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Wireless companies pin hopes on stick-figure heroes

Wireless Internet providers hope that games such as "Gladiator" will jump-start cell phone sales and wireless Web subscriptions.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
In the cell phone game "Gladiator," players can program the barbarian, Garr, to ready his spiked mace, yell, "You stink as the entrails of the donkey!" and lunge into an opponent standing nearby on the ancient Roman Colosseum's sandy grounds.

The payoff is a little less exciting. Two tiny stick figures, a combination of dashes and commas, pop up on the cell phone screen. One is yelling "Ouch!" or so the ellipsis above the figure seems to represent.

It isn't like "Doom" or other cutting-edge, graphically rich games for PCs. But "Gladiator," from Jamdat Mobile, is among the games that wireless Internet providers hope will jump-start cell phone sales and wireless Web subscriptions.

The wireless Web has been slower to take off in the United States than in parts of Europe and Asia.

Nearly every carrier is beefing up its collection of interactive, multiple-player games for wireless subscribers. Sprint PCS launched its gaming channel in October. On Tuesday, the company shook hands with Unplugged Games to add word games into the mix of offerings.

European carriers such as BT Cellnet have begun offering fantasy soccer games. American carrier AT&T offers parlor games. Qwest Communications International is also cultivating its wireless gaming options.

The 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 and claims the service has become one of the most popular activities in Japan.

The day before Sprint announced it was stocking up on wireless games, DoCoMo and Sony said they will be jointly developing games for cell phones in the near future.

"All these companies are beefing up their selections," said Scott Lahman, president of Jamdat Mobile in Los Angeles, which also makes "Hangman" and "Rock, Paper, Scissors" for mobile computing users.

"Without exception, everybody is looking to NTT DoCoMo," which claims that more than half of its consumers dial into the wireless Web for entertainment rather than business purposes, Lahman said. "Everybody is launching a portal of services that includes games."

Lahman and others, whose livelihoods depend on providing interactive network gaming on cell phones, say that they are here to save the wireless Web.

Mission: Save wireless Web
Carriers have finally overcome two stereotypes about content on the wireless Web, Lahman noted: There's not enough bandwidth for networked games, and nobody is going to use a cell phone to play games.

Since its launch on the small screen in October, "Gladiator" has drawn 340,000 consumers. Almost 750,000 games have been played. "Gladiator" players have logged more than 3.25 million airtime minutes, Lahman said.

As with any good video game, there are the overachievers. Lahman said some players have played "Gladiator" more than 1,000 times.

Analysts are warning that investors should do their research before putting down cash on this type of content. "Myself and fellow analysts are pretty cautious about this market," said Sean Wargo, a senior analyst at PC Data.

Wargo questioned, for instance, who would want to play a low-tech game of "Hangman" on a cell phone, when Gameboy Advanced or most other PDAs (personal digital assistants) can offer better resolution and color graphics.

Cell phone makers are also creating next-generation phones that are smaller, and the already postage stamp-sized screen will shrink as well, Wargo said.

If there is a niche for this type of content, it's probably as small as the window screen on a Nokia cell phone, he said.

"For the carrier, the market is a pretty competitive one," Wargo said. "At this point, even if it's by offering cheesy little games, it might get them an extra segment. You'd hope they did the market research before they spent a lot of money adding these games."

Sprint PCS cites two studies that point to the contrary: Datamonitor predicted that wireless gaming will become a $6 billion market worldwide by 2005. And see Special Report: A high-wireless act Teenage Research Unlimited predicted that cell phone use among American teenagers will double next year.

The Sprint PCS gaming entourage consisted of only 27 games when it was launched in October. Now it's more than 30 games and climbing, said Nancy Sherrer, a Sprint PCS spokeswoman.

It's not the entire focus of the content that Sprint hopes will win over new customers, but games play a key role.

"The key is to offer a full portfolio, information...and entertainment," Sherrer said.