Games on handhelds – never happen

Posted: 03.21.05

That's how I was feeling. I had just finished "Doom 3." It took me a little longer than most folks because I interrupted myself to play "Half-Life 2" and then interrupted that to play at "Halo 2," having totally given up on "Far Cry." Don't expect to see these games on your phone any time soon.

The graphics/art work and 3D models in "Doom 3" were, to say the least, spectacular. A little better than "Half-Life 2" and lots better than "Far Cry," despite all the hype about "Far Cry's" water (which was indeed good). "Half-Life 2" got my vote for best street scenes, but then "Doom 3" didn't have any street scenes. "Halo 2" has been a disappointment, a simple makeover, and it's hard to understand why it took so long to produce. Basically if you played "Halo" then you didn't need to buy "Halo 2." Another observation about "Halo 2" is my four-and-a-half-year-old grandson finished it in less than a week, and my 11-year-old grandson did it in a couple of days; both said they were very disappointed.

I was sadly disappointed with all four of the games, and most of all with "Doom 3." It reminded me of "Final Fantasy"—really great graphics and absolutely no story. Not only did "Doom 3" not have story, it had no characters. "Half-Life 2" had several interesting characters, but "Far Cry" didn't have any characters either. The last game I played that had real story, in fact three stories, was "Deus Ex." Even "Kate Archer Must Die" has some story, in addition to being amusing and having characters.

But lest I judge, let me say that I have no idea what the rest of the world thinks of "Doom 3." I read an early review of it and the reviewer said he probably wouldn't play the game because he didn't like horror films and especially when he was part of one. I thought that was the greatest recommendation the game could get and spoke volumes about its realism and graphics quality, and the game does deliver that.

However, I think we've hit a brick wall—I've mentioned this before. When the best the game community can produce is remakes of 1990s games, and then they take two to three years to do that, we're in a sad situation. The big titles, "Half-Life 2" and "Doom3," as well as many others, have the same concept—a huge, powerful, evil force to overcome. But then when you accomplish that goal, you wonder why.

The problem is the game developers can't assimilate the new technology fast enough. I remember back in the early 90s when game developers were asking what is a z-buffer, and then saying we don't need it, and then saying why do we have to use it. Today they are confronted with vertex shaders, pixel shaders, and 12 pipes of the stuff. They have to spend all their time trying to write code to match the image ideas of the artists, and in the process seem to lose any concept of story.

And the pressure won't let up. In a year or so we'll have two new, and dramatically different, architectures in console land: the Cell from IBM-Sony, and a Power Processor with a conventional graphics pipeline from ATI. Cross-platform challenges aside, the game developers are going to have their hands full trying to understand and then exploit these new architectures. Remember how long it took for really great games to get to the PS2. History will repeat itself with Xbox2 and the next-generation console from Sony.

Where are the games for high-end phones?

Now we have an even newer problem. Where are the games for these exalted, but yet to be seen, high-end super-phones? So far it looks like the phone will only be good for racing and maybe fighting games. First-person shooters (FPSs), at least the first ones this person saw, are less than interesting, with very restrictive movement on screens that are too small. I was coming to the conclusion that the best high-end phone games we could hope for would be Gameboy-like games. Maybe if the high-end phones adopt the PDA form factor, or find a way to fill the entire surface of the phone with a display (and I guess some external control method), they could become universal game machines like a PS2 or Xbox, or PSP, but even though I've seen some innovative designs, the likelihood of production units with those qualities is probably two years away.

And then I went to Cannes. Well, now I'm a believer. I saw, held, and played a couple of FPS games on phones with a normal size screen, and it was OK. And a remarkable thing happened: I didn't care about story or characters, I just wanted to run around and shoot things. Then I got it. There will not only be different screen size, color depth, and scene complexity on handhelds, there will be different interest in the games.

It's the setting, stupid

When you play a game on a PC, it's different from how you play on a console. You have a different intent, a different attitude, and a different setting. For me anyway, the PC is the most intimate. I'm in my comfy faux-Aeron chair, with vibrating heating pad and water bottle side-cup holder, my nose is about eight inches from the screen (except when I'm ducking or pushing the chair backwards to get out of a line of fire)—I am in intimacy with the program, and in such a condition I expect something in return. That means I have to care about the characters, I want to know where the story line is taking us, and I want to try to suspend disbelief—i.e., I don't want to see the great graphics and effects, I want to be one with the game. On a PC I can often do that; and, FYI BTW, the graphics don't have to be outstanding to accomplish it.

On a game console it's different. I don't get as intimate; there may even be someone else in the room with me. I'm distracted with con-versation—it's not just me and the game, it's us and our real lives or the ones we'd like to have. Now the graphics have to be great, because I'm in a distracting environment and need all the help I can get to get into the game.

A handheld is neither of the above. It will be used in the most distracting environment, and it will not be capable of great graphics. I'll most likely be on a train or in an airport waiting lounge, I'll be very distracted by what's going one, and my vision will be wide open to other events. Story-schmory—who cares? I'm just killing time and aliens. Characters—who cares? This is about me twitching my thumbs as fast as I can. I don't have time to get interested in characters, I have to find a health pack. And if it's a remake of a game I've played, no problem, makes it easier for me to get through it. I'm not alone on the train, I'm with an old friend.

Games on phone, you betcha. Give it to me now, baby. Jon's signature