Can You Play Me Now?

The death of the free cell-phone game.

When I went shopping for a new cell phone this summer, I had two criteria. First, the phone had to work. The one I was using, a refurbished model that had been the height of tech-chic in 2003, was about as functional as a spoon. When I bought it, the salesman emphasized that it was made of metal. That sounded impressive at the time; it turned out that just meant it was heavy and clinked if you tapped it against your teeth. Second, my new phone had to come with a good selection of games. The cell-phone game is one of the great guilty pleasures of the modern age. Why bother “thinking” or “socializing” during dead spots in your day when you can watch a four-pixel snake eat dots? (I fondly remember Snaking my way through my college graduation ceremony—which, come to think of it, is an oddly apt metaphor for my entire undergraduate experience.)

Simple cell-phone games—Snake, Tetris, that one where you break bricks with a bouncing ball—are perfect for those situations where you need to kill time, like waiting in a line or riding a bus. They’re also free, which is key for people like me, who are poor enough to have to wait in lines and ride the bus. At least I thought those games were free. On my quest for a new phone, I visited retail stores for five major service providers. Except for the wallet-busting BlackBerry, every single phone I looked at had no free games. Sure, they all have plenty of demos—limited-functionality versions of titles like NBA Live 07 and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Lockdown. If you like the demos, you can buy the full games for a full price. (Prices for mobile games vary by developer and service provider, but most seem to cost a shade under $10.) As I searched in vain for free, no-fi games like Snake, it hit me that the mobile games I knew and loved had gone extinct.

In the early part of this decade, cell phones started to become less about the phone call and more about the ring tone. Mobile-gaming types began to realize two things. First, if kids were willing to pay $3 for a 10-second snippet of a 50 Cent song, they’d probably be willing to pay some nonzero amount for a game. Second, consumers aren’t going to buy the cow when they can play Virtual Milkmaid for free. It’s obvious where this line of reasoning leads: Goodbye Tetris, hello $7 Tetris. But Tetris isn’t the industry’s endgame. Established gaming companies—images of a potentially multibillion-dollar market dancing in their heads—have bought out mobile-game studios and set to work manufacturing slimmed-down versions of full-platform games.(Electronic Arts paid $680 million for Jamdat Mobile in December 2005, for instance.) If you’ve felt a primal need to play Age of Empires II in an elevator (just $19.95 on a Windows Mobile Smartphone), your long and burdensome wait is over.

While European and Asian markets already produce billions of dollars worth of mobile-gaming revenue, the United States has yet to catch up. (Asians have always been gaming pioneers; Europeans need something to distract them during those interminable Eurail rides.) In a report from May of this year, tech industry research firm Gartner Inc. predicted that the North American mobile-gaming market would top $1.7 billion by 2011. However, overenthusiastic predictions of mobile-gaming dominance have become a tradition in the industry. A Wall Street Journal piece from Dec. 19, 2005, quotes one analyst’s prediction that the North American mobile-gaming market would be worth $1.5 billion by 2008. At least as far as America is concerned, mobile gaming’s Golden Age has turned out to be iron pyrite. Revenue projections are consistently missed, and the percentage of phone users who actually pay for mobile games has stayed in preteen digits.  

Why is this? First, downloading games to your phone isn’t always easy. The only thing one needs to operate a cell phone is opposable thumbs. But getting a game onto a phone, especially for an idiot like me, can be quite confusing. (Although you can click a button on your phone to download certain games from your service provider, you have to take to the Internet if you want a wider selection.) Plus, despite the claims of industry hype men, most cell-phone screens are just not fit for serious gaming. Moreover, a numeric keypad is not a substitute for a joystick, especially not for those of us with what are commonly termed “fat fingers.”

The keypad dilemma speaks to a real issue in mobile-game development: platform standardization, or the lack thereof. You can take a copy of Halo 3, plug it into any Xbox anywhere, and be turret gunning your friends in minutes. But cell-phone operating systems vary widely by carrier and manufacturer, and every cell phone is configured differently. A game that works for Sprint won’t necessarily work for Verizon; a game that works on a numeric keypad won’t necessarily work on a touch screen. The lack of standardization is confusing for users and maddening for developers, who have to decide whether to build games for a single carrier and limit their audience, or go bankrupt and crazy trying to build 50 different Froggers for 50 different phone configurations.

Maybe they shouldn’t even bother. Most people just want “waiting games” on their cell phones—fast-twitch titles that can be initiated, understood, and completed in a few minutes. The free games of yore were perfect for this: There was no learning curve, and they weren’t bogged down with intricate storylines. There’s no incentive for playing a long, story-based game on your cell phone. By the time you’ve figured out how to control your character, you’ll have made it home and can play the same game on your computer.

I’d also bet that many of the potential customers for mobile games already own a portable gaming device, like a Nintendo DS or a PSP. These devices are just as portable as a cell phone, and they boast bigger screens, more-intuitive control pads, and better graphics than any phone. There’s no reason that I can think of for a PSP owner to play any cell-phone game, unless they’re on the losing end of a really nerdy bet.

For years, we’ve been hearing that the mobile phone will become an all-inclusive media platform. Contenders include fancypants phones like the Nokia N-Gage and the T-Mobile Sidekick—about as big as a PSP and about one-fifteenth as gaming-functional. An all-in-one device theoretically makes sense, but it’s really, really hard to build something that does lots of stuff well. A design-smart device like the iPhone is necessary to make mobile gaming take off. The menus and controls are clear and basic, and the screen resolution is crisp enough to make gameplay bearable. But the iPhone is ridiculously expensive (a huge design flaw for me and my fellow cheapskates), and its touch-screen navigation system has to be hell on mobile-game developers. I guess we’ll have to keep waiting a few more years.

So, what market is there for mobile gaming? Simple puzzle games like Tetris and Bejeweled consistently top the American sales charts. (Jamdat Mobile got $680 million from EA largely because the company held the long-term mobile license for Tetris.) Meanwhile, the mobile versions of fancier games like NBA Live and Age of Empires never crack America’s top 10 most-downloaded sales charts. Mobile-game companies should realize that simplicity sells. People don’t want fancy games so much as they want a way to waste time in the car, on the subway, and at the dinner table. A game doesn’t have to be amazing. It just has to help you kill five or 10 minutes.

That said, it’s a little bit diabolical to charge cell-phone users for something they’d come to expect as a free add-on. The prospect of paying cash for Tetris, at least for me, sucks all the fun out of the game. So, although my cell-phone store tour this summer was one wild ride, filled with memories that will last a lifetime, I decided to save my money and stick with my old inanimate carbon rod of a phone. No, it doesn’t have any games, but at least it’s not a giant sucking sound clipped to my belt. And I’m thinking about taking up Sudoku. At least that’s still free.