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banner Monday, 17 December, 2001, 10:37 GMT
Goodbye to free phone games
Space invaders, BBC
Could this be the game on that flash new phone?
The unexpected popularity of free games programmed into mobiles means they are becoming a money-spinner for phone companies, writes Paul Rubens.

A few years ago, a Finnish computer programmer put a game called Snake in a mobile phone. Much to his surprise, people played it. Today, almost every mobile on the market comes with at least one game built in.

Phone games, BBC
"I said, pawn to king four..."
At first glance a mobile seems an unlikely games machine. Most games need big colour screens, fast moving graphics and good sound reproduction, and there are plenty of consoles like Sony's PlayStation 2 or Nintendo's handheld Gameboy Advance which provide just that.

So how many people bother to play games on their tiny mobile screens?

The answer is a lot. Interviews carried out by Nokia found that 85% of the millions of people with a game called Space Impact on their phones had tried it, and 45% played it every day.

And the original Snake has become so popular that a sequel, Snake II, has been written and built into newer mobile phone models.

Play away

One key to the success of these games is that despite their limitations, they are always handy, says Matthew Donovan, a student and Snake II enthusiast.

I always have my phone with me so when I'm waiting for a bus, I play Snake II

Matthew Donovan
"I've got a Gameboy and a PlayStation, but I don't carry them around with me. But I always have my phone with me, so when I'm waiting for a bus I play Snake II."

Up to now, phone users like Donovan have been able to play these games on their mobiles for nothing. But manufacturers, network operators and game publishers are beginning to recognise that their popularity is so great that there is money to be made. The days of free gaming may soon be over.

Pay for the challenge

Technology has been developed to enable users to download complex new games to their phones by receiving multiple text messages that contain the game program itself.

So the most obvious way to get game players to part with their money is to make them pay to receive these messages, says Juan Mentes, director of technology at mobile phone maker Motorola.

"The games that manufacturers embed in their phones may soon end up being demo versions designed to get you addicted to a particular title," he says.

"The trend I see is for embedded games to include the first two or three simple levels of a game, but if you want to go beyond that you will have to pay to get the next levels. For that to succeed, the games will have to attain a new level of addictiveness."

Generation text

Mobile users will be made to pay for other types of games indirectly by having to send text messages as part of the game.

This has already been done successfully with several games, including a version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in which players receive and respond to questions sent as text messages. Players have already generated more than one million text messages.

Tim Roth in Planet of the Apes, BBC
See the movie, play the phone game
These types of games will probably be introduced increasingly by mobile phone network operators keen to drive up their revenues.

And if games can be played using text messages, why not involve potentially more lucrative calls too?

A game called Ape@tak, developed by mobile marketing agency 12Snap as a promotion for the film Planet Of The Apes, involves dialling a number (and paying for the call), listening for ape noises, and pressing keys on the mobile phone to "shoot" any apes heard.

"Ape@tak shows that your phone really can become an integral part of a game," says Anne de Kerckhove, 12Snap's managing director.

Out with the old, in with the...

So what will the phone games of the future be like? In coming years the big change will be that instead of single player games, people will compete against other gamers around the country using the phone networks as a giant games system, says Carsten Schmidt, a mobile phone analyst at Forrester Research.

Pacman, BBC
Could Pacman's simple pleasures go mobile?
"The game Doom was originally a single player PC game. Then people played it on an office network, but it really took off when people could play it against people anywhere on the internet.

"The same is true with mobile games - they will benefit from the network effect, so mobile phone operators will create an environment for people to play games against each other."

The other possibility, Schmidt says, is that since the computing power and graphics capabilities of mobile phones will soon match that of the arcade machines of the late 1970s and early '80s, mobile phone gaming may end up being dominated by nostalgic 30 to 40-year-olds.

So state-of-the-art mobile phones may soon be used to play aging arcade classics like Space Invaders.

See also:

13 Dec 01 | Sci/Tech
Women take on male gamers
12 Oct 01 | New Media
Entertainment mobile launches
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