Mobile games platforms explained
Don't know your Java from your BREW? Read on to discover what they mean for the games you play
If any further evidence were needed that the world of telecoms and IT is fuelled by coffee, consider the mobile phone games platforms. The highest-profile are Java, the most popular and well-established, and BREW, the high-tech challenger from the US, just beginning to emerge in Europe.
Caffeine-fixations aside, what do they do? And what does it mean for you, the mobile gamer? Well, in an effort to explain things, we've percolated this Pocket Gamer guide. Grab a mug, pour yourself a cup of Joe and read on...
Platforms for play
You can think of a platform as a virtual games console inside your handset. The different types of platform (BREW, Java, Symbian and so on) can be considered the rough equivalent to the PlayStation and Xbox, at least in as much as they have distinct capabilities and their games aren't interchangeable. (That is, just as you can't play an Xbox game on a PlayStation, you can't play a BREW game on a Java handset).
However as things stand you can't go out and shop around for a handset featuring the platform of your choice. Right now, Europeans with run-of-the-mill handsets are pretty much always going to get Java's J2ME offering, with smart phone owners also able to enjoy Symbian. The times they are a changing though, as BREW, which is already huge in the US, is threatening to start its invasion of these shores in earnest later this year.
As a result, the following mobile platforms are going to get a great deal more column inches in the coming months.
Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME)
Developed by Sun Microsystems, a massive IT company, Java is a software platform that spans high-tech devices of all types. From the servers that power office networks to the phone in pocket right now, it's almost everywhere.
There's almost certainly a version installed on your handset, along with nearly every single other mobile phone in the UK. Although there have been several iterations as mobile technology has developed, the most common flavour today is known as Java 2 Mobile Edition, abbreviated for obvious reasons to J2ME. It's easily the dominant gaming platform in UK handsets, though slightly less so in Europe where competing formats are establishing a greater presence.
Originally envisaged to be a standard platform that would be identical on any handset from any manufacturer and, consequently, able to run any piece of compatible software, the wide-ranging hardware differences between ever-evolving phone models has rather scuppered Sun's utopian vision. As a result, although J2ME exists as a single product name and shares a fundamental core, there are subtle differences in its implementation on various handsets, at least between handset families – one reason why a particular game can sometimes run on one handset but not another, even if the handsets are made by the same manufacturer.
Nearly all of the mobile phone games available for sale in the UK are Java titles, so much so that Java games aren't usually labelled as such. Despite this, you'll rarely encounter Java directly, apart from the odd loading logo – a situation that's the same for all of the platforms talked about here. Even though it's essential for your games to run, it stays hidden, working behind-the-scenes.
Like just about everything else in the mobile world, Java is forever evolving and being tweaked, and indeed we're currently witnessing the transition from an older version of J2ME components to a more modern iteration. Called the Mobile Information Device Profile (abbreviated to MIDP), it's a part of the platform that specifies just what can be achieved by applications made to run on J2ME.
Until recently, handsets have featured version 1 (MIDP 1.0), which wasn't all that well-suited to gaming, assuming a small screen size, no audio and a limit on the actual size of a program. Restricted graphical performance was the main drawback, and it hampered games developers. The newer version, MIDP 2.0, is much more powerful in all regards.
The difference between the two is best illustrated by the Nokia N-Gage QD handset; while it's got its own 3D graphics chip for running games like Asphalt Urban GT2, the version of J2ME installed upon it is MIDP 1.0.
This means that there's a huge disparity between the visual quality of Java games and N-Gage games on the handset, something we're sure that owners of the N-Gage have noticed several times over, most recently with The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift. The N-Gage, despite its once-fancy hardware, is limited to running the low-quality 2D edition of the game.
Despite these issues and the fact that it's arguably not the most powerful gaming technology available, J2ME remains the dominant force in the UK, with its rivals struggling for a foothold. And as with classic techology battles such as VHS vs Betamax, the sheer momentum of Java means it's likely to remain on top for some time to come.
That's not all bad news, anyway: Sun recently announced a partnership with network operator Orange to help developers using J2ME to cut down on development and testing costs. Part of an effort to encourage more programmers to get involved in creating J2ME applications, there's already a wide base of hobby programmers who, thanks to the ease with which J2ME can be used, are putting out innovative games and programs.
A relatively easy language with which to pick up and begin programming (it's similar to the PC language C++), the only fly in the ointment is compatibility testing. With so many different versions of J2ME out there, each one for a different family of mobile phone handsets, even if a developer only aims to cover the popular handsets testing can dwarf the actual creation of the game.
Still, the very fact that you could go out today, download the software development kit, program a game and then release it for download yourself (and charge a fee for it, without having to pay Sun a royalty) is a testament to all that J2ME has going for it.
And Sun has the deep pockets and the desire to keep J2ME at the forefront of mobile application development.
The big competitor to J2ME, BREW is a concoction created by Qualcomm, an American communications company. Unless you're in the business you'll probably not have heard of it yet, as it's yet to make much of an impact in the UK and Europe in general.
It's a different story in the USA, though, where BREW has grown strongly and is already the premier mobile gaming platform.
The big draw of BREW is its 3D capabilities. It's a far more advanced platform than J2ME, and it enables developers to make much more complex games (provided the destination handset has the processing power to run them). Look at the screens below and you can see what we mean. These games are so far beyond what we're used to the UK, it's almost unfair.
Due to the technological advances enabled by BREW, the games that Americans have access to on their phones have matured beyond the standard 2D fare that's prominent in the UK.
The J2ME version of Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood that we were treated to in Britain is a 2D shooter that's similar to any number of other games, such as Call of Duty 2 and War Hero 1944. The BREW version of Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood is a different story altogether. It's a fully-3D shooter, viewed in a third-person perspective, that wouldn't look entirely out of place on the Nintendo DS. It's for this reason that some American networks feel able to charge up to $13.49 (nearly £7.50) for certain mobile phone games.
Aside from the more powerful gaming credentials of BREW, there are a number of advantages for developers. Firstly, the platform is less fragmented than J2ME. There are far fewer differences in BREW running on a Samsung handset to BREW running on a Nokia model, for instance.
Secondly, the way in which BREW games are written is even easier to get to grips with than Java, as it uses the popular C and C++ languages, both of which are commonly used in the PC arena.
If you have a working knowledge of either C or C++ you'll be able to get started programming in BREW almost immediately by downloading the free SDK.
Without getting into the too-technical details, the reason for BREW's low-profile in the UK comes down to the way that mobile phones work. The BREW platform in the US is tied into the network and handset hardware, and until now Qualcomm hasn't offered the gaming part of BREW as a separate piece of software.
That's about to change, though, as Qualcomm has now split the gaming elements out and, as of June 2006, it's been offering them to European handset manufacturers and networks as a standalone platform that can be installed on any mobile phone.
Qualcomm believes this will help European network operators and games publishers to make more money from mobile games, the philosophy being that if a game's more advanced, we punters will be happy to pay more for it.
It's paying more that's the crux of the BREW platform. Whereas Java is an open source platform – once they've got the development kit, anyone can start programming games and then release them – BREW is much more closed off.
Developers that want to program games (or indeed any application) in BREW have to first register with Qualcomm, purchase an expensive compiler that's essential for turning a mass of code into a playable game, and also present said code to Qualcomm for testing. This testing (called TRUE BREW certification) must be paid for by the developer or the network operator and, without it, the game can't be distributed.
These higher development costs mean that hobbyist programmers using BREW are few and far between, and also that games cost the punter a great deal more to buy.
The way in which BREW games are distributed also cranks up the cost of titles, due to different price plans. When you buy a J2ME game, it's yours outright: it's saved onto your handset until you opt to remove it. While BREW games can be sold in the same manner, they can also be tailored so that they only work if you pay a monthly subscription fee. Don't pay one month and the game won't work, it's as simple as that.
BREW games can also be priced to give you a certain number of plays before requiring you to pay again. It's this capability – for a program to charge your mobile phone account – that in part necessitates the TRUE BREW testing and certification process.
The arrival of BREW in the UK is very much a double-edged sword, then. While it could usher in a revolution in mobile phone gaming, you're likely going to have to pay through the nose for it.
ExEn is short for Execution Engine, a proprietary piece of software developed by games publisher In-Fusio. It's dedicated to running games and nothing else (unlike J2ME and BREW, which are built to support all sorts of applications) and was developed to provide better performance and visuals for games.
It's not as widely distributed though, and according to In-Fusio's website, it isn't available on Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Samsung or Motorola handsets. And of all the UK network operators, it is supported solely by Orange.
But In-Fusio is hoping that ExEn will be picked up by the other handset manufacturers. As it sits on top of the J2ME MIDP 1.0 platform, In-Fusio reckons it would mean that games developers wouldn't need to write a different version of every game that they create for every make and model of handset.
ExEn 2 is currently in the works. It will hook up with J2ME's MIDP 2.0 platform and offer further enhancements to games.
Labelled as a 'gaming accelerator' by creators Synergenix, Mophun aims to improve the pocket gaming experience by better harnessing a handset's hardware. There are two versions of Mophun, 2D and 3D, for low-end and high-end handsets, and it's often used to provide embedded (pre-installed) games on mobile phone handsets.
Mophun has been around for a few years now and seems to be showing its age. Indeed, compared to the latest versions of J2ME and BREW, and even ExEn, it's decidedly lo-fi.
It still has a few aces up its sleeve, mind. Firstly, it's very small and takes up very little memory space. Secondly, it's very secure, which means that pre-installed games can't be copied or pirated. And last, but by no means leastly, the platform is featured on UK network Three.(More on Mophun.)
Symbian is better known as an operating system for phones. After all, it's the software foundation for just about every single Nokia mobile phone in one shape or another, and is also being used to run selected 3G handsets from Samsung and Sony Ericsson.
In this respect it's the Microsoft Windows of the mobile phone world, but on higher-end handsets it's also a pretty solid games platform.
It's the 'higher-end handsets' that are the key – Symbian games only really make a showing for themselves on Nokia Series 60 devices, such as the N70 or the N-Gage QD. But if you have got such a handset you're in for a treat: the results are terrific.
Removing the middle-man from the equation (there's no need for J2ME, for instance) together with the fact it's a given that a Series 60 handset's specification is going to be good means you end up with titles like Raging Thunder.
However, like the BREW platform, with more impressive games come larger file sizes and costs; some Symbian games cost as much as £8 and as they can be five times the size of a J2ME game.
This hasn't swayed some people from backing it as the mobile phone games platform of the future. As Symbian is the same on every Symbian handset (it's a less fractured market, in business-speak), it saves developers time and money, causing some pundits to predict Symbian will come to the fore in 2007. Gameloft, one of the largest mobile publishers is joining smaller specialist publishers like Telcogames (responsible for Another World as show in image above) and titles like Midnight Bowling 3D are starting to appear on Vodafone's portals.
Not to be confused with…
With all these abbreviations and acronyms floating around, things can get confusing. So put down your mug for a second and listen up – the following are quite different kettles of froth…
As well as looking for ways to make games run and look better on your phone, games publishers are continually looking for better ways to offer their wares for sale. EGE was created by In-Fusio with just that in mind. It's a way for network operators and handset manufacturers to easily distribute games via the handsets themselves.
Not a gaming platform, i-mode is a type of wireless internet for mobile phones created by Japanese company NTT DOCOMO, much along the lines of WAP, which enables customers to subscribe to 'games channels', sampling as much content as they want from the channel for a fixed fee. The games themselves still run using the gaming platforms detailed above. At present i-mode is only available in the UK on O2.
What does it all mean?
So where does all that leave you, the pocket gamer? Aside from bouncing off the ceiling with your caffeine high?
Well, it leaves you in a very strong position, especially if you've got a high-end 3G handset, as by this time next year you'll be able to pick and choose the best games from across all three major platforms (J2ME, BREW and Symbian).
But it also means that mobile gaming will continue to mature into a serious rival to the more established PSP and DS. Throw in Nokia's next-generation N-Gage platform (which will run on Symbian smartphones) and the future's truly bright for mobile phone gamers. Not to mention buzzing.