If there was one crucial shift that occurred in 2003, it was the mass market adoption of mobile phones with colour screens. For one thing, it banished the sneering of fellow gamers who, perhaps correctly, had viewed previous phones such as the Nokia 3410 as a poor man's GameBoy - and not even a Game Boy Color at that.
But if colour phones were a step forward, Nokia's N-Gage gaming phone looked like it could be a huge leap ahead. Here was a powerful Symbian-powered colour phone with the ability to play console-style games that were purchased on memory cards, and that had the backing of the world's largest mobile phone company. What could go wrong? Surely N-Gage would herald a new age where mobile games would be advanced by a range of dedicated devices more powerful than Nintendo's portables?
Of course, it didn't turn out like that. Sony spiked N-Gage's E3 launch in May 2003 by announcing the PSP - the PlayStation 2 in your pocket - N-Gage's high unsubsidised price ($299/299) proved to be a massive barrier, plus post-launch the internet was immediately full of photos of people talking into their N-Gage 'tacos'. It wasn't a case of the gaming geeks not liking N-Gage: the gaming geeks positively enjoyed destroying it, something that didn't change much with the release of the much improved and redesigned non-taco N-Gage QD in 2004.
Yet the underlying shift was that mobile phones were starting to become very sophisticated pieces of consumer electronics. In Japan, the first 3D games were being released, with titles such as Ridge Racer demonstrating what the future of mobile games would be. Even in Europe, developers were getting creative in their desire to add the third dimension. For example, talented Finnish studio Sumea released Extreme Air Snowboarding, which was one of the first games to bring pseudo-3D gaming to standard mass market phones.
But, in terms of its business model, the industry was still immature. In fact, in 2003 you could still start up a company, raise a significant venture funding and attempt to break into the top tier of mobile publishing. Which is exactly what Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts and the 3DO hardware company, decided to do.
After 3DO's software publishing arm was finally shut down in May 2003, Trip invested $405,000 of his own cash to buy back some of the company's patents and brands and set about launching Digital Chocolate, which he did by the end of year, thanks to an $8 million investment round. The unique selling point of the publisher was that its games would be based on original ideas, not expensive brands licensed from other media.
Some games of the year...
One of the most creative mobile game developers in the world, Korean studio Gamevil has consistently managed to create experiences that show how mobile can be both different and exciting as a platform in and of itself. Games like Skipping Stone and Super Boom Boom are massively addictive, but for pure innovation there's nothing that comes close to Nom.
For those who have never played this game, you really need to. It consists of controlling a small guy as he has to leap over ever more bizarre objects and creatures, but what's so interesting is the player must rotate their phone to keep the character at the bottom of the screen. This would never work on a standard console but works brilliantly on a mobile phone.
And if the crazy controls, bizarre graphics and mad gameplay wasn't enough, when you complete the sequel, you get to enter a message which is then beamed into space via from a Korean satellite.
Bejewelled Multiplayer: (JAMDAT)
Adding multiplayer to the massively popular Bejewelled should have been a killer stroke. At least, it felt like the first stepping stone to true multiplayer mobile gaming. Sensibly it worked through synchronous turn-based gameplay where you never really interacted with your opponent aside from sending bombs to upset their colour matching.
It worked okay, but the added fun of the interaction didn't seem to add up in terms of its data costs. So once again, multiplayer mobile gaming didn't take off. It's still rare to find examples. The cost of sending data, mixed in with the inherent instability of the network, and the lack of true excitement in terms of head-to-head gaming compared to consoles, has still to be overcome.
Ridge Racer 3D: (Namco)
From its first release as an arcade game back in 1993, Ridge Racer has been the poster child of 3D gaming technology. More recently, known as being a key launch title for all PlayStations, its debut on mobile demonstrated that you could get arcade-style 3D graphics running on a tiny screen. Of course, the quality of the gameplay wasn't great, but it certainly made for one hell of a tech demo.
A Brief History of Mobile Games: Intro
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 1990s - Snake and WAP
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2000 - JAMDAT, Gameloft and WAP
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2001 - Vivazzi, Picofun and Riot-E
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2002 - Java, BREW and Space Invaders
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2004 - JAMDAT, IOMO and EA Mobile
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2005 - Gizmondo, Tetris and Glu
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2006 - 3D, iFone and Gizmondo
A Brief History of Mobile Games: 2007/8 - New N-Gage and iPhone
After 12 years in the games industry, the last eight as head of production at I-play, Chris Wright finally escaped. He now runs his own consultancy focusing on casual games. He can be contacted at chris [at] gamesconsultancy.com. All opinions expressed are the author's own.