CHICAGO, April 2 (UPI) -- You might see them at the airport or riding on the subway, staring with competitive intensity at their wireless phones. They do not talk much, except to make exclamations when they have won or lost.
They are gamers, playing everything from vintage "Pac-Man" to the latest product -- but on cell phones instead of Game Boys or PDAs. During the past 24 months, the wireless gaming phenomenon has taken off and, one day, promises to overtake ring tones as the most sought-after wireless software accessory.
"The technology and the content both are driving each other," said Mark Baric, chairman and chief executive officer of 2ThumbZ Entertainment, a game publisher for the mobile phone market located in Research Triangle Park, N.C. "The games were rudimentary at first, but now there are high-end, branded games available for your wireless phone."
Wireless phone gaming is poised to become one of the biggest entertainment media in the United States, perhaps surpassing the $10 billion annual sales of Hollywood in the coming years, Baric told United Press International. Games sold for consoles, such as those by Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation 2, already are bigger than the movies, with $12 billion in annual sales, he said.
"Four years ago, people thought we were nuts doing entertainment on cell phones," said Andy Nulman, president and co-founder of Airborne Entertainment, a game publisher for the mobile market, located in Montreal. "But we think of the phone as the 'fourth screen.' First there was cinema, then television, then the PC. Now, you have a device that is with you at all times. You can play games on mobile phones wherever you go."
The games help people survive the boredom of waiting in line at the airport, or sitting in the car to pick the kids up from school, Nulman told UPI.
"A lot of people may not have games yet on their phones," Nulman added. "But more and more do have them. Phones are a multi-tasking device. You are able to do a number of things with them. You can work and be more productive, make calls and e-mail. But when you're done with that, they fill gaps that were filled by boredom -- or eating."
Many of the publishers of games for mobile phones are refugees from the dot-com era. One publisher, in Palo Alto, Calif., was, quite literally, closing down its business when it received a call about 18 months ago to undertake contract work producing a new game for the mobile phone market.
"That was when the handset play games were just coming out," said Oliver Miao, CEO of CenterScore Inc., a game developer. "It was a good fit."
The company is now coming to market with its own productions, including a game called, "Not in My Backyard," where competitors, playing over the phone network, attempt to toss virtual trash from their backyard, into their neighbor's yard, he explained.
"You play it over the network," Miao told UPI. "You don't have to worry about latency -- there's only a few seconds delay, which is OK. You can pass the phone to a friend when you're in line at a movie, and play with others on the network -- it is multi-player."
The company is looking to release the game next fall, Miao said.
Once these games hit the market, word of mouth can spread over the Internet and sales growth can be explosive, said Markus Saario, senior manager of Forum Nokia, the wireless entertainment division of the phone company, Nokia.
"We shipped 70 million developer platform devices to the market last year -- that's a common set of technical enablers and features that developers can optimize their games for," Saario told UPI in an interview from Helsinki, Finland. "There is a massive potential market out there. What we hear from our developer partners is that 2003 was a very high-growth year. One of our partners had 40-50 percent growth in sales of their titles. That was Sumea, a Finnish company."
Small start-ups are not the only suppliers here, however. Hollywood is becoming involved, too.
Baric, the founder of 2ThumbZ, earlier co-founded Red Storm Entertainment, with author and military movie icon Tom Clancy. "We have 200 games to choose from," Baric said.
Today, some 160 million wireless phones operate in the United States, many with a lot of processing power, color screens and links to advanced, third generation networks, he said.
"There's been a proliferation of devices," Baric said. "There are three things that people carry with them almost all the time -- their car keys, their wallet and their cell phone."
The games are priced at about $5 each and can be downloaded over the Internet from the publisher's Web site, sent directly over the network to the Internet Protocol address of a cell phone, Baric explained.
Users receive an e-mail alerting them the game is ready to download a few minutes after placing the order. Then they enter some commands on their wireless phone and install the game. A few minutes later, they are playing. The charge for the game can be added to their phone bill or paid with a credit card, Baric said.
To keep the prices low, publishers are offering product placements to generate additional sales, just like movie producers do, said Greg Graham, U.S. applications and content manager for Sony Ericsson, located in Research Triangle Park.
For example, mobile phone handset makers have bought the ads, which then ensure that their phones are incorporated as part of the story line of the games that players play on the screens on their own mobile phones, Graham told UPI.
The games are developed in a very short cycle time by the publishers, moreover, for the phone industry is constantly introducing new handsets. New content is needed every year, said Chris Mellisinos, chief gaming officer at Sun Microsystems.
This contrasts sharply with the 10-year development time for some of the console-based games, he told UPI.
The developers work closely with others in Silicon Valley, and have borrowed technologies from them to push gaming along to new heights. The developers are looking to the future, where they see groups of 20 to 25 individuals, all over the country, simultaneously playing "massively multi-player games on wireless phones," he said.
"We borrowed a lot from the technologies that drive Wall Street -- they're the biggest massively multiplayer game around. We rewrote the code for the games division," Mellisinos said.
Gene Koprowski covers telecommunications and technology for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com