The companies are now peddling a virtual pet named "Kiepo" that lives in a cellular phone. The plan takes the concept of the Tamagotchi games to new heights.
A popular Japanese electronic toy, Tamagotchi was a small device where virtual pets resided. Users had to care for it regularly or else the virtual pet died. Similarly, Kiepo lives inside a cell phone.
"It's not a cat or a dog, and it's not a human," said Tapio Lofman of Lumo Media, a wireless content distributor. "We don't know what it is."
Not only does a user need to feed it regularly, but Kiepo--whatever it is--can be made smarter by taking virtual trips to the library or to a disco to learn how to groove on the dance floor. Users can even test Kiepo's dancing skills against other Kiepos throughout the world in multiple player competitions over the Internet.
The electronic game may be fun, but carriers hope Kiepo also will generate big bucks.
The pet is controlled using short text messages sent over the phone. Carriers stand to gain considerable revenue because they charge users a per-message fee. Anything that encourages consumers to use the short-message service more frequently boosts the bottom line for wireless carriers.
Wireless service providers worldwide have embraced services and software such as Kiepo, or even stick-figure games, as a way to generate more cash. In the past year, nearly every carrier has beefed up their collection of interactive, multiple-player games for wireless subscribers.
Sprint PCS launched its gaming channel in October. European carriers such as BT Cellnet offer fantasy soccer leagues. American carrier AT&T has parlor games. Qwest Communications International is also cultivating its wireless gaming options.
Meanwhile, Motorola, Siemens and Ericsson are to develop a gaming standard for wireless communications devices by the third quarter of this year.
These companies are all following the lead of Japan's NTT DoCoMo, which has been offering games through its I-mode service for about a year. The company claims the service has become one of the most popular activities in Japan.
And all are chasing what potentially could be a huge audience. British technology research firm Datamonitor estimates that 198 million people in Western Europe and the United States will be playing phone games by 2005.
In the case of Kiepo, the revenue generated by carriers is then split with the game maker, according to Lumo's Lofman.
The entire virtual pet's software can't be on a phone because of a phone's limited memory. Instead, some of the virtual pet's software sits on a Lumo Media server, which gets its directions with the short text messages.
Of course, Lumo and Small Planet have yet to find a carrier customer that wants to offer Kiepo to consumers. But based on the trend toward messaging and wireless games, the company remains positive that it will attract carrier interest soon, Lofman said.