What ever happened to free cell-phone games?

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
Oct. 22 2007 12:11 PM

Can You Play Me Now?

The death of the free cell-phone game.

(Continued from Page 1)

Maybe they shouldn't even bother. Most people just want "waiting games" on their cell phones—fast-twitch titles that can be initiated, understood, and completed in a few minutes. The free games of yore were perfect for this: There was no learning curve, and they weren't bogged down with intricate storylines. There's no incentive for playing a long, story-based game on your cell phone. By the time you've figured out how to control your character, you'll have made it home and can play the same game on your computer.

I'd also bet that many of the potential customers for mobile games already own a portable gaming device, like a Nintendo DS or a PSP. These devices are just as portable as a cell phone, and they boast bigger screens, more-intuitive control pads, and better graphics than any phone. There's no reason that I can think of for a PSP owner to play any cell-phone game, unless they're on the losing end of a really nerdy bet.

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For years, we've been hearing that the mobile phone will become an all-inclusive media platform. Contenders include fancypants phones like the Nokia N-Gage and the T-Mobile Sidekick—about as big as a PSP and about one-fifteenth as gaming-functional. An all-in-one device theoretically makes sense, but it's really, really hard to build something that does lots of stuff well. A design-smart device like the iPhone is necessary to make mobile gaming take off. The menus and controls are clear and basic, and the screen resolution is crisp enough to make gameplay bearable. But the iPhone is ridiculously expensive (a huge design flaw for me and my fellow cheapskates), and its touch-screen navigation system has to be hell on mobile-game developers. I guess we'll have to keep waiting a few more years.

So, what market is there for mobile gaming? Simple puzzle games like Tetris and Bejeweled consistently top the American sales charts. (Jamdat Mobile got $680 million from EA largely because the company held the long-term mobile license for Tetris.) Meanwhile, the mobile versions of fancier games like NBA Live and Age of Empires never crack America's top 10 most-downloaded sales charts. Mobile-game companies should realize that simplicity sells. People don't want fancy games so much as they want a way to waste time in the car, on the subway, and at the dinner table. A game doesn't have to be amazing. It just has to help you kill five or 10 minutes.

That said, it's a little bit diabolical to charge cell-phone users for something they'd come to expect as a free add-on. The prospect of paying cash for Tetris, at least for me, sucks all the fun out of the game. So, although my cell-phone store tour this summer was one wild ride, filled with memories that will last a lifetime, I decided to save my money and stick with my old inanimate carbon rod of a phone. No, it doesn't have any games, but at least it's not a giant sucking sound clipped to my belt. And I'm thinking about taking up Sudoku. At least that's still free.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.