Cellphones got game

But is the ability to play any time, anywhere, a good thing?

Robin Harper likes to play multiple versions of solitaire. These days, the Bay Area software developer and mom can do it waiting in line at the bank or in between phone calls because she's playing the games on her cellphone.

Ms. Harper is not just another harried commuter with a new distraction - she's part of the hottest new trend in the burgeoning $10 billion video-game universe: cellphones as an online game device. The industry's annual trade bash, which just wrapped up this past weekend in L.A., turned into a coming-out party of sorts for this surprise star.

"Mobile phones were the only [game] platform which saw an increase in usage in the past year," says Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association.

This unlikely star has risen despite the fact that Sony and Microsoft have spent millions of dollars over the past year trying with mixed success to lure the masses into playing online games with their big living-room game consoles, the PS2 and Xbox.

There is a message in this new development, say industry pundits. Whenever consumer behavior takes an unexpected right turn like this (Americans have had color screens on their cellphones for only a year), there's usually a deeper meaning driving the collective purchases. In this case, both critics and proponents of the industry say, the trend signals that perhaps Americans' need to be plugged in has never been greater.

"We [the gaming industry] provide enabling technology to bring people together," says Fred Thiel, CEO of GameSpy, an online game publication and website. Phone users can choose a game from their phone menu, download it, and play it on the phone, either alone or with fellow phone gamers.

Americans want to connect with other people, and our convenience-oriented culture also wants something easy and portable, he says.

"The phone companies are doing what the big guys have been wanting to do and trying to do for a while," says Andrew Gearhart, director of LANParty.com, a site for networked communities, "and that is deliver all-pervasive gaming."

But other observers wonder if all-pervasive gaming is necessarily a good thing. Whatever happened to downtime or being alone with your own thoughts?

"The underlying message in all these ad campaigns is that down time is wasted time. If you aren't connected somehow you aren't being productive," says technology consultant Robin Raskin. Perhaps, she says, this is something we as a culture should challenge for the sake of our own mental privacy.

Americans won't get that message from the companies trying to sell us more ways to stay connected, she adds. "There are huge financial stakes on the part of these companies in keeping us engaged all the time," says Ms. Raskin, who specializes in family-related technology issues.

Shiny Entertainment's Dave Perry, who designed the "Enter the Matrix" videogame (see review at csmonitor.com), says it's not that we've lost the ability to be alone with our thoughts; rather we've gained the ability to fully utilize our time, as well as reach out to other people.

"We have a chance to engage our minds all the time," he says. "We haven't lost the ability to handle boredom - we just don't accept it" as necessary anymore.

No chance of slowing down

The drive to connect is only growing. The Interactive Digital Software Association's 2003 survey showed that the number of people who play games on their cellphones has increased over the past year by nearly one-third. Informa Media Group expects that wireless gaming revenue will top $3 billion in the next three years.

Some of the top game titles for connected play include a real-time version of "Bejeweled," a puzzle game in which players can request a random opponent or a friend, and FUDOMYO, a networked fighting game in which players can duke it out with each other while they wait to buy stamps. "People want to interact with other people and casual gaming is a good way to do that," says Mr. Gearhart.

Phones still have challenges to overcome, such as the tiny screen size and cumbersome keypads. But now that phonemakers are on to the trend, big names like Nokia are rushing out units that are closer to a Nintendo GameBoy than a phone.

There are other, more practical reasons for the success of the cellphone as a choice to play full-color, downloadable videogames. The phone companies have mastered two of the thornier details of online play that still bedevil the big guys: billing and a wide variety of content.

Charges appear on a customer's phone bill. Out of sight, out of mind, says Rio Caraeff, vice president of Sony Pictures mobile, a division of the film company devoted to putting games based on TV shows and films into people's phones. This makes it simple for adult gamers. More important, the billing system bypasses the hurdle faced by underage game players, who don't have a credit card to pay for the online game community. Nearly one-third of all cellphone users have given phones to children.

Beyond that, the content of the mobile games is simpler, he adds, which makes it appealing to a mainstream audience. "It's about getting in and out," he adds, "it's not about building multiple levels."

Popular titles go mobile

As game developers have grasped the easy money to be made in retooling existing games for yet another piece of machinery, they've embraced the cellphone in a big way, offering up a dizzying array of popular titles in versions to-go. Sprint offers more than 125 games, and AT&T publishes a magazine for cellphone users to stay on top of the latest downloadable distraction.

"We don't have to appeal to gamers to get new hardware," says THQ producer Christopher Field. "They can use whatever wireless device they already have, and they're set to go."

Still, cellphone companies plan to roll out more user-friendly game platforms later this year.

Nokia's N-Gage phone is a two-handed affair with a larger screen in the middle. To talk on the phone, users have to tip it up sideways. It won't hit the market until late this year. This summer, Sprint will offer a lightweight game platform, in which players can plunk their phones and play with a two-handed grip and the more familiar set of game buttons instead of the three by four phone keypad.

The big console makers such as Sony, whose 19 million PS2s dominate the home console market, have dismissed phones for lack of storage space and processing power. But Andrew House, executive vice president of Sony Computer Entertainment, says the company "will definitely be looking at some form of phone capability" for the new PSP, a much-anticipated new portable hand-held, which will be ready next year.

Phone gamer Harper calls her games "just this side of brainless," and says she likes puzzles and strategy games. She likes being able to dip in and out quickly, adding that games are just a way to keep her mind sharp. Nor does she think they pose a problem to those around her. They take two hands, she quips, "so I wouldn't play them while I drive."

For video game reviews, go to www.csmonitor.com/newmedia

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