Playing with Mobile Media -- Tokyo Game Show 2004
By Justin Hall, Tue Sep 28 19:00:00 GMT 2004

Not only are digital cameras appearing in phones, they’re now appearing in mobile games as well.

The Tokyo Game Show typically draws much of its excitement from new hardware announcements. This year, Sony's PSP was the biggest new device at the show. The giant screen and lovely graphics captured a lot of attention, but there weren't too many remarkable games -- mostly tried and true genres and sequels. Nintendo's DS promises more hardware innovations, including a touch screen and built-in wireless chat. But Nintendo avoids the Tokyo Game Show, preferring to stage their own event later in the year.

Surprisingly, for mobile gameplay innovations at the Tokyo Game Show this year, there was more happening on phones themselves. Leading service provider NTT DoCoMo had a booth demonstrating their largest dozen game developers; two of these companies adapted their popular franchises to use mobile phone cameras in the games.

Japanese publisher Tecmo makes the Monster Rancher series of console games, where players breed and fight little beasts. As early as 1997, versions of this game could generate monsters from audio and game CDs -- Metallica might result a spikey black blob, Sade, a smooth red mammal. It was groundbreaking personalization based on media collection. The same principle is applied to their new Monster Rancher Mobile, launched this month. In the game, players can fire up their mobile camera to take a picture of something nearby. That picture is chewed on by the game, and a monster is spit out.

I immediately became excited, imagining that I could make avatars of my friends with my mobile phone camera, and stage cockfights between members of my buddy list. But Monster Rancher Mobile's algorithm renders your photographs as one of Tecmo's predetermined cute-but-deadlies. Between rounds cuing up the phones for visiting Tokyo Game Show attendees, a Tecmo representative explained that there are 400 possible monsters that are generated based on the image. The game primarily uses the image's colors to pick an avatar and to generate statistics like attacking and defensive power. It's not random, the Tecmo rep was eager to point out -- the same image would generate the same monster again.

After the monster is generated, the game is like Pokemon -- supercute monster cockfight, with one side directed by the player. There's no more picture taking, unless you want to add to your stable of monsters.

Tecmo was demonstrating another camera-empowered game, Real. Real plays with the Japanese tradition of shinrei shashin -- spirit photography, the idea that media can record ghosts. This was the thematic underpinning of the popular Japanese film Ringu, and numerous other games feature heroines with cameras chasing the dastardly departed.

Real plays a bit of meta-media; when you launch the game, you're told you have new mobile short mail. A crazed killer ghost is on the loose! You've got to track him down with your mobile camera. Take any picture and you'll find the game develops it with a ghastly ghoul lurking somewhere in the background. There are seventy possible ghostly foes, generated again primarily through the colors of the photographs.

Then, Real turns into a shooter -- aim a crosshair at a ghost, dancing around the photo you took, and press buttons to fire shotguns and repeal the monster. Vanquish that foe, you'll find another email alerting you to another ghost on the loose. The graphics and sound are high quality, but not enough to mask the simplistic gameplay.

Square Enix was demonstrating a mix of mobile technologies in their flagship Final Fantasy title. They call "Final Fantasy VII: Before Crisis" a network action RPG, which means essentially a string of battles you play online with other people, while improving your personal avatar. It doesn't sound revolutionary when you compare it to modern PC or console games, but it's significant that a major franchise is pushing mobile technology to offer the chance to play something resembling Final Fantasy, in the company of other people, on your mobile phone. Final Fantasy VII: Before Crisis had a large presence at the show, catering to the phalanxes of fervent Final Fantasy fans, some dressed as characters drawn from the story of the mobile title, which launched just after the Game Show.

Final Fantasy VII: Before Crisis also makes use of the camera, in limited fashion. Players can take photographs, which are used to generate empowering "material."

A year or two ago, high packet fees might have kept players away from online titles. But DoCoMo has recently begun offering a flat-fee packet data service. This is a huge breakthrough for mobile online gaming -- now gamers can begin to hang out online together. Speaking with Hiroshi Kataoka from NTT DoCoMo's Multimedia Services Department, he explained that the decision to go forward with flat-rate package plans was motivated in large part by the gaming market. "Game users were suffering," he said, with some paying bills around $200 a month.

Flat-rate services have arrived just in time; last year game developers at the Tokyo Game Show were complaining that high packet fees were stalling innovation. Now with the chance to take photos inside games and mail them around without running up big bills, future games might begin to incorporate mobile multimedia. There was nothing so innovative as Masaya Matsuura's game Vib Ripple at the show; that game takes a photo and uses it as the gameboard for a dancing electro-rabbit. But these early games are making mobile media technologies a part of play.