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Mobile Game Development News

THE FUTURE OF GAME DEVELOPMENT: NEW SKILLS AND NEW ATTITUDES

As games gravitate online, integrate the use of new peripherals, and are programmed for a wider array of mobile platforms, the skill sets required to build and market those games will, in many respects, differ greatly from past and present skill set expectations. Whether you are currently working in the industry or looking to get in, you need to know the skills required to build the next generation of games. And for those who don?t build the games, but, rather, build the business, what skills will game companies be looking for from its marketing, PR, and finance specialists? This series of articles will address what you need to know, how you go about acquiring that knowledge, and how best to apply it to your career. You will also get an inside view of how the industry?s biggest employers plan on maximizing efficiencies within their own organizations. Who will be hired? How will employers train current employees to assume new responsibilities? And what skills will they be looking for to support the increased number of multiplayer and persistent world games on their production and development schedules?

The industry has come a long way in a short period of time, and advances and changes continue to happen at an ever increasing pace, but with a little effort and direction you can definitely keep up. The first part of this series will overview mobile games, just one of the "hot" areas of game development, with tips on what skills you need to know as a programmer, artist, or designer, and go-to resources for getting your own skill set up to par.

MOBILE GAMES

Why is this a "hot" area? Take a quick glance at the upcoming list of industry events, and the impact of mobile games is readily apparent. Not only is the Game Developers Conference again presenting "GDC Mobile", but other big mobile game events on the horizon this year include the "Mobile Entertainment Summit" at CTIA WIRELESS 2004, the Games and Mobile Forum, and iWireless World just to graze the very tip of the iceberg.

The appeal of mobile game development is fairly obvious. The team size is typically a fraction of the size of a typical development team, the development cycle is a few months versus a few years, and the budget is generally less than $60,000 in contrast to more than $1,000,000. Moreover, phones are portable, networked, and more than one billion mobile phones are in use today. Whether mobile games will prove to be everything they?ve been hyped to be remains to be seen, but, for now, mobile games are hot and, consequently, so are those people with the skills to make them.

Getting Mobile

Games developed to run on mobile or "cellular" phones are typically referred to as mobile games or, in many instances, wireless games. Unlike those games already embedded on your phone, this area of game development more directly refers to downloadable games. Mobile games also include SMS (Short Message Service) games which deliver short text messages from one phone to the other. Further, according to Nokia, just about every phone shipped since 1999 includes a Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) browser. Very simply put, WAP games are played by going to the game provider?s URL to download and view pages. For purposes of this article, however, SMS and WAP will not be addressed.

Rather, the hot area now for mobile game development , and for the foreseeable future, is mobile games developed on platforms such as BREW and J2ME, as will be discussed in greater detail, below. Briefly, BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) is a platform that allows for several different languages to work with a mobile device, including C++, Java, XML, Flash, etc. Similarly, J2ME (Java 2 Micro Edition) has a set of specifications that allow for a subset of the normal Java classes to work with a particular group of devices. Not all aspects of the language are supported, however, and different devices expose different capabilities for each. These tools give mobile game programmers an interface to the hardware just like other SDKs (Software Development Kits) such as the PS2 API (Application Programming Interface).

Defining the required skills for mobile game development can be a bit tricky as there is a current lack of standards for both hardware and software platforms. Moreover, some understanding of the ever-evolving hardware market is essential in making decisions related to the capabilities of handsets and which handsets to support. In July 2001, Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia and Siemens, founded the Mobile Games Interoperability Forum (MGIF) to define mobile games interoperability specifications and API in an effort to allow game developers to produce and deploy mobile games that can be distributed across multiple game servers and wireless networks, and played over many different mobile devices. The aim of the initiative is to specify a global standard and to develop certification procedures to encourage wide adoption of the standard. Nevertheless, as Eric Low explains in his article, Chaos in the Value Chain: Non-Traditional Paths to Market for Wireless Games, there are currently over 100 models of game-capable phones on the market and a myriad of development platforms.

Because the mobile environment is platform driven, the industry is seeing now, and can expect, in addition to J2ME and BREW, a much more advanced class of middleware than what the PC market typically sees. Companies such as Nokia, Siemens, Motorola, and Sony Ericsson will be the catalyst for bringing stakeholders -- that is, mobile phone manufacturers, distributors such as Verizon, Sprint, Cingular, etc., as well as the content developers or, in other words, essentially everyone in the value chain -- to a standard, promoting that standard among handset manufacturers, and providing the development communities with licensable middleware. The issue will undoubtedly become whether the stakeholders building the standard can accurately assess the real needs of the gaming consumer.

As is usually the Darwinian case, certain of the species have risen to the top. Today, the most common mobile game platforms are Java and BREW. Symbian, as Low further explains, a platform supported by Nokia, the market leader in handsets, has gained significantly more traction in Europe than the U.S. That trend may not last for long, however. Games developed on the Symbian platform that demonstrate the advanced capabilities of Nokia phones make Nokia a friend of the developer and may be an entry point for developers to reach carriers.

Key Skills and Resources for Mobile Game Programmers

As always, the best way to keep up to date with current job skill requirements is to look over job listings. Check the website of your favorite developer, this publication has ongoing job postings as well, or check the sites of recruiters such as GameRecruiter.com who tend to have dozens of listings of a wide variety. The following is a job listing posted on January 15, 2004 for a mobile game programmer:

Java and J2ME: Invented by Sun Microsystems in 1995, Java technology lets devices of all kinds run different kinds of program. Today, Java technology is embedded in approximately 150 million mobile phones allowing the user to view and choose from a list of applications, games, and services. The application is then sent over the air to the handset, where it is installed and instantly available to use.

J2ME is a form of the Java language that is optimized for small devices such as mobile phones. J2ME is limited by comparison to desktop Java, but it significantly improves the ability of mobile phones to support games. While it is not the only interpreted language deployed on phones, it has become an industry standard backed by many of the big manufacturers and, therefore, knowledge thereof is becoming increasingly important.

BREW: Qualcomm?s BREW is not only a C/C++ API for the mobile phone platform, it is also a certification and distribution model for getting mobile phone applications out to your audience. While Java, at this point, is the more widely used platform, as it is also an open platform, it provides less developer support. Further, as there are many varieties of Java from which to choose, the code doesn?t always work when porting the game to multiple versions. However, Java returns more revenues to the developer. BREW, on the other hand, provides developers with more end-to-end support and billing functions. But with more support for developers comes a lower percentage of revenues back to the developer. Projections have more than 500 million BREW handsets in the market by 2008.

Symbian OS: To this point, the Symbian OS has been more popular in Europe, but this may be changing. According to the latest Canalys report over 2 million Symbian devices shipped in Q4 2003. In his article, Enabling Technologies for Mobile Gaming, Jouni Paavilainen explains that Symbian OS is becoming a standard operating system for "smartphones", as the device manufacturers supporting Symbian have taken decisive steps to ensure that the installed base of terminals with Symbian OS is as large as possible. To date, Symbian has been implemented or licensed by the majority of manufacturers, representing more than 70% of all cell phone makers.

Further, as Nokia?s N-Gage is based on the Symbian OS, this allows game developers to start developing games for Symbian phones and move on to N-Gage game projects smoothly because the underlying technology and development tools are similar. As with BREW, the programming language typically used for Symbian OS is C++.

OpenGL ES: Across the platform board, many game programming jobs require OpenGL experience and, in this regard, mobile games are no different. OpenGL ES brings advanced 2D/3D graphics capabilities to a wide variety of mobile devices, appliances and embedded displays. This standardized version of OpenGL for mobile platforms, OpenGL ES, is a low-level, lightweight API for advanced embedded graphics using well-defined subsets of OpenGL.

Mophun: While the need for experience with Mophun could currently be characterized as "low", this may be a platform to watch. Created by Synergix Interactive, Mophun is a software based gaming console for mobile devices. Sony Ericsson was the first manufacturer to integrate the Mophun games engine in its phones. For small developers, getting in on some of these niche markets, such as developing games for Mophun, could be a good idea. There are a few people out there who would love to see this on a resume.

Platform considerations and C++ knowledge aside, programming for mobile games requires additional skills. As Jason Lam, in his article Considerations for Mobile Game Development explains:

"In the mobile world where memory is expensive it is best to avoid using several objects unless truly necessary?This may sound easy, but trust me for those of you who are use to separating tasks into several objects and heavily rely on patterns will find reverting back to a more procedure way of development a challenging thing to do."

In a nutshell, due to the platform limitations, it is vitally important for programmers to be able to write efficient and compact code, and a good understanding of the language features (C/C++/Java) is valuable.

Key Skills for Mobile Game Artists

Do the skill sets for mobile game artists differ significantly from other platforms? What?s the difference between painting on a wall and painting on a stamp? Artists, nevertheless, will typically see the same skill sets required as on other games, with the one notable exception of a slight more emphasis on 2D skills.

Indeed, the technologies employed in creating mobile games from the art side are fairly straightforward. The most essential software application has been, and will continue to be, Photoshop. From there, programs such as Debabilizer for creating and matching image color palettes equal to or less than 256 colors are very important. In the next few years, Debabilizer will become less important as mobile devices continue to move toward hi-color displays, then true color. The only other 2D application that is regularly used is Paint Shop Pro but it tends to be more popular with programmers than artists.

Currently the mobile industry is really starting to see its first true 3D games, but the tools for those types of games are fairly limited. Eric Seiler of Monkeystone Games, developers and publishers of mobile games, including Red Faction for N-Gage, notes that everything 3D in that game was created with 3D Studio Max - levels, characters, etc. As 3DS Max is a popular package among almost all gaming platforms, but especially gaming consoles and the PC, it will inevitably gain popularity in the mobile arena as well. Competing programs such as Maya, Lightwave, and Softimage may also begin to make an appearance, but, Seiler predicts, 3DS Max will still be the dominant off-the-shelf 3D package for the next couple years.

A helpful skill, even for artists, is to have a basic understanding of scripting. In small teams, and as most in this arena are small, the artist often won't have access to a permanent tools programmer, therefore understanding macro scripts, or even writing your own, can make the workflow in Photoshop significantly faster, particularly when working with many small graphic files. It is much the same for 3DS Max ? the ability to write scripts effectively can save the artist hours or even days of work.

Another helpful tool is to have a good image viewer. Seiler prefers ACDsee, which is capable of viewing just about any non-proprietary image format, but there are many such utilities on the market.

Given their size, mobile games will probably always have the most limitations in terms of hardware. In PC and console games having a 10,000 polygon model is often okay, but, for instance, as Seiler explains, the character models in Red Faction had to be limited to about 150 polygons. It doesn't matter how good the model looks, if it drops the game down to 5 frames per second, it has to go. Seiler advises that knowing how to do more with less is infinitely more important than knowing the latest and greatest in 3D acceleration.

Lastly, the most important thing for an artist in the mobile gaming world is to be flexible, and be willing to be the jack-of-all trades. Specialization will continue to grow, but, for now, the artist has to be willing to do anything and everything, from creating pixel fonts to animating polygon models.

Key Skills for Mobile Game Designers

Designers for mobile games face some rather unique challenges. In December 2003, at the Second Annual Conference on Mobile and Ubiquitous Multimedia in Sweden, keynote speaker Ernest Adams addressed "Practical Considerations of Mobile Game Design". This lecture addressed some of the practical considerations surrounding mobile gaming from the perspective of the game designer. Mobile games have a number of advantages and limitations not found in other forms of video gaming. In addition to the usual issues surrounding the small size of the device, and the features offered by networking, the designer must take into consideration such contingencies as the personal safety and security of the user, and the circumstances in which the game may be played (on foot, in a vehicle, etc.). Playing games on a mobile phone, it would seem, entail more than the occasional danger of spilling Mountain Dew on the couch. While seemingly mundane, these and other factors influence the designer's creative choices, and it is better to understand them in advance than to create an innovative game, which proves to be unplayable or unsalable for practical reasons.

Jess Dominguez, also of Monkeystone, summarizes that the reality of shorter shelf lives and smaller budgets for mobile games necessitates making important trade-offs in game design, and devising simpler yet creative gameplay elements that still result in a fun game.

As it with all good game designers, regardless of platform, scheduling and good communication skills remain a must. Game designers must be able to create tight schedules with a quick turnaround that take into account the maximum number of supported platforms, as well as the short-term foreseeable need for ports.

The mobile industry moves even more quickly than the PC industry. This fast pace, combined with additional lag times for contract negotiations with providers, BREW (or equivalent) provider-based testing, lower development budgets, and an emerging lag in game deployment by providers, all serves to pressure development teams to reduce their time to market. For example, Don McClure of Digital Element, says his company develops BREW and J2ME games from concept to completion in three months or less. By utilizing a global hybrid development approach, employing both full time and permanent overseas programmers ? which is why he suggests that game designers also be familiar with languages such as Russian, Chinese and Hindi ? as well as veteran Western-based development talent, McClure says he is able to achieve high production value with reasonable costs and schedules.

The designer must also consider the most appropriate means of generating revenue from a small game. As Low suggests in his article on how to make money from mobile games, design consideration examples include games that include updates or a global high score, games that incorporate on-going events, such as sports-based games, and games where the players can download add-ons are all examples. Developers may also consider incorporating "micropayment" elements to their game. For example, for 50 cents a gamer could download a tire upgrade in a racing game.

Optionally, the game app's midlet is signed after packaging by using following actions:

Project menu -> Sign

This creates a digital signature for the .jar file, and adds it to the .jad file.

Now, the game app's .jar and .jad files, along with the MANIFEST.MF manifest file, created by KToolbar and grouped together as a midlet suite, are ready to be distributed.

This is how 2D mobile games are developed using Java. You can model your own games on the example given in this article.

Conclusion

Mobile game development has become a lucrative industry with a manifold increase in mobile subscriptions and the number of avid mobile gamers around the world. J2ME and MIDP 2.0 help game developers tap the potential of this industry by providing a platform for developing mobile game conveniently, quickly, and efficiently. MIDP 2.0 dedicates a whole API package for game development that provides readymade building blocks to simplify and quicken mobile game development.

BREW

The home page of the BREW platform at Qualcomm's Web site.

Toolkits and SDKs

Although J2ME base games can run on all types of handsets, one also can use tools and SDKs (that are again built upon J2ME) provided by handset makers such as Nokia, Siemens, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and so forth to tap the handset-specific resources and capabilities, and develop games optimized for specific handsets.

3D mobile games

Java Specification Request (JSR) 184 provides experimental Mobile 3D Graphics API for J2ME.

SuperScape provides JSR 184-complaint J2ME 3D tools and solutions for device vendors and developers.

CONCLUSION

As Jess Dominguez of Monkeystone notes, in many ways, mobile game development is at the other end of the spectrum from console game development. Budgets are smaller, shelf lives are shorter, development cycles are reduced, team sizes are smaller, memory, processor and power are substantially lower, screen sizes and resolution are different, and the number of target mobile device platforms is ever expanding.

Perhaps more than any other area of game industry, whether programmer, artist, or designer, these intrinsic characteristics of mobile game development require jack-of-all-trades abilities among the team members. Mobile game developers will undoubtedly be called upon to touch the various subsystems of the game, and may find themselves working on the menu system, game AI, game physics, sound, and more.

Finally, the most important skills to add to your skill set if you want to make mobile games? Flexibility and a willingness to work on all aspects of the game.

RESOURCES

With the proliferation of mobile devices it is not uncommon for mobile game developers to be forced to create a different version of their game, customized for each target phone model, to accommodate differences in memory, processor, screen, and controller specifications, not to mention varying carrier guidelines. Porting from device to device is a fact of mobile game development life, and keeping up with the rapidly evolving device landscape is essential. Below are resources to help you keep abreast of current and upcoming mobile game trends and requirements. The upcoming installments in this series will cover key skills and resources for MMOG development and consoles, as well as those skills game companies will be looking for from its marketing, PR, and finance specialists. What you need to know and how you go about acquiring it, what the big guns are looking for, and how employers will train current employees to assume new responsibilities will also be covered, so stay tuned.

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