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TECHNOLOGY

Games Anyone?

Entertainment firms, hearing the ring of cash registers, offer compact fun to a huge market of cell phone users.

April 18, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A large U.S. corporation recently handed down an unusual edict to its employees: Stop bowling in the office.

It seems that during staff meetings, too many workers were quietly rolling animated bowling balls down virtual alleys on their cell phones. That's one of the simple forms of amusement being ushered in by a new generation of handsets that are equipped to entertain as well as communicate.

Cell phone users around the globe are or soon will be sampling songs, watching soccer highlights, caring for electronic girlfriends and fishing on virtual lakes. They might even pay a celebrity to supply their voicemail greeting.

Granted, a mobile phone is no one's first choice for music or video. But close to a billion people carry one everywhere they go, and that's why major entertainment companies are plotting ways to get their products onto wireless networks.

Those networks will need much more capacity before they'll be able to deliver songs, TV programs or movies. So companies are focusing on more compact forms of amusement that take advantage of the phones' increasing power.

Games are one example. The current generation of phones can dial into the Internet and deliver rudimentary games such as Jamdat Mobile's "Gladiator," in which players maneuver black-and-white icons through a medieval kingdom and trade blows--slowly--with online opponents.

New phones for next-generation networks, such as the ones Verizon and Sprint are deploying this spring and summer, can download games such as Jamdat's "Bowling" so users don't need to connect to the Web as they play. These games are still far simpler than what you'd find on Nintendo or a computer, but they're more detailed, responsive and instantly gratifying than the previous versions.

The games typically rely on a phone's tiny up, down, left, right and OK buttons to control the action. In the bowling game, for example, players must click the OK button at just the right time to set the optimum speed, direction and spin of the ball. Those three elements determine the animated ball's path and how many pins it lays low.

Beyond games, companies are starting to work entertaining elements into the basic functions of the phone, including its sounds, its screens and the messages it sends.

For example, New Line Cinema, a film distributor owned by AOL Time Warner, offered downloadable "Lord of the Rings" theme music and icons to VoiceStream phones last fall.

"I have 'The Bridge at Khazad-dum Theme' as my ring tone," said Gordon Paddison, a marketing executive at New Line. "People go, 'Oh my God, where did you get that?' It's great because it's such a recognizable tune."

Nokia brought customizable ring tones to the European masses in 1998, and they've become wildly popular despite their cheesy beeps and bleats. Who knows what will happen as sound quality improves, as it will in many of the new phones?

The next round of Nokia handsets, for example, includes software from Beatnik Inc. that brings higher fidelity to ring tones, games and multimedia messages. Those models and other phones also will have the ability to download and play "song tones," or ring tones that are snippets of actual songs.

Moviso, a subsidiary of media conglomerate Vivendi Universal that focuses on wireless services, plans to offer the first song tones this summer. Shawn Conahan, Moviso's president, also is eager to offer multimedia messaging services that use celebrated performers or athletes to deliver customized tidbits of information.

Sony already is developing a multimedia messaging service featuring actors and scenes from the upcoming movie "XXX," said Rio D. Caraeff, vice president of wireless services for Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment. The company plans to announce deals soon with several global wireless phone companies to offer mobile messaging and games built around Sony films, he said.

About half a billion phones today are equipped to handle messages enhanced with pictures, and upward of 10 million will soon be able to deliver messages with music and animation, said Adam Lavine, chief executive of FunMail Inc. in Pleasanton, Calif. The FunMail service, which is rolling out on several networks, automatically embellishes messages with cartoon figures and graphics.

Consumers in Japan may have access to the richest variety of cell-phone-based entertainment. One example is the Love by Mail virtual girlfriend service, which supplies users with a demanding female cartoon figure.

Last year, NTT DoCoMo, the dominant wireless phone company in Japan, enabled customers with camera-equipped cell phones to snap and send photos wirelessly--a service that attracted 20% of the subscribers.

P.J. McNealy, a senior analyst at research firm GartnerG2, cautioned that DoCoMo's success with mobile entertainment may reflect unique social factors not found in the U.S.

"People [in Japan] spend two hours on the train every day, going to and from work. Hand-helds are a main source of communications and entertainment," McNealy said. For most U.S. workers, who drive to work, "cell phone entertainment isn't exactly optimal."

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