Cell phone users dial 'G' for games

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Roger Lopez didn't intend to get hooked on DataClash. He was bored, he tried it out, and that was it. But resistance was futile. Like thousands before him, Lopez was drawn in by the game, and he surrendered.

Sounds like a typical gamer's tale, right? But it's not, because Lopez isn't playing DataClash on a personal computer or on a console from Nintendo, Sega or Sony, or even on a portable Game Boy Color.

Lopez's gaming obsession is on his cell phone.

It's a comparatively barren world, where DataClash players battle each other in black and white, with the smallest of screens and no fancy graphics, no amped-up sounds and no joysticks or any other gaming gear.

But the cell phone is becoming a potent gaming device anyway because it's small and portable, it links players worldwide and it's handy when people have spare time.

"It's very addictive," said Lopez, a 27-year-old Anaheim purchasing agent. "I find myself not having phone juice to make a call because I've been playing the game so much."

Cell phone games, which began to appear in the United States only over the last year, are filling up one of the last chunks of free time left in modern, technologized life -- those now-wasted minutes spent waiting in line, waiting on a bus or waiting for some other electronic device to demand attention.

"It's in my pocket, and it's so accessible there that I can't help but pull it out any time I have five minutes in between phone calls at my desk, or waiting for my wife to come out of a store," Lopez said.

Such usage has awakened mobile phone companies, game developers and others to the possibility of the stodgy cell phone becoming an entertainment device.

After all, mobile phones are fast becoming ubiquitous, with more than half a billion sold worldwide each year -- dwarfing the installed base of any existing gaming system. By 2005, 198 million people in Western Europe and the United States will be playing phone games, according Datamonitor, a British technology research firm.

In addition, technological advancements will soon bring cell phones more power, faster connection speeds, color screens, global positioning capabilities and the ability to download Java-enabled gaming programs. Game developers also could incorporate game elements that allow players to make use of a phone's calling and instant-messaging features to communicate with other players.

"The wireless Web isn't about stock quotes and weather. . . . People want to have fun; they're looking for entertainment to fill the voids," said James Newcomb, chairman, chief strategist and co-founder of Indiqu Inc., a San Diego company that provides games to more than a dozen wireless carriers worldwide. "This is about mobilizing people's obsessions. . . . It's moving something that people already do and putting it in their hands," he said. "The good news is we can be there when they're feeling like they need a fix."

So far, the strategy is working. Wireless gaming, which typically requires Internet-enabled cell phones and service, is growing fast, offering a combination of simplistic single-player games built into phones (such as Snake and Memory) and Web-based games ranging from old standards such as hearts, hangman and tick-tack-toe to specialty creations such as Phone Kung Fu, Alien Fish Exchange and Gladiator that can involve many players at a time.

These games don't look like much, and a good many of them are mind-numbingly pointless and dull. In Japan, one of the top attractions is a fishing game called Tsuribaka Kibun, or Crazy About Fishing, in which a player selects a type of lure and a location, and nothing else.

"When the phone vibrates, you pick up the phone to see what kind of fish you caught," said Brian Dargel, a manager at NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese carrier that has gained worldwide acclaim for making money through wireless games, specialty ring tones and other frivolous phone offerings.

Why would anyone want to play the fishing game? Dargel himself is not entirely sure, but he said there is a certain odd pleasure in mastering a game even if the rules are so basic.

"If you like to fish, and even if you don't, it's a very easy game to understand," he said.

Following Japan's lead, an increasing number of U.S. cell phone users have become habitual players of seemingly inane games, whether out of boredom, curiosity or the compulsion to beat out others and rise higher in game rankings.

Indiqu says as many as 3 million people play two or three of its games each week, with various trivia games as the top attractions.

The top player of Gladiator, a new role-playing game by Jamdat of Los Angeles that is available through Sprint PCS' Web service, already has racked up more than 5,000 minutes of play.

Gladiator pits players against one another in ancient Rome. Inside a virtual Colosseum, they can fight a friend -- or whoever happens to be there. Using keys on the phone, players pick their weapons and the placement of their shields. They choose the method and direction of their attack and then wait to see the outcome of the battle.

The bloody combat is displayed on a cell phone screen, using 0s and slashes to draw a body, and the "@" sign and parenthesis to denote weapons and armor.

Lopez, the DataClash fan, is but one of more than 14,000 Sprint PCS customers involved in the game. DataClash, produced by the British firm NGame Ltd. as a "cyberpunk combat game," gives players a variety of defensive and offensive moves to fight their competitors.

The players select their method of attack and defense and then wait to see if they emerge victorious. The winners gain points and new skills for use in future battles. The average contest takes just five seconds.

One of Lopez's competitors is 19-year-old Nikolas Macholz of Wilmington, Ill., who works the graveyard shift at a local gas station. When business is slow, especially from 11:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., Macholz is busy challenging other DataClash players to fights through his phone. "There's huge diversity in the game, and for what it is, it has very good graphics," Macholz said. "I was No. 1 for a while."

Alex Cruz is partial to Alien Fish Exchange, a game in which players try to breed 47 types of alien fish. The fish swim around in a virtual tank, eating one another, eating fish food and mutating. Players can trade information through online forums and exchange fish through an online fish exchange.

"It's a fun game, and it keeps me occupied . . . sometimes when I'm supposed to be studying," said Cruz, a student at Cal State Long Beach. "I never thought they'd have games like that over the phone."

Online game sites have created a new breed of casual gamers, people who play solitaire, trivia, chess, checkers and the like to pass the time or to win prizes.

"Games are becoming pervasive. They are becoming the primary entertainment medium in the world," said Greg Costikyan, chief designer and a co-founder of Unplugged Games in New York. "When I was growing up, gaming meant mass market board games. These days if you add arcade, PC, console and online gaming to that you have an $11-billion domestic market."

Phone games are admittedly a minuscule piece of that market today, but market realities in the wireless phone world and the gaming world may change that in the future.

Wireless carriers such as AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Cingular and Sprint are all in the business of selling people minutes on their network. The more people use their phones, the more money the carriers make.

At the same time, game developers see the cell phone as a new gaming platform with millions of potential users and a clear way to make money in between mammoth projects for Sony, Sega and Microsoft.

It's also an intriguing challenge, Costikyan said, to create something compelling on a device with so many limitations. "I imagine some gamers are taking a look at these early wireless games and saying, um, call me back when the technology improves drastically," he said. "But it's possible to create interesting games for limited platforms. It requires a bit of cleverness. . . . It's like writing a sonnet."

Costikyan said his games are designed to be played in five-minute chunks "because we're not sure if we can keep anyone's attention for longer than that or that they won't get a phone call."

He and others see that as a temporary limitation. Future games will be more engrossing, with global positioning technology built into games that could send users on scavenger hunts or searches to locate nearby players in a wireless version of hide-and-seek.

Lopez, for one, might not be able to afford those kinds of temptations. Since he started playing DataClash, about two-thirds of his monthly cell phone minutes are from game-playing, and his Sprint PCS bill has ballooned to $150 a month. "One addiction is enough for me. It hurts to write the check at the end of the month," he said. "Still, it's good entertainment, . . . and like the alcoholics say, I can stop at any time."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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