A Weather-Affected, Massively Multiplayer, Java-Based i-Mode Game

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2001


An innovative Java handset game shows the growing sophistication of the wireless content business, among other things.

by Daniel Scuka

TOKYO-BASED GAME DEVELOPER Dwango released Samurai Romanesque on January 26 this year, the same day that NTT DoCoMo launched its i-Appli Java-based contents service. Samurai Romanesque is a weather-affected, massively multiplayer, Java-based i-mode game for the i-Appli handsets. Players take on the role of samurai, foot soldiers, generals, and other archetypes from Japan's era of the warlords, roughly 1467 to 1600 AD. While there's no news on the number of players, the company does claim that the number of subscribers is "growing satisfactorily."

Players share information with each other and try to obtain various tools, while learning the art of sword-fighting through practice and real battles. Meritorious deeds in war or gaining fame will help boost the status of characters, who can go on to marry a princess or spawn offspring (who may inherit some of the parent character's traits) and -- after a "life" of about 40 days -- die (players continue to game with their character's child). Play occurs in some 1,000 towns and locations based on actual historic places from the Sengoku era. The towns have inns, teahouses, post stations, armorer's shops, blacksmith shops, forges, and other establishments where players can obtain information, purchase items, or earn money. Purchasing liquor at a post station will allow a character to chat with others, but if too much is consumed, the drunken character may be banned from chatting (which at least has the benefit of saving on i-mode packet fees).

gameDwango claims the game can accommodate up to 500,000 players, each of which can battle with the others at the same time. Characters also can take on one of 16,000 unique appearances, so it's unlikely that any player's character will meet a similarly attired character. Samurai Romanesque neatly illustrates the power of mobile gaming based on Java and the growing complexity of Japan's third-party mobile content, application, and service provider industry. DoCoMo's Java-enabled handsets (the 503i series) are selling extremely well, with some media estimates placing daily sales in the tens of thousands. "I think the potential of mobile MMP-type games in Japan is high," says Arka Roy, a longtime Tokyo-based game software developer. Roy explains that Japanese keitai users seem less deterred than Westerners by the tediousness of typing text messages using a phone's number pad and not a full-fledged keyboard. "Even on a desktop, they are used to having to do kanji conversions as they type, so all the converting and mode-switching on a phone pad is something they are more inured to," he says. Of course, another key factor in mobile gaming's success in Japan is the mobility of young people in the big cities and the use of public transport. "You can see so many people on the trains or standing on platforms typing into their cellphones rather than speaking into them," says Roy.

Java enables much richer gaming, since the game application is downloaded onto the handset and runs onboard, leading to a much faster experience. Earlier i-mode games were based on simple scripting languages that ran on the content provider's server, and each new screen had to be uploaded and downloaded from the network -- at a pokey 9.6 Kbps. Samurai Romanesque can be played locally or in real-time on the server, and only a relatively small amount of game data has to be sent back and forth. Java interactivity also permits players to "meet" and interact in real-time, as well as to exchange chat messages. The system monitors this communication, however, and strips out any email addresses or telephone numbers so as to reduce the possibility of players meeting in person, a nod to DoCoMo's strict "no social networking" security policy for i-mode. "The thing that impresses me," says Roy, "is the server-side programming they must have done to accommodate access by 500,000 simultaneously and not compromise the user experience."

gameThe 503i-series handsets are also a key factor in the success of Java-based games like Samurai Romanesque. The Panasonic, Sony, Mitsubishi, NEC, and Fujitsu Java phones all boast large, full-color screens (the Sony model features a 65,536-color TFT display), and three of them (Sony, NEC, and Panasonic) come in the popular clamshell design. Japanese carriers have had the good business sense to require most (in J-Phone's case, all) vendors to furnish color screens, which has boosted the entertainment applications (and revenues) on wireless information services here. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Samurai Romanesque's deployment is the game's integration of real-time weather data provided by the Japan Weather Association. Game settings change as the real world weather changes, so when it is (really) raining, a character in the game may not be able to use firearms (the gun powder would be wet) or travel very quickly (the roads would be muddy).

While this may appear to be a minor addition to the game's authenticity, it illustrates that the market for third-party content -- and the content provider business matrix itself -- is becoming more sophisticated. There are already several weather information service providers listed on the official i-mode portal, and it's doubtful that DoCoMo would allow any additional primary weather information providers onto the list, unless there was some really terrific additional feature built into the service. But by providing its information to another primary provider as a secondary provider, the Japan Weather Association can still participate in the wireless content market and (presumably) earn revenue from Dwango or other game providers. Japan's wireless content market is now two and a half years old, and is steadily offering more opportunities for owners of all types of digital contents or information (such as GPS location data) to reach paying consumers.

When it comes to gaming, however, the availability of real-time information services shouldn't dictate the game design. "If the weather is a big factor in the game design, then, yes -- by all means -- use it," says Roy. "But if it is just peripherally important, then it is a tougher call on whether the development cost of implementing [the feature] is justified. Otherwise, it is just a novelty."

Novelty or not, there's money to be made on mobile gaming. It costs ¥300 per month to play Samurai Romanesque, so if the service has 10,000 players, Dwango is pulling in a respectable ¥3,000,000 per month (less a 9 percent billing fee to DoCoMo). And there's no doubt that integrating real-time data into games gets your basic game programmer fairly excited -- leading, perhaps to even more entertaining (and faster-selling) projects. Roy explains that he wishes he could have integrated real-time news information into Seaman, his bizarre but compelling game for the Sega Dreamcast in which 5,000-year-old fish creatures have intelligent conversations with the player. "Now that would be an amazing use of real-time information," says Roy with a smile.

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