the experience it is acquiring from running the massive multi-player game should create a valuable return on investment. Samurai Romanesque is a sign of things to come – cyberspace on the go. No doubt Japan’s virtual samurai are eagerly awaiting version 2.0.

Written by Jan Krikke for PMN Mobile Industry Intelligence.

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