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Designing Mobile Games For WAP

September 17, 2001 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Business Model
As if it weren't enough to tackle technical issues, successful designs require an understanding of the commercial environment as well. Basically, there are several people your design should convince. Everybody on the chain has an idea of what works on the market place and what doesn't. The best you can do is just try to consider all of them while doing your design (crossing your fingers wouldn't hurt either).

First of all, you need to convince some people in your own company that your design has a chance of success in the market place. How this exactly occurs depends mainly on the structure of the company you are working for. Since you are bound to be familiar with people within the company, this is probably the easiest step. If your company partners with a content distributor, they want something that complements their portfolio. It's probably up to the individual tastes of the person doing the negotiations as well. It gets tricky when we come to the level of individual mobile phone operators that actually deliver the game to the end users. It's next to impossible to know what billing scheme operators in France, Israel and Hong Kong will be using six months from now. What it boils down to are mundane questions like "will the operators buy this game if my design calls for sending thousands of unpaid SMS messages every day?" Can I use SMS or must I stick to only WAP though it has no "push" capability? Finally, at the top of the chain awaits the fabled end-user. Displease the user and you shall have no chance of success. Well, as long as WAP services are priced as they are now (relatively high charge per minute) the end-user's number one concern is definitely cost of the service.

I recently played a labyrinth game hosted by a local WAP operator. All you could do in the game was move around in a 3D labyrinth (like in the classic Dungeon Master), collect keys and try different key combinations to the door leading to the next level. There were no monsters, just keys and a map on the final level. The game had four levels and it took me about 40 minutes to complete all of them. Despite the extreme simplicity, I must admit the game is actually somewhat entertaining if you have absolutely nothing else to do. However, with the price being around $0.15 per minute, I actually paid something like six dollars for this session. Suddenly, it doesn't seem so fun anymore. After all, I spent a lot of the time just walking around and trying to visualize the shape of the maze so that I could find my way around. Keeping the game's content and price in balance is a real challenge to the designer; there are currently no easy answers. Basically, you just have to provide value sooner rather than later.

The categorization of casual and hardcore gamers is an ongoing debate in the game industry. Which group should WAP games be made for? On the one hand, there are more casual gamers but then again hardcore gamers tend to spend more money on games. There are no reliable statistics available on this yet, but it's very likely that both will provide business. Choosing between the two is more a matter of business strategy than game design.

Resource Limits
There are obvious limits to game production. No production that I know of has an unlimited supply of the basic developmental resources including money, people, or time. In WAP games, resources aren't typically a major design concern. At least not in the same sense as in the PC /console market because WAP game projects tend to be much smaller, and thus the financial risk involved is easier to accept. Typically other factors, such as playability issues, force you to simplify the design so that budget isn't a big problem - scaling down the amount of narrative or graphics may happen occasionally, but that doesn't usually affect the core game design.

Design Opportunities on WAP
Now that we're familiar with the most important design limits, let's take a look at the brighter side — what interesting opportunities does WAP offer for game designers?

Those Precious Moments
Since the entry cost of a game is very low, people are often willing to give your game a try. Paying a data call for a couple of minutes is quite different from handing over $42 for a CD ROM package. In addition, players feel safe when they know that as soon as they stop having fun, they can also stop paying for the game by simply disconnecting.

The implication for the designer is to provide entertainment value as fast as possible. If people are willing to try out your game for a minute or two, it's absolutely crucial to hook them during those precious moments. If you start with a narrative intro, it had better be top quality. Yawns will cost you users very quickly. Depending on the game, you may want to consider throwing the player directly into action and giving the introductions later. If the game is complicated, provide an easy way to get started. Many CD ROM games are commonly constructed this way — the player simply doesn't have access to all the features until later in the game. This may be a worthwhile approach in WAP games as well.

Location Based Games
The possibility to use the player's actual real-world location data is something quite new in games, and certainly opens up new avenues for a clever game designer.

Mobile Phones will be Very, Very Common
Analysts predict that there will be a billion mobile phones in the world by 2003. If you believe the manufacturers, most mobile phones will be WAP enabled by then. The amount of potential players will be so staggering that even very short one to two minute games may be successful if enough people play them once. On the other hand, you only need a tiny percentage of all WAP users to support an addictive long-term game. Both approaches will be valid in design. In addition, with such huge numbers, there shouldn't be a lack of opponents for multi-player games once people get used to the idea of playing games on wireless.

People Carry Their Phones with Them all the Time
In a typical PC network game, you have to get all the players to sit down simultaneously, and play for an extended period of time. On mobile devices, your online world can send messages to the player at any time of the day, where the player is able to participate by spending a minute or two to respond to the message.

Flex Your Creativity
Since WAP game productions are small, more designs get through — depending on the size of projects, you can easily work on 10-30 game designs per year! This provides an opportunity to try out a lot of different ideas in quick succession.

Game Design for WAP

I've already discussed many important design issues in conjunction with the limits and opportunities, however, a couple of issues remain.

What is re-playability? Re-playability means being able to enjoy the same game over and over again. Chess is a good classic example because playing multiple times does not affect the players enjoyment (assuming you like chess).

In the PC /console market, game titles seem to be designed mostly with the thought "buy our next title soon" in mind. For instance, game levels are typically tied to a linear narrative. Once you have played the game through, it's unlikely you would start playing it again. This makes perfect business sense. After all, as a player you get tens of hours of linear content, so there should be more than enough bang for the buck. Quite naturally, the game publisher needs you to buy more titles — why would they want you to play the same CD-ROM for the next two years? On WAP this isn't as self-evident. The mantra should probably be more on the lines of "stay with our game as long as possible". Due to the per minute billing system, the longer you can keep the player glued to one title, the more you are winning for the investment your company made in the development. Long linear narratives will probably work if they are intensive enough to let players feel they are getting value for their money. To do this you need to divide the narrative into short episodes and even shorter challenge + gratification elements. The point is that unlike in the business where you sell CD-ROMs and memory cartridges, there's room for other, more dynamic design approaches on WAP. Re-playable games make perfect sense on WAP.

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