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Designing Mobile Games For WAP

September 17, 2001 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Your game needs a high level of persistence - that is, the player should be able to sign off at anytime, and later pick up the game from the exact location from where they left off. This is understandable when you think about how fragmented the mobile play sessions are. As a player, you are paying for every minute and you definitely don't want to pay more to do the same thing over again.

Provide Value Early
I already touched on this subject, but here are some additional thoughts. I played Ion Storm's Deus Ex a while ago. I liked the game a lot, and now that I think of it, I realize that I often found myself sneaking around and evaluating the situation, for instance, the guard and security bot patrol routes. Sometimes I would just sit on a rooftop and wait for the guards to show up, and it was fun! The question is, would it have been equally fun if I was playing the game through a clumsy interface (WAP phone) and if I was paying $0.15 per minute? Not likely.

On WAP, the games need to be more intense. Don't waste a player's precious time by creating worlds where the player walks around ten minutes before getting some kind of gratification. Provide the player with both a challenge and a reward within the first minute or two. That doesn't mean the game should be too easy; it simply means that the dramatic structure has to be more concise. It's a little bit like comparing a novel and a short story. In a novel you have plenty of pages to properly introduce your environment and characters to your reader before the real action begins. In a short story, there's no time. Short stories typically drop the reader into the middle of the action. The introduction takes place on the fly usually , and for some wonder, it works! Try to construct your WAP games to resemble short stories rather than novels.

Bottom line: provide value early on in gameplay, not later — people are paying dearly for it.

Text Adventures & Other 80'S Games

WAP game development is often compared to the game development in the early 80's due to similarities in graphics capabilities, production team sizes and budgets. Some claim that this is a comeback for 80's games. Are 80's game conversions really the key in mobile gaming? Can we just port all those game classics to WAP and avoid wasting money on designing new games? Let's examine one of the good old 80's genres - text adventures. Text adventures? Oh yeah, those games that contained lots of text and pretty pictures. Hmm. Text and pictures? That sounds a lot like WAP, doesn't it?...think again.

No one can seriously recommend writing complex text adventure commands like "examine blue bottle" on the keypad of a mobile phone. Typing errors will abound and people will simply find your game too difficult to play. Also, think back how often you got "unknown command" or some error message similar to that from the text adventure parsers even though you were using perfectly valid English words - you definitely don't want to iterate your command three or more times on a mobile phone where you pay by the minute.

In addition, the screens and memory sizes of mobile phones are very limited — it is not at all obvious that you can simply copy-paste old text adventures onto a WAP phone. The text for a single location may not fit on a single WAP deck (the basic chunk of WAP content that has a practical maximum of about 1.4 kb after compression). Even if it does, reading lots of text on a WAP phone screen is more inconvenient than on a TV screen.

Figure 5: Turn-based PONG on WAP? Is this as much fun as the original?

Now I'm not saying you cannot bring 80's text adventures into WAP. You can, but to make it work you need to re-think the way commands are given, redo the graphics (making sure any puzzle clues on images are still visible in 88x39 monochrome format), cut unnecessary text and generally shorten the slack times when nothing happens (remember, provide value sooner, not later). Wandering around in an empty labyrinth for a long time just to get a feel of what's going on is fatal at $0.15 per minute. Finally, let me ask you this question: are you 100% sure that early 80's games are mega hits with current mobile phone audiences?

Great Ideas

Ultimately, successful game design is about great ideas. The mobile game market is now in its infancy, however, soon the market will be flooded with all kinds of titles. As in any new medium, most content providers will try to push old media content, thinking on the lines of boxed CD-ROMs and early 80's games. Mobile is a new world and the true heroes of mobile game design will be those who discover the game concepts that fit this new medium's special characteristics best.

Without great ideas, we will be producing an endless series of game clones similar to the PC/ console market. We have all seen how most of the poor clone games fail on the market (real-time strategy, anyone?), while a handful of star products bring in the jackpot. Well, maybe the copycat phenomenon is unavoidable. On mobile games, the signs are already visible…unfortunately.

Final Words

WAP is an evolving standard. What I have presented here is based on the current version of WAP (1.1). Future versions may well include "push" functionality, color graphics and maybe even streaming media or 3D acceleration. Whatever the future of WAP, mobile gaming is here to stay in one form or another and designing games for WAP is a great way to learn the rules of mobile gaming.

The pricing of WAP services may change in the future. Some speculate that there will be Imode-type monthly fees instead of per minute billing. Even if this eases game design somewhat, the same basics will apply. For instance, you would still need to provide entertainment value within a reasonable time since mobile game sessions are fragmentary in nature. Here's a summary of the key points in this paper:


  • provide value soon!
  • keep it simple!
  • think what kind of games you can do to a turn-based, HTML-like environment
  • come up with great game ideas
  • honor the traditions and push the technology to its limits
  • remember the mobile gaming situation: lots of short sessions!


  • think classical games like text adventures will work just like that on WAP
  • think too much on the lines of boxed CD-ROMs, mobile is a different world

Further Information

WAP specification:

Articles on various WAP issues, like design and usability:

An article explaining why Japanese Imode has been more successful than WAP so far:

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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