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Phoning In The Fun

Game On


Published March 22, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

Your next video game is only a phone call away. The question is, will that bite-sized mobile phone game you download turn out to be any fun?

With a 25-word description on your handset and a $6 or so charge, mobile gamers don't expect much and usually don't get much from mobile games. A development powerhouse such as EA might bring their popular franchises "Tiger Woods" and "Need for Speed" to your cellphone, but don't expect PlayStation 3 performance. For that matter, don't even expect PlayStation 1 graphics or entertainment.

The popular notion has been that there's only so much fun you can have with a cellphone that doesn't include dialing a 900 number. And the reason boils down to fidelity and control. Take EA's "Need for Speed: Most Wanted." The graphics rival early PlayStation quality, if the PlayStation shipped with a screen the size of a saltine. But the Xbox 360 has shown gamers still grab for stuff that looks nice. So, we live in the era of the Dick Tracy video watch and, frankly, it's just not that interesting as a substitute for the fidelity of a big-screen television.

Still, gamers have suffered through lame graphics in the past, as long as the promise of game play was there. And here the mobile market throws up another barrier. Numbered keys make sense if you are an accountant or dialing a phone number, but they don't do much as an interface for, say, driving a car or swinging a golf club. So despite the developers' best intentions, using a cellphone to pay a videogame is a little bit like trying to control the space shuttle with a TV remote.

Or, to put it more bluntly, "Need for Speed" doesn't quite play the same on a cellphone as it does on the Xbox 360.

And that's fine with Minard Hamilton of EA Mobile. "The whole point of mobile is that you are in a place without your 360 -- you're at work, commuting on a train, in a meeting -- so we aspire to look great. We'd like the games to look as nice as the 360. But we run on a device that wasn't meant to be a gaming system; it was built to be a phone."

Minard doesn't want to replace the home gaming console and the 60-inch HDTV. He just wants to put a little interactive joy on a device the majority of Americans carry around in their pockets. According to Jeffrey Peters from Longtail Studios, you don't need a shoehorn to get interesting content into a phone. The developer has tested the waters for story-based dating simulations on the Nintendo DS. Their game "Love Triangle" doesn't feature explosions, footballs or even a space alien. Using a simple "choose your own adventure" style of branching storytelling, LT players pick their way through a soap-opera plot simple enough to enjoy on a mobile phone.

"Our game is story- and character-driven, an entertainment form, rather than just something you do between here and there."