Mobile

Disney puts games on the very small screen

Sprint PCS is the first U.S. carrier to offer games from the company that are playable on cell phones. Analysts say spoiled U.S. gamers are in for culture shock.

Walt Disney's online division continued its push into the wireless Web on Tuesday by offering games that are playable on cell phones.

Sprint PCS will be the first U.S. carrier to offer the games, which are based on Disney movies "Monsters, Inc." and "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," but others are expected to enter into similar revenue-sharing deals, said Larry Shapiro, Walt Disney Internet Group executive vice president of business development and operations.

The Disney games might appear primitive compared with what most people are used to. Shapiro dubbed them as being part of the "pre-'Pong' era," but he says they are part of Disney's future forays into the U.S. and European wireless markets. Disney wants to create a wireless entertainment service that carriers in Europe and the United States would sell on a subscription basis, he said.

Good luck, say analysts, who are in general skeptical that the U.S. gaming public will ever take to the small screen of a cell phone. The chief hurdle is the culture shock, many say, since U.S. gamers are used to detail-rich, live-action games played in a color screen and the idea that such games don't cost anything extra to play.

On the other hand, the wireless games offered by carriers have a fee attached to them. The entire session is like a phone call, charging the person by the amount of airtime used.

The games themselves are not even as advanced as the mid-1970s arcade-style entertainment. For instance, Nextel has a game called "Racquetball," which can be downloaded and played on certain Motorola handsets. In the game, players control a "racquet" and can only move it horizontally along the bottom of the screen. The object is to keep the volley going for as long as possible.

Sean Wargo, senior analyst for games at PC Data, says besides coping with the technological gap, Disney will face competition from downloadable games played on PDAs (personal digital assistants), which make for a better experience, he said.

"I'm not sure this is going to be a huge market," Wargo said.

But Scott Lahman, president of Los Angeles-based Jamdat Mobile, said it may be too soon to count the wireless games out.

"No matter how you slice it, people don't have a feel for what is going to work," said Lahman, whose company creates the "Gladiator" wireless game, one of the most played wireless titles. "You are talking about a new medium now."

Yet despite the uncertainty, analysts say they do think wireless games are beginning to take hold. Technology analyst firm Datamonitor says it believes that 21.6 million people, or one in six cell phone users, will play a wireless game this year. Datamonitor says 93 million people will be playing wireless games by 2006.

Shapiro said the Sprint deal is part of the foundation and that the company will not seriously evaluate the effort until about a year from now when more advanced cell phones, and cell phone networks, are expected to make their way to the United States. With more advances comes a better gaming experience, he said.

Disney has already had some success to model its U.S. experiment after, Shapiro said. The company created two such wireless subscription services in Japan for carriers NTT DoCoMo and J-Phone. About 2 million wireless users are paying between 80 cents and $2.45 per month (100 yen to 300 yen) for access, the company said.

"The reality is, at DoCoMo, the handsets are more advanced right now," he said. "But that's totally where we're headed."