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Last Updated: Monday, 31 May, 2004, 08:08 GMT 09:08 UK
Sound future for phone games - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

SonyEricsson T610
Cramming good games into standard phones is not easy
Mobile phones are sounding much better these days.

Largely because handsets that can play polyphonic ringtones are becoming standard.

Even the so-called Nokia Tune, the one that goes diddle-um-dum, diddle-um-dum, diddle-um dum-dum, has been updated for more melodic mobiles.

But the same has not necessarily happened to the music you get with the games you play on your phone.

Good looks

Sadly, says Kristian Segerstrale of mobile game maker Macrospace, there is no guarantee that just because a phone can play polyphonic ringtones it will do the same for games.

Screenshot from Fatal Force, Macrospace
Phone games are looking and sounding better
By contrast games on phones are looking better than they ever did.

"People have generally realised it's not just about Snake or retro Asteroids," says John Ozimek, head of marketing for Macrospace, "a mobile game does not mean you are compromising."

Audio in games looks set to get a lot better thanks, in part, to 80s pop pioneer Thomas Dolby.

Mr Dolby is the founder of software firm Beatnik which has campaigned relentlessly in mobile phone technology forums for a standard way to create audio files for handsets.

The result now is the Beatnik Audio Engine which looks set to make phone games sound as good as they look.

"The data descriptions produced by the Engine are very small but you get a very rich audio experience," says Jeremy Copp of Beatnik.

"It means game makers do not have to build audio functionality into their game, it's a standard interface to take advantage of that."

Small size

One of the first games to take full advantage of the Midi audio abilities of Beatnik is Fatal Force made by Macrospace.

Child with mobile phone, BBC
Kids, phones and games - a good mix
Mr Copp says the sound files for the whole game are less than 20 kilobytes in size. By comparison the image at the top of this story is almost half that size.

Although phones that measure memory in megabytes are becoming available, mobile game makers aim at the middle of the market where processing power is still relatively puny.

Anne-Marie Larkin, chief technology officer of mobile software firm Esmertec, says mass market phones typically have onboard an ARM 7 processor running at 30-50Mhz.

"That's a pretty small footprint," she says, adding that consumers could take a long time to trade up to more powerful handsets.

The small size of the Beatnik files means that game makers have much more freedom to use sounds and music at key moments in the game.

Mr Segerstrale says sorting out audio for games was much easier than almost every other aspect of producing a playable title for handsets.

Old style sounds

He says a typical game for a mobile phone would have to be written in six languages, conform to more than 83 different operator specifications and work on many different sorts of phones.

Close-up of Nokia N-Gage, Nokia
Dedicated game phones are starting to appear
Often, he says, they end up with hundreds of versions of games.

The standardised audio system means that, instead of just having sounds when aliens are killed, says Mr Segerstrale, sounds can be associated with many more events.

It makes it possible to make theme tunes for separate game screens and certain characters in the game can have their own signature tune.

Jan Weber, head of mobile games review site Midlet Review, says game sounds had come a long way.

"Having started with beep sounds and music mobile gamers are now able to listen to nice music as well as to impressive sound effects."

He likens phone music now to the standard that gamers got with the Amiga and the Commodore 64.

But, he says, this is a big improvement on the days when he began reviewing games for phones such as the Siemens AL45i which provided only a few beeps for the Bricks, Worm and i-Skiing games it had onboard.

The future, says Mr Copp, will involve the ability to sample and include real world sounds for screeching tyres in driving games or gunshots in shooters.

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