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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 October 2005, 03:18 GMT 04:18 UK
Mobile games take a step forward
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Screengrab of Sims 2 Mobile Ideaworks
The Sims 2 mobile game tries to emulate the PC version
Games on mobile phones have come a long way since Snake or endless knock-offs of arcade classics such as Asteroids and Space Invaders.

Now many of the big name titles first created for consoles and PCs are turning up in shrunken versions for handsets that an increasingly large section of the population own.

But, says Thor Gunnarson of British mobile game maker Ideaworks3D, the whole industry is just getting started.

Handsets, he says, are getting powerful enough to cope with what he dubs "console class" gaming, which means they are able to cope with 3D graphics that scroll past at a rate of at least 20 frames a second.

Speed kings

Before now many of the mobile gaming conventions we are used to, such as competing against "ghost" opponents rather than real people, have come about because of the limitations of phone networks.

Data transfer rates on second generation networks are too slow to play real people in real time.

But, said Mr Gunnarson, such limitations disappear with 3G networks simply because they can ship more data back and forth more quickly.

PlayStation controller, BBC
Console class games are coming to phones
Once latency or delay drops below 350 milliseconds it becomes invisible to users, said Mr Gunnarson, and 3G networks will definitely ship data between handsets fast enough for that.

"That's good enough for multi-player gaming and real time racing," he said.

But what will also make a big difference is the way that people pay for the data they consume via their phone.

Currently most operators charge users for the megabytes they use. A pricing mechanism, said Mr Gunnarson, that does not encourage people to spend lots of time browsing the web or downloading extra levels for games.

Rate card

Flat rate pricing transformed the net industry and drove a huge rise in the numbers of people going online.

In the US, Verizon's VCast network uses flat rate pricing as does KDDI in Japan. Both have seen the numbers of mobile gamers increase rapidly.

If you can swap huge amounts of data in and out of a handset without incurring extra charges, it also changes the types of games you get on a handset. No longer do they have to be restricted to a file that the phone's own memory can store.

Instead, extra parts can be added as they are needed. This also frees up game makers to think big, he said.

"Something like Need for Speed Underground 2 (NFSU2) would not be economically viable to deliver to the consumer before we saw flat rate data networks," he said. "There are megabytes of data flowing back and forth."

Screenshot from mobile version of Need for Speed Underground 2, Ideaworks
Flat rate pricing helps players and game makers
As a result, games can be much bigger. The mobile version of NFSU2 has about 40 hours of game play in it. All of it expected to be consumed in small chunks.

"It relies completely on network-based storage and only pulls down levels, cars and characters it needs at that point in time," he said. "It's constantly shuffling data back and forth."

Another game that Mr Gunnarson expects to be big on handsets is Sims 2 Mobile - again which would be hard to do without the advent of 3G.

The key feature of this Ideaworks developed title is the connection with the PC version.

A Sim can be created for the PC version, converted to a mobile character and then uploaded to a handset.

Although the way the game is played has been changed for the handset, with floating menus and different modes for exploring or interacting, the experience is as close as possible to the full version, said Mr Gunnarson.

"It's a big challenge to get a relatively complicated game like this on a mobile phone," he said, "not least because you have to be able to play the game with one hand."

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