Last year, 5 million to 6 million American mobile-phone subscribers downloaded at least one game a month. That rate remains unchanged from 2004, according to a March study released by Seattle researcher M:Metrics. In the same report, M:Metrics found that national phone carriers added, on average, about 59 new games within the five months between September, 2005, and the end of February, 2006.
So, why isn't the number of America's mobile-phone gamers rising in proportion to the number of titles released? To raise demand for mobile games, the quality must improve. This reality inspired the Mobile Game Mosh, a recent competition at New York's Parsons The New School for Design.
GAME NIGHT. Students were challenged to create innovative games for mobile platforms. Held during a 24-hour span beginning at noon on Saturday, Mar. 11 the contest, co-sponsored by game-giant Atari (ATAR) and San Mateo (Calif.)-based developer of cell-phone content Glu Mobile, was a high-energy incubator.
Ten teams of undergrad and graduate students from seven New York schools programmed through the night for the chance to be recognized as makers of Top Overall Game and Most Innovative Game. They also had the opportunity to show off their creativity to a panel of judges that included Bruno Bonnell, chief executive and chief creative officer of Atari, and Margaret Wallace, chief executive of San Francisco casual-game developer Skunk Studios. An awards ceremony was held on Mar. 13.
While the competition might seem like an Apprentice-style talent search, Atari's Bonnell insists that "the only reason that [Atari] is involved in the competition is to show our commitment both education and originality." Yet Bonnell does admit that the winning titles "are ready to be published tomorrow. They don't even need polishing. I was shocked by the students' talent," he says.
COMING HOME. The winner of the Top Overall Game award was Moth, a poetic game created by a team called The Difference Engine. The group consisted of graduate students from two institutions hardly associated with gamer culture: Union Theological Seminary and Teachers College, Columbia University. That's right: a seminary and a school of education.
The Difference Engine's game focused on a meditative theme, "to balance doing with not doing," as the team described it. Rather than featuring typical game subjects like explosions or sports, Moth centers around the goal of aiding a wayward moth back to its home -- the moon. The painterly graphics and unusual subject matter stood out in the judges' minds.
Skunk Studios' Wallace says the winning design was surprising in a good way. "So many game designers do fan-based, derivative work," she says. "This was really innovative. I was thinking, hmmm, when are some of these students graduating?"
TEAM OF ONE. Other surprises included the winner of the Most Innovative Game award, which was created by a single student: Mike Stanton of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He had put together a team of classmates, but at the last minute no one could make it. So he competed by himself as Team Mikey.
"The disadvantage to my situation is that I'll have fewer ideas than the collaborative teams," Stanton said during the game-design competition. "But the advantage is that there aren't too many chefs in the kitchen. I'm just making my own executive decisions."
By 2 p.m. -- only two hours into the contest -- Stanton was already testing his game idea on a mobile-phone handset while other teams were still listing ideas on white boards and notepads. Yet Stanton changed his strategy at 3:00 the following morning -- without any arguments, of course. His final game, Swing, is a minimalistic challenge rooted in physics. Players guide balls using orbital velocity and gravity, adjusting movement with "gravity nodes" that attract or repel the balls.
TIGHT SCHEDULE. While Stanton's efficiency allowed him to change course mid-competition, other teams were more strictly scheduled. The Polymorphs, from Brooklyn Polytechnic University, set a series of mini-deadlines: game design finished by 2 p.m., technical feasibility issues resolved by 6 p.m., design refinement completed by 7 p.m., and game-building beginning at 8 p.m. and going on through the night. Their game, Whirlwind Romance, featuring an amorous tornado, won the award for Best Audio Design.
Katie Salen, director of the MFA design and technology program at Parsons and co-author of The Game Design Reader : A Rules of Play Anthology (MIT Press), says that the 24-hour pressure-cooker environment is an effective way to teach students about efficiency in game design.
"So many game designers sketch and sketch and never make some of their ideas," says Salen. "In the 24-hour period, students can see the necessary steps in the game-development process more clearly."
TOO MUCH TIME. Accepting that only so much is possible within a single day is also a valuable lesson, says Salen. In other words, the budding game designers had to prioritize ideas and processes. To help the students focus on creative game design rather than technical issues, Parsons sent the teams a development kit in advance, outlining how to make games for Flash-enabled mobile phones.
This year marked the second annual Game Mosh hosted by Parsons. The initial event focused on creating old-school games á là Pac-Man using 1980s graphics. Salen says the competition was largely inspired by the Indie Game Jam, a gaming-industry event that forces designers to come up with new games in a compressed period of four days.
"Four days is a long time to these students," observes Salen. "Some of them are working on masters degree theses, and couldn't give up four days of their lives. To them, that's a long time."
FUN AND GAMES. One faculty adviser who made the trek to Parsons for the competition, Mohan Rajagopalan, a game-design professor at Cornell, felt that the intense environment offered a rare chance to focus purely on creativity rather than on programming or even future game-marketing issues.
"The 24-hour timeframe isn't a hindrance at all," Rajagopalan said during the competition's early hours, as his students debated what made good mobile-phone gameplay. He added, "How often do game designers get to conceptualize and not worry right away about implementation? Above all, it's fun."