Multiplayer Games Coming to Cell Phones

Monday, September 20th 2004, 10:07 am
By: News On 6

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ As millions buy increasingly powerful cell phones, many companies are racing to develop video games to take advantage of the newfound portability.

The newest twist is multiplayer: You can face real people in space battles or fishing tournaments. Until recently, multiplayer on cell phones game meant at most posting high scores on a leader board.

It's difficult to compare ``Momentum'' to the cinematic landscapes and sweeping orchestral scores common in many popular video games, but that would be missing the point.

Unlike most games for cellular phones in the United States, ``Momentum'' lets Allen Eichler challenge up to five people from just about anywhere in the country to collect coins scattered throughout a maze.

Eichler, the creator of ``Momentum,'' said true multiplayer games are a challenge.

There are technical hurdles with pumping game information through slow cell phone networks and with tuning computer servers to handle mobile multiplayer games.

There's also the question of availability. For now, ``Momentum'' runs on a limited number of handsets offered through Verizon Wireless.

During a recent demonstration, Eichler and several colleagues at Blue Ridge Games Inc. challenged a reporter to a round. In real time, the players maneuvered their characters _ penguins and other critters _ around a maze to pick up eight coins. The first one to get all eight coins and exit through an escape hatch wins.

``We really wanted to find a place where we felt people were ignoring an opportunity,'' Eichler said. ``For a lot of people, one of the most expensive high tech devices that they carry around with them is going to be with their phone.''

But don't hold your breath just yet for a miniaturized version of three-dimensional online role playing games like ``EverQuest.'' The market for cell phone games remains a niche in the overall U.S. video game business, though experts believe it will grow to $1 billion in the United States within a few years.

Market research firm Gartner Inc. said sales of handsets are up some 35 percent in the second quarter to 156 million, compared with 116 million a year ago, with sales projected to reach 650 million for the entire year.

Many of the new phones have color screens, extra memory, fast processors and other enhancements, making them attractive video game machines.

Like custom ring tones and graphics, the games are downloaded directly to the phone and usually cost a few dollars a month.

Demand for games has risen as owners realize what their phones can do, said Matthew Bellows, vice president of mobile entertainment and co-founder of portable game review site

``The fundamental truth is that these are network computers, and a common thing that everybody likes to do is play games,'' Bellows said in an interview during the recent Austin Game Conference, a two-day confab of video game designers.

Venture capitalists have invested heavily in the sector in the past few months, and Bellows said most major video game publishers now have either a wireless group or a subcontractor to churn out such games.

Electronic Arts, the world's largest video game publisher, is expanding its lineup of cell phone games for consumers in North and South America and Europe. And EA is also working on new games for Nokia Corp.'s N-Gage hybrid phone/game player and the next generation hand held game devices from Sony Corp. and Nintendo Co.

Cell phones still aren't very good at playing games, however. The tiny screens and buttons are fine for dialing numbers, not zapping monsters.

That's where companies like Nintendo feel they have an edge.

Their upcoming Game Boy DS handheld will sport wireless functions for instant messaging but it isn't a cell phone.

``We are a gaming company. That's where we're going to keep our focus,'' Nintendo spokeswoman Beth Llewelyn said. ``Yes, some cell phones happen to play games, but especially now where the prices are for certain things, you can buy something that meets the need and it's dedicated to that function.''

Though Nintendo has yet to announce any specific wireless multiplayer game, the DS will support the capability.

Nokia's N-Gage, meanwhile, is a dual-band cell phone but includes free access to ``N-Gage Arena,'' an online community where people can play against each other online, chat and post on message boards and receive game tips and community news.

In the first-person shooter ``Ashen,'' up to four players nearby can compete against each other using the N-Gage's Bluetooth wireless feature, though long-distance multiplayer gaming is not possible.

Bill Erickson, president of the wireless service provider M7 Networks Inc., said the next wave of games will take full advantage of the untethered network _ and it goes beyond enabling multiplayer gaming.

Working with game maker Dwango, M7 has developed a ``wake up'' feature for the fishing game ``Legendary Lunkers.'' You cast your line for a fish on your phone, then later the phone rings to let you know you've caught something.

``You can't do that on a console,'' Erickson said. ``Once you start adding the network capabilities, it's almost unending.''