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Wireless gaming: Back to the future?

Netcap Ventures'Tom Taulli writes that wireless devices may be relatively primitive--but then so were the early game machines of the 1980s.

    When Scott Orr started in the computer gaming world 20 years ago, he had to be a brutally efficient programmer. After all, developing a cool game for an Atari or Commodore was no easy feat because of the primitive functionality and low memory.

    Of course, over the course of time--as increases in computer power followed Moore's Law --Orr was able to develop very realistic computer games, such as John Madden Football, NHL Hockey, Andretti Racing and NCAA College Football.

    Wireless is about connectivity, and that means huge possibilities for gaming.

    While developing these mega games, he noticed that his employer, Electronic Arts (EA), was starting to develop online games. Few games at first made money, but Orr sensed a big opportunity. So he left EA and started Sorrent, a company that specializes in wireless gaming.

    In a sense, Orr is going back to his roots. Like the Atari and Commodore, a wireless device is quite primitive. So Orr hired veteran programmers who pioneered the gaming industry. For example, one of Sorrent's recent hires was Steve Cartwright, who designed "Tiger Woods PGA Tour" and started in the gaming world in the 1980s, working on the Atari 2600.

    "It took tricks to make early PC games work right," Orr said. "And it will be the same for wireless devices. Also, our team has the advantage of seeing many platforms come and go." The youngest engineer at Sorrent has 15 years in the gaming industry.

    Wireless is about connectivity, and that means huge possibilities for gaming. In a wireless game, there is head-to-head competition; there is no dice roll. For example, Sorrent's "Snapshot Live Football" is a real-time football action game where players need to make split-second decisions.

    But look at what's happening in Japan, where there are 2.5 million subscribers for wireless games, if you want a glimpse of the future.

    The major wireless carriers view gaming as an effective way to increase usage and reduce churn. They also like the business model, which is built on revenue from subscriptions.

    Cell phone customers are accustomed to paying a subscription for premium services. People hooked on gaming are likely to continue to pay. There is a major opportunity to bring wireless gaming into the mainstream. Traditional PC games have a demographic that is primarily comprised of males who are 13 to 24 years old. But by the time boys hit 13 or 14, they have grown out of using Game Boys and get their first cell phones. Around this same time, young teenage girls often get their first cell phones, as well.

    No doubt, distribution remains one of the biggest hurdles for a start-up gaming company. It's sometimes nearly impossible to get a game on the shelves of Best Buy or Wal-Mart. Interestingly enough, distribution is not such a problem with wireless gaming because there are no inventory issues with wireless carriers.

    The ultimate key to success, though, is demand. If a kid likes a game, he or she will tell friends. And they will tell other friends. And so on. Orr is no stranger to this phenomenon. His games have grossed more than $2 billion in sales, and 90 percent of his titles have been profitable.

    In the United States, wireless gaming is certainly an emerging market. But look at what's happening in Japan, where there are 2.5 million subscribers for wireless games, if you want a glimpse of the future. How big can the U.S. market get? That's anyone's guess, says Orr. "But I know it will be big."