For the past year or so, the mobile-phone industry has been warming up to the idea that gaming could provide the data revenue it is aching for. In 2004, U.S. mobile-gaming revenue is expected to rise to $230 million, from $77 million last year, according to the Zelos Group.
This still represents a tiny fraction of the $12 billion global gaming industry, but carriers like Verizon Wireless — a joint venture of Verizon Communications and Vodafone — and Sprint PCS are jumping on the opportunity and have been kicking up their offering of phone games in recent months.
Yet it is from the games themselves that one has the best chance of gauging whether or not carriers stand a chance of attracting customers who are not hard-core gamers. We took a few games out for a trial last week. And in so doing, we tried to bear in mind some of the criteria that gaming studios executives say they carefully consider when conceiving a new game: Apart from targeting the right market, the game must be playable in five-minute sessions; it should be easy to access and save; and it shouldn't require a lengthy tutorial.
We also added our own: The game should be addictive, a prerequisite for repeated play.
We started off on an LG Electronics VX6000 with Lemonade Tycoon, a business strategy game by Jamdat Mobile; Wireless Gaming Review, an online publication dedicated solely to phone games, ranked it among the hottest titles in the past week. We were seduced by the Sims-like concept of the game: A small-town entrepreneur tries to make it big by selling lemonade around town. The title sounded like it wouldn't just appeal to experienced gamers and would require minimal dexterity skills, which met our profile.
From an esthetic point of view, the game looked good: The graphics were attractive and clear, although rather static. It did take a while to figure out how to play, though, so we cheated by browsing the message boards for some clues on strategy, including what the right balance of lemon, sugar and ice should be.
Overall, we found the game a bit slow and repetitive. Admittedly, we might have played it more intensely than a regular commuter would have, but the version we had lacked upgrades. Once we were quite effectively hooked, we wanted more and were disappointed to find that we could go no further. The game is worth playing for a couple of days, but we're not convinced consumers would pay to own it.
The second title we tried was a Gameloft game called Rail Rider. Initially, we didn't think much of riding a train down mine tunnels, especially since it looked like it would require nimble fingers and good coordination, but we got pretty thrilled after a few rides. In fact, we were so engrossed in the entertainment that we delayed getting off at the right subway stop, just in order to clear another level. The game's demands alternate between avoiding obstacles and shooting enemies. We found it tricky to aim at first, because of the small keypad on our Nokia 3650 phone, but our thumbs got used to it. We also loved the fact that we didn't get stuck at the basic level and didn't have to start over every time we died, which was encouraging since we died quite a bit. Overall, Rail Rider was a really fun and addictive game — but maybe not your best option on the subway.
Jamdat Bowling II
The last game we tried, this one on the LG VX6000, was Jamdat Bowling II, which two weeks ago won the Mobie awards — the mobile-gaming equivalent of a Grammy — for best sports game. The game is instantly entertaining. We never bowled so well in real life. We liked the fact that you have to adjust speed, aim and spin for each try, which makes the game a little more exciting. Bowling II is repetitive, of course, but so is bowling. The design was clean, and we could get in and out of our session in a snap. The title would make a good addition to any handset portfolio of games, because it appeals to a wide audience and is not so engrossing that you'll walk into a pole or miss your bus.