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SEPTEMBER 22 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 37 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Illustration by Emilio Rivera III.

The Game's the Thing?
WAP backers are still looking for a killer app
By BELINDA RABANO Hong Kong

ALSO:
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China's president has reason to be chirpy. Abroad and at home, he is getting his way
Wham! Bap! Pow! Ka-ching? Computer games are already big business at home. But now the wireless communications industry, in a frenzied search to find more uses for cellphones than mere conversation, is trying to bring gaming to mobile phones. If software developers have their way, millions of Asians will in coming years be able to duel with each other remotely — one combatant riding the subway, the other sitting in a restaurant — in a no-wires version of online computer games.

Mobile combat may sound like overkill — don't people have better things to do during the day? But according to market research firm Datamonitor, 200 million people in Western Europe and the U.S. will be brutalizing each other wirelessly by 2005 — that's four out of five cellphone users. Asians' passion for computer games and an intense attachment to mobile phones would appear to guarantee widespread popularity. With WAP (wireless access protocol) technology making the Internet accessible over mobile phones throughout the region, network operators are scrambling to roll out new applications, and games — some in downloadable versions, some designed to be played over the Net — are among the hottest. Hong Kong's SmarTone is running ads touting the more than 30 WAP games it began offering in August as part of its "Republic of Funland" website. Kungfu Boy, a game designed for mobile phones and desktop computers by Singapore's Davidcan.com, is available over Singapore's MobileOne and Hong Kong's Orangeworld. Industry heavyweights Motorola and Sega Enterprises say in the future they'll jointly produce games and entertainment for cellphones and other mobile devices.

Part of the reason for the enthusiasm is that WAP has so far hit Asia with a muffled thud. Consumers are less than ecstatic over the limited content and painful user experience offered by newly christened WAP networks. Mobile operators are in search of killer applications (see VIEWPOINT, page 81) to kindle interest. They're also looking over their shoulder at Japan's wildly popular i-mode service, whose 10 million users have access to around 5,000 gaming and entertainment sites.

Market research firms are touting games and other entertainment applications as a vast untapped money pool. Datamonitor forecasts revenues for mobile gaming will reach $1.6 billion by 2003 in the U.S. and Western Europe. Online WAP games are designed "not only to meet growing demand among young people for WAP-based entertainment and games, but also to encourage more non-WAP customers to join the WAP world," says Prudence Chan, SmarTone's chief operating officer.

There are, however, a host of hindrances that are immediately evident to anyone sampling WAP-based offerings. Computer games as we know them are played on powerful computers and are rich with big-screen graphics, movie-like soundtracks and fast action. In contrast, a barely-smart device like a phone offers a poor platform. In-Spirit, a two-person role-playing game distributed by Hong Kong's Sunday Communications, is characterized by sluggish, simple, colorless graphics and no sound at all — not even a Pow!

"Three years ago we were designing games for WAP and we knew it wasn't working," says Giles Corbett, managing director of France's mobile games developer In-Fusio, which designed In-Spirit. "WAP is very good at doing certain things. People should be focusing on that and not trying to turn WAP portals into Internet-like portals on a mobile phone. All that will do is generate disappointment."

Slow connection speed is WAP's biggest shortcoming. Most WAP phones download data at 9.6 kilobits per second, a snail's pace compared to the typical desktop dial-up speed of 56 kbps. Add to that the need to rewrite Websites for WAP delivery, and a lot stands in WAP's way.

That's why Sunday has taken a low-key approach toward its WAP entertainment, choosing to roll out only two mobile games. "We don't put much focus on WAP games," says Sunday public relations manager Mark Chan. "The screens are not that great, and there's no color." Hong Kongers who have grown used to arcade and desktop play won't settle for low-tech, he says.

Sensitive to WAP's drawbacks, In-Fusio has developed a hybrid solution. An ever-changing lineup of games from the Net can be downloaded, but since they're played offline, they can pack more action.

Pushing the technology along will be Japan's three big manufacturers — Sony, Sega and Nintendo — which are working on mobile versions of their games. Ultimately, though, true Web-based, interactive game-playing for cellphones will have to wait for faster networks. Over the next year, general packet radio services, or GPRS, will be phased in, to be followed by even speedier third generation, or 3G, technology. For those in the race to win the high score on mobile games, they'll have to hope consumers are willing to wait.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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