Cell phones are made for Tetris

Casual game developer Phil Steinmeyer blogged about his experience with playing cell phone games. If you don’t want to read it I’ll sum it up in one word: “Shitty.” I’ve only played a dozen or so cell phone games but I wholeheartedly agree, but the reason why may be different.

I also came late to mobile phones when earlier this year I snagged a LG VX8100. Hearing Verizon was good for games, I went with them. That was my first mistake. See, “good for games” apparently means “good for people who like to buy a cell phone game, play it for a week, and delete it to make room for another game when they get their next paycheck.” So “good for games” means ‘lots of games’, not ‘a good choice of games.’ Especially considering that I can only order a tiny subset of games that Verizon thinks their customers want, and the list is updated once a quarter. That’s right, four times a year they review their list of available games. Wow. Be still my heart. (I think Greg Costikyan once had an idea on a better way to handle this, but for the life of me I can’t find it on his site.) And maybe I’m wrong for this, but I just can’t get excited over Call of Duty 2 on a cell phone. For the casual video game player, fine whatever, but for a gamer, it’s an offensive experience. Cell phones do not lend themselves well to game design conventions of those games generally thought of as more ‘epic’, for lack of a better word. Plain and simple: cell phones are physically made to play Tetris.

But it’s not all bad. Some folk are perfectly capable of making games that work well on cell phones. Tetris is the greatest game ever. Jewel Quest/Bejeweled style tile games work fine. But it’s games like Skipping Stone, which was lauded last year for its design, that give me hope. The game consists of simply pressing the ‘OK’ button when the stone falls to the water’s surface, in order to ricochet it back into the air. Not hitting it perfectly results in losing ‘power’, which determines your speed and the height of your bounce. The point is to skip as far as possible. Genius. Diner Dash also ports over from the PC surprisingly well. Think of it as playing a multilayered ‘Whack-A-Mole’ with restaurant seats. The trick is that instead of being either whackable or not-whackable, every ‘mole'(seat) has multiple states: ready to seat (where you sit new customers,) ready to order, eating, ready to pay, and ready to be cleaned. Each seat is assigned a number on the keybpad and the game quickly moves from a tutorial to button-pressing chaos as you try to clean seats for new customers while old ones take forever to eat. (Doesn’t anyone eat at home any more?!)

So, there can be good games on cell phones, but why won’t Mario ever work? Mostly because cell phone designers are dumb. They’ve been working on improving their own mousetrap for so long that they apparently forgot that functionality should determine design, not the other way around. Nokia, for instance, went insane…

Nokia N-Gage

Let’s face it, the Nokia N-Gage was just silly. Look at it. It’s like a Game Gear had sex with a cell phone and nine months later the N-Gage was born skateboarding, wearing a backwards baseball cap, drinking a Mountain Dew, and shouting “X-Treeeme!” In fact…
Nokia Dew-Gage X-TREME!!!

There. Doesn’t it just seem to fit? But I want a good gaming cell phone. Something familiar to me as a gamer. As an example of the future of phones, I look toward my brother’s phone, which is one of those spiffy flip-top phones. Normally it looks like a fine phone, but when you open it, it looks like this:
LG VX9800

Now, if we just move the buttons around a little bit…
LG GameX9800

Presto! A great phone, and a great phone for gaming, and all it takes is a little button rearrangement, maybe two shoulder buttons, and it works so well that I don’t even have to ask for anything else! (Except, of course, the ability to register two directions at once for some games…) Seriously, what person in the R&D department is so out of touch with current trends that they put the d-pad on the right? Give ME their job!