Game Over Online ~ Interview with Guido Henkel-G3 Studios on Wireless and Mobile Gaming

Interview with Guido Henkel-G3 Studios on Wireless and Mobile Gaming

Published: Monday, May 24th, 2004 at 04:09 PM
Written By: Lawrence Wong

Two of the most popular trends at the recently held tenth Electronic Entertainment Expo show were online and mobile gaming. With wireless gaming on cell phones and hybrid devices like the Nokia N-Gage QD emerging, manufacturers and publishers appear positioned to kill two birds with one stone. Or can they?

The mobile gaming space is rather different than these aforementioned titles. The depth, so far at least, is not as complex. The genre, moreover, appears limited to platform shooters, parlor-style card games and puzzle teasers. But as more companies are signing on, and licenses are passed around, we’re beginning to see the likes of Rayman, EA Sports, Rainbow and Splinter Cell show up on the small screen.

Guido Henkel, the head of developer and publisher G3 Studios, is no stranger to the gaming industry. Established in 2001, G3 Studios is staffed with veterans of some of the most critically acclaimed PC titles, including Realms of Arkania, Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment. We took the time to speak with Henkel on a variety of subjects, including his vision of wireless gaming, the strengths G3 Studios brings to the market, and the progress the industry has made so far.

Would you say wireless games are targeting the mainstream or hardcore gamer markets?

The wireless game space currently caters mostly to casual gamers…people who may not have much use for a computer or video game normally, but who use their cell phone to bridge time on the train or so. While one would assume that hardcore gamers, who also own cell phones, are also playing these games, it appears that at this point in time, they are not overly interested in these games. I am sure the technical disparity between a cell phone and a Playstation 2 are just too big for them at this time. The hardcore games market in this day and age is entirely technology-driven and I can see that going cell-phone-low-tech is a big turn-off for many of these gamers.

How much more of a challenge is it developing for so many mobile/handheld devices with such a wide range of capabilities?

With proper preparation and methodologies in place it is not nearly as hard as one would initially assume. We have a framework in place that allows us to port our games easily to anything from the smallest Brew cell phone to a J2ME phone, a Microsoft Smartphone, a Pocket PC, any Windows CE device and even Windows itself, if need be. It is a framework that makes it possible for us to create applications and have them ported to all the devices we require in a really short amount of time – which is essential for success in this segment of the market.

The key to doing that is to think ahead, to be familiar with the capabilities and limitations, as well as implementation details of each platform, and then abstracting all the dependencies into a device-independent programming layer. A few data-wrangling tricks help as well to make art assets, etc. reusable on as many platforms as possible, even at different resolutions.

I know that many programmers look at the space and say “This is insane!” when they see how many different specs we have to support in the mobile space, but truth be told, being able to properly deal with and flourish within these demands is what sets mobile developers apart; and in many cases leads to some great ideas. It takes a certain idealism to work in this field that is lost on many of today’s corporate game programmers.

Do certain types of games simply work better in the mobile space? By and large, most titles so far have been relatively unsophisticated.

Yes, there are big differences here and they are mostly defined by the hardware limitations we are seeing. Just as a quick example, most phones to this date do not support multiple key presses at the same time. That immediately rules out certain types of games where you need to create simultaneous key combinations in order to play, like steering and shooting. Also, the displays on most phones are still extremely bad – though it has fortunately been changing a lot recently with the spreading of camera phones. They are typically extremely slow with refresh rates that turn anything that is moving on the screen into a blurry streak. Add to that a complete lack of contrast delineation, especially in the darker color ranges and it quickly becomes clear why action games are not exactly the forte of cell phones.

Memory constraints also play into the design decisions, as many phones have very hard memory limitations in not only what they can run at any one time, but also in how big your actual application can be that you deliver to the phone. Graphics are by nature very memory-heavy and thus most wireless games today use fairly simplistic graphics for that reason, or revert to a game design that is – as you call it - unsophisticated.

And then, of course, there’s the performance. Even though some of the cell phones in the market have specs better than a desktop PC from 7 years ago, the underlying architecture of these devices throttles them oftentimes and they don’t exactly operate up to spec. Fortunately, once again, we are seeing huge improvements in this field.

Which platform do you think will win out in the end: cell phones, PDAs or gaming handhelds?

I’m not sure if it’s really an exclusive race. PDAs have their market mostly in the enterprise world. From a gaming point of view they only seem to attract pirates and hence make content development uninteresting for most mobile game developers today.

Gaming handhelds and cell phones are not really competing against each other, because they cater to very different market segments, but if you want my honest opinion, I think that in the long run the cell phones will win out for a simple reason. They are something people always carry with them, whereas a gaming handheld is extraneous - something you have to “remember” to bring. The performance of cell phones will very quickly approach – if not eclipse – that of gaming handhelds because their lifecycles are much shorter, improving performance in 6 month turn-overs, while performance of the GBA – for example – has been the same since its introduction 3 years ago.

Hybrid platforms, such as the nGage, are a way to bridge both worlds and I expect more of these mixed platforms to appear in the future. I mean, even the PSP is beginning to go in that direction by offering additional functionality.

With that in mind, would mobile games work better as an extension to a full product? For example, you could play XYZ RPG on your console or PC and then use your travel time to level up on your wireless device and transfer it back later.

I think there are some synergies there but saying they would work better is an over-statement, I think. They can leverage each other very well, but just as a Windows product doesn’t need a handheld counterpart, no mobile game should depend on a “big brother.”

The possibilities are manifold, of course, and I think as computer games become increasingly persistent, there will be an increasing demand to access the game information at all times. Cell phones once again can serve that purpose better than anything else, because they have become such commodities that you just have them around all the time, even if it is for something as trivial as sending a text message from one player playing a game to an offline player’s cell phone.

Are the economies of scale there to make a profit from mobile gaming or is this industry still in its infancy?

Depending on where you look, the infrastructure is in place in some markets, but overall, there is still a lot of work that has to be done. It is one of the reasons why I was attracted to the space. I love being a pioneer, working on the frontier of things as they develop and help shape them. I did it on 8-bit computers, 16-bit computers and such, and I am part of it once again in the wireless gaming space.

There are many components that come into play in the wireless space, and the importance of the carriers and operators is excruciatingly evident. These, however, are companies that come from a different background entirely and they are unfamiliar with the business models applied in the gaming industry, the infrastructure that has been established in this industry for the past 30 years, etc. As a result mistakes are being made, expectations are off-kilter at times, and in many cases, these companies are simply not prepared for the amount of work the wireless game space generates. As they need to learn to funnel all that, we need to learn to work with them on the business level that they are accustomed to.

As I said, we are working on it collectively as an industry, and hopefully more carriers will follow in Verizon Wireless’s footsteps, allowing developers and publishers to put content in the hands of gamers, without cutting or pricing them out of the market. They need to embrace the content developers as opposed to closing the doors in their faces, which is happening all too often currently.

Speaking of industries, while most technology companies floundered, gaming companies have obviously flourished in the post boom and post September 11th era. There has been a lot of focus on investing at things close around the home and consumer entertainment is certainly a good chunk of that. Has mobile gaming been helped by the general conditions in the industry?

I’d like to attribute the success of mobile gaming in the past years more to the fact that the technology has finally arrived to make it possible. Evidently we have not been hit as hard by the economic situation and the fact that mobile gaming is still a very affordable form of entertainment has probably helped weather the storm. I am no economist, but I think it’s easy to see that it’s more luring for people in hard times to spend money a $1.99 game that gives them countless hours of entertainment as opposed to that leading-edge new 200GB hard drive that they may not really need if they actually cleaned out the clutter.

With increasing media attention and more casual gamers picking up games in the wireless space, what differentiates G3 Studios from other competitors?

I like to think that our experience in the gaming industry sets us apart from most of our competitors, many of which have no history at all. I have been making games for over 20 years now and I see many parallels to what happened during the rise of the 8-bit home computers. Many people who just entered the gaming space recently because they consider mobile gaming to be hot do not have that background and will never understand some of the idiosyncrasies and problems that the limitations of the platforms and the development of the industry bring with themselves. Things as trivial as covering a variety of handsets immediately come to mind. We learned to do proper cross-platform development 20 years ago and we can build and improve upon that. I am also not afraid to write assembly code or dive headlong into the hex dump of a ROM image, and I understand that a good game is not driven by technology or visuals. It is driven by game play - and creating compelling game play on platforms as limited as mobile devices, is quite a challenge.

From a publishing and business standpoint I have also seen a lot of things happen in this industry and it makes me more wary of some ideas and quick fixes some people may try to come up with. I am applying my experience to our every day business on all levels and hopefully it will help grow us into a healthy company over time that is independent and that is driven by values other than the quickest “Exit Strategy.”

Focusing on your company itself, what recently released or upcoming product are you most excited about?

We just launched “Cleopatra” this week on some Brew carriers and it is a very exciting jump’n run game. For the first time you get a glimpse at what action games on cell phones can look like in the future, because we really tickled the handsets with this one.

A little while ago we also launched “FlipIt!” a board-style puzzle game, which has turned out to be a big success and reportedly keeps people hooked endlessly. That, of course, is every game designer’s dream and very rewarding.

Game Over Online has always had a great traditional focus on PC games. With so many famous PC titles and franchises under your belt, you’ve made quite a leap to wireless gaming. Any last words you'd like to leave for our readers, who may be in the process of doing the same?

Like everyone I am always in awe at the flash that comes out of E3, but at the same time it always reminds me more vividly than anything else that games should not be about technology. I see technology as a utility to serve the game play, not the other way around. For that very reason I love the mobile field, because suddenly you are reminded, just how much fun and how addictive even the most simple of games can be. It is something we seem to forget all too often in the barrage of polygons of today’s gaming generation.

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