Games in your hands

Posted: 05.24.04

We see huge growth in the handheld game market. It's a market that has three or four segments: dedicated game-only handhelds such as Nintendo's Game-boy, mobile phone game machines like Nokia's N-Gage, PDA game machines like Tapwave's, and a new category: x86 machines like VIA's reference design, Eve.

Each of these segments has different platform opportunities and challenges for the game developers, and the only potential common denominator on the horizon is OpenGL ES (see table below for a comparison of the game platforms).

GameboyOne of the most popular handheld game machines in the world is Nintendo's Gameboy and Gameboy Advance (see photo). But Nintendo's president in the U.S. bragged that eight companies have come after Nintendo's stronghold in the dedicated handheld game machine market, and they are all goneÑand here comes the ninth (i.e., Sony).

The existing dedicated handheld game machines, like Nintendo's, do not have a common API, but future products like Sony's PSP, Tigertelematics's Gizmondo, and maybe Nintendo's DS might use OpenGL. Until that happens, not all game developers will be able to participate in all platforms. Cross-platform game porting isn't as easy to do as it is to say, which is why you don't see much of it. A few game developer companies do multiple con-sole platform offerings at the same time, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many games that can run on more than one handheld device.

However, the new generation of devices will change that. As the processors in them get more powerful and use more common operating systems, and as OGL ES grabs hold due to the efforts of the Khronos group, game developers will be able to expand their reach.

Existing suppliers like Nintendo and Sony will make their games cross platform between the console and handheld. That will have a slightly negative effect for Sony because the company will drain off a little of its PS2 game sales when it brings out the PSP with many of the same titles that are available on the PS2. None-theless, the handheld game market is shaping up to be one of the hot growth areas.

No longer a child's toy for entertainment on trips and school buses, the quality, complexity, and variety of games available for the various handheld machines will soar in the next couple of years. Mobile phones and PDAs are approaching the MIPS range of the Xbox and PS2. They already are capable of running stunning games, especially when equipped with powerful co-processors or embedded engines. And, all sorts of accessories for our handheld companions are being developed to make them more like a game console. Take, for example, the snap-on game-pad controller from Sony Ericsson for their (and other) phones.

Nintendo, in the meantime, has announced their next-gen handheld, the DSÑDual Screen. At the press conference the audience went wild with excitement over the demo, and the president said, "Sony is just entering the handheld seg-ment and we've already raised the bar." Well, Nintendo has gone back to the future to raise the bar in order to reinvent the dual-screen handheld Game-boy DS. The company brought out their first dual-screen handheld game machine in 1987 with the "Donkey Kong" hit (see photo).

In addition to longevity, Nintendo has an important component to compete in the handheld market and that is a community of accessory suppliers. The Palm community is a prime example, and Nintendo has a small community of developers too and they are proving themselves to be among the most innovative and creative of developers.

For example, one of the big developments in handheld games for the mobile phone and PDA has been Java-based games. Last year, thanks to Ajile, Java came to the Gameboy Advance. This allowed owners of the popular handheld to play those quirky Java-based Internet games, as well as downloading of MP3s. Another example of the potential ubiquity of the popular handheld is an attachment that comes with a digital camera, earphone, and microphone from Kyoto-based Digital Act that slips into the top of the Gameboy Advance just like any video-game cassette. And when it's connected to an analog telephone outlet, the display shows live video of the person on the other end of the line (who must also own the Gameboy Advance).

Sony and the x86 suppliers will have to foster the same kind of community if they want to challenge Nintendo, as well as the mobile phones and PDA suppliers, and we have no doubt they will do exactly that.

The real success will be measured in the number and type of games that are made available for these new handheld gaming machines. Sony will shock and awe Nintendo with their roll out of games, Nintendo will stun Sony with their resilience, the world will gasp at the huge number of games that begin to appear for mobile phones, and PDA owners will reap the rewards of the development in all camps, but the new category of x86 machines will be the real monster with over 1,000 ready to play games in stores and home ready to go.

Handhelds? We got game!


(Gameboy Adv)






16.7-Mhz ARM7

400 MHz Sch2440


ARM, MIPS, 400-MHz Intel Xscale



NA: op code

Windows CE


Palm, Windows Mobile 2003

Windows Linux


240 x 160, 32K color

240 x 320

176 x 208, 65K color

240 x 320, 65K color


Battery playing games

15 hours

4 to 6 hours

2 to 6 hours

4 to 8 hours

6 hours


82 mm x 144.5 mm x 24.5 mm

170mm x 74mm x 23mm

108.6 mm x 53 mm x 18.7 mm

4.46 x 2.75 x .5 inches

4 x 5 x 6 inches

The game platforms: what they are and what they do.