E3: Mobile Game Hardware Merging
By Justin Hall, Tue May 24 08:00:00 GMT 2005

What is a mobile gaming handset? What is a mobile entertainment device? Fortunately those distinctions are being blurred, and playful mobile social networks might be the result.

Nintendo owns handheld gaming with the GameBoy. With the iPod, Apple took over mobile music. Sony is reaching for portable video playback with the PSP. Nokia made a stab at the ultimate gaming phone with the N-Gage.

That was last year -- clear mobile entertainment categories. This year, the latest Nintendo device supports Wi-Fi for internet communications. Sony's PSP has been hacked with a Web browser, and how long will it be until the PSP's phone keypad interface makes a VOIP call? Nokia announced a new strategy of distributing the N-Gage gaming platform across many sorts of handsets, and Korean mobile phones boast 3-D hardware graphics accelerators, while the Gizmondo entertainment handheld has GPS built in.

Which of these is a communications tool? Which is a portable gaming deck? Which is everyone going to buy? All of these devices were on display at the last week's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, and no easy winner is yet apparent.

The most lively mobile games booth at E3 was undoubtedly Gizmondo's. The company's GPS- and GPRS-enabled camera-carrying mobile media device launch is a long shot in a field already crowded with Sony, Nintendo, Creative, Apple and Nokia, but it sure knew how to fill its corner of the trade show. The Gizmondo booth was too loud, too crowded and too flashy -- in short, typical E3. A meager-looking 3-D racing game barely registered amidst the deafening DJ beats and nearly bare-assed models hanging on a gleaming silver Porsche Carrera GT sports car.

Gizmondo's most innovative offering was Colors, a 3-D gangland amalgamation of online SMS and location-based play. Colors looks like Grand Theft Auto meets Bot Fighters, which could be fun if Gizmondo can finish and launch the game as promised, and if more than twenty people have the device near where anyone expects to play.

A bigger splash might come from Nokia's new strategy to deploy the N-Gage as a platform across a wider range of its upcoming devices. While the N-Gage has not yet had the kind of success that might make it a solid separate platform for game publishing, the technology and experience from the N-Gage experiment could prepare Nokia to develop a much wider market for advanced mobile phone play.

Other mobile hardware experiments too young to judge: graphics-card maker ATI was showing off the Imageon, the first 3-D hardware accelerator for mobile phones. The LG SV360 demo device in the ATI booth included a snowboarding game controlled by tilting the handset, one of a number of games from Asia that takes advantage of tiny motion sensors built into mobile devices to recreate some of the gestures of sports. Soon we may see teenagers swinging their handsets like a baseball bat or fishing rod.

All the buttons and functionality may provide a new platform for games, but tucked away in the Korean national games promotion booth was another notion -- astounding simplicity. Launched last week to a big marketing campaign and thousands of daily downloads, NOM2 from GAMEVIL features time-based one-button gameplay. A growing trend in Korean mini-games, NOM2 uses one button to help a single running avatar through a series of sidescrolling Wario-Ware-esque obstacles. Topping off the simplicity with absurdity, NOM2 adds the chance to send an SMS message into space after finishing the game, through the Ukrainian national space program transmitters.

While NOM2 presents an impressive first example of in-game messaging from mobile players to extraterrestrial life, there's still much work to be done providing earthling-to-earthling in-game multiplayer. Giant games publisher Electronic Arts presented its popular Sims series ported to mobile devices. Rich social play, for a single player; no chance to mingle your simulated humans with any other players, online or nearby. Multiplayer will probably be offered in a future version, an EA rep said.

Compared to the console industry where every four or five years brings a new generation of hardware and software standards, the pace of experimentation in the mobile space moves much more quickly. Even with the complex standards and varied markets, phone games are still a haven for small developers compared to the WAN-enabled PSP and Nintendo DS. Sony and Nintendo have both clung to their established business models, approving mostly large developers and selling games through retail on non-standard media formats. Meanwhile the churn of mobile developers and publishers continues.

The many indie game developers roaming E3 are eager for the networked multiplayer future, if the hardware is open for them to bring it about. All the mingling of entertainment and gaming on mobile devices is promising, but not nearly so promising as the growing presence of mobile social networks, continuing to make their way into games and into playful mobile devices.