updated 12/13/2004 8:28:07 PM ET 2004-12-14T01:28:07

Who says "Solitaire" must be a lonely endeavor? Games tailored for cell phones are increasingly adding community-oriented elements, such as tournaments for top scores, head-to-head combat or chatting with other players.

After all, the ubiquitous gadget is meant to connect people.

"The mobile phone is really turning into a social computer," said Trip Hawkins, founder of Digital Chocolate Inc.

The San Mateo-based startup is one of more than 300 companies developing games for U.S. cell phone users. Its offerings includes "Solitaire", in its so-called mobile league, in which players can post scores and compete for rank and glory.

But such game leaderboards, which are expected to become commonplace next year, are only the tip of the social, mobile iceberg.

Early next year, Los Angeles-based Tomo Software Inc. is expected to launch a mobile game that riffs off reality TV, mimics the addictive elements of "The Sims" and "Tamagotchi" video gaming worlds and employs the social networking grease of the Friendster online community.

A player establishes a personal character — an image of their real selves or an alter ego — within the persistent cyber world of Sora City. The character forms relationships and can compete in game-within-a-game events in which other characters can help decide the winner. Players communicate through online journals, or blog, or by sending each other messages.

In another upcoming Digital Chocolate-developed game, called "Message in a Garden," players keep a virtual garden, adding water when needed while sending pictures of their handiwork or messages to fellow gardeners.

Interactive games more profitable
The more interactive the games, the greater the revenue potential for the wireless industry. It should come as no surprise that most carriers now offer about 250 games; Verizon Wireless has about 500. The options range from basic puzzle challenges to role-playing games adapted from game consoles or the PC.

Of course you can't play these games on just any phone, multimedia capabilities are de rigeur for many.

Mobile gaming skyrocketed in the past 18 months as handsets with color screens and better multimedia features became more affordable. Those once-fancy phones are now standard and will be the replacements for millions of wireless subscribers next year, expanding the number of potential gamers.

And phones are getting even more powerful. Arriving next year are phones with built-in three-dimensional capabilities to handle games more in line with the realistic-looking graphics found today on console titles. That's a far cry from the simple, cursor-like motion of the original "Snake," the first game built for cell phones in 1997.

Not surprisingly, multiplayer games are one hot phenomenon, and the ability to contact other players via text message an anticipated big draw.

JAMDAT Mobile Inc. currently hosts about 25,000 multiplayer matchups a day, mostly from just three hit titles, and says more such games are on the way.

MFORMA Group Inc., a leading mobile game publisher, already provides leaderboards of scores for most of its titles. Next year, players will be able to challenge others or forward games to friends, said Robert Tercek, MFORMA's chief strategy officer.

Sprint Corp., the nation's first wireless carrier to build leaderboards, has expanded its "Game Lobby" network so players can compete with users of AT&T Wireless's "Game Room."

Sprint developed "Game Lobby" after witnessing the phenomenal popularity of the two-player version of a puzzle video game it had offered, "Bejeweled."

Playing in the shower
Since the game's May 2003 introduction, Sprint's top 100 scorers have averaged a total of 422 hours on "Bejeweled," including one player who admitted sticking his mobile phone into a Ziploc bag so he could continue playing while showering, said Jason Ford, Sprint's general manager of games.

"Being able to compete ... is a core human nature that we're trying to help people exploit," Ford said.

Within Sprint's data-related revenues, games in the past year climbed to only slightly below the top money generator — ring tones, Ford said, declining to disclose specific sales numbers.

The industry outlook gets better, according to analysts.

Cell phone games in the United States, which generated $91.3 million in revenues in 2003, are expected to jump to $204 million in 2004, according to In-Stat/MDR, a market research firm.

Game revenues stem mainly from one-time downloads, which typically cost $2 to $5 each, while a smaller segment of games is based on subscription payments.

Some carriers also promote subscription services that give users access to game tournaments and head-to-head competitions.

The subscription strategy is paying off for Verizon Wireless, which debuted multiplayer games a year ago, said Paul Palmieri, director of business development for its multimedia group.

"Consumers are seeing that they have less and less time," Palmieri said, "So they're looking at ways to have snacks of entertainment, rather than a whole meal, wherever they are, whenever the moment hits them."

Digital Chocolate's Hawkins, who also founded the leading video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc., characterized demand for cell phone games another way: "Guys won't call each other to see how they're doing, but they'll play 'Fantasy Football' together."

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