Daniel Blackburn | Carbon Based Games Ltd.
Daniel is Managing Director of Carbon Based Games Ltd. located in Huddersfield. During ten years working in the games industry Daniel has worked on a number of new and innovative computer games, from traditional boxed games on a variety of formats to web and Java based games for mobile phones. In addition, since 2002 he has dedicated more and more of his time to working as a consultant and creative technologist working on Bluetooth, RFID, WAP and SMS projects for the creative and cultural sector.
Social Gaming with Bluetooth
The aim of this document is to discuss some of the possible social gaming opportunities that now exist due to the recent proliferation of Bluetooth enabled mobile devices. Although most of the things discussed here will also be relevant for PDA’s and other similar Bluetooth mobile devices I have concentrated on mobile phones. Mobiles phones are the most widespread of all the Bluetooth devices currently available. They are also already carried by people almost anywhere they go making them ideal for the types of social gaming I want to explore.
From a technical point of view Bluetooth mobile phones have relatively straight forward and open development platforms. Almost every new model of Bluetooth enabled phone being launched can be programmed in some way. On some of the more basic smaller form factor mobile devices Java 2 micro edition(J2ME) can be used to used to develop Bluetooth applications and games. On some of the more advanced smart phones Symbian applications can also be developed to make use of the phones Bluetooth capabilities. I don’t want to go into the technical details of developing for these devices here as there is plenty of excellent information already available. Sun and Nokia have excellent sites on general J2ME development(http://java.sun.com/j2me/ and http://www.forum.nokia.com/main.html). Also Ben Hui (http://www.benhui.net/) has some excellent information and code examples in the Bluetooth section of his site. For Symbian the official site itself is probably the best place to start although there are many other excellent sites (http://www.symbian.com/developer/). All the key development tools for both these platforms can be freely downloaded from the above sites.
Although the technical issues of developing large scale multi player games that use Bluetooth for communication is relatively straight forward some of the user issues may be more complicated. One of the main problems will probably be gaining a critical mass of players to make the game work. If the only way people can play a game is via Bluetooth they will soon loose interest if there are no other users around them to interact with. One way around this is to view the Bluetooth elements of the games as an enhancement rather than the core game. This way users will still be able to enjoy the game in a single player mode and Bluetooth interactions will just embellish their game playing experience. One problem of this approach though is that is limits some of the possibilities of what could be achieved with wide scale mass multi player gaming via Bluetooth. One of the great appeals to me of using Bluetooth in this way is that the single player side of games are greatly reduced or removed altogether in favor of interaction with other players. In a way it is comparable to the initial lure of playing real players online over the Internet for the first time as opposed to computer controlled artificial intelligent opposition. Previously to play directly against other players they had to be at the computer or console with you or in some case on the same LAN. Now not only can you be anywhere and play against real people via mobile phones networking capabilities. But Bluetooth has the added excitement that the people you playing with or against are within a few metres of you. They may be know to you or they may not be. Sometimes it’s fun or challenging just to work out who you are communicating with over Bluetooth.Proliferation and distribution of social Bluetooth games.
One way to establish Bluetooth social games initially would be to allow users to set up there own games for just them and there friends that they have invited into the game. ‘Killer’, the live action role-playing game by Steve Jackson is a good example of this. Although there are many variants of this game, essentially each player had to kill or assassinate another player. This could be done with a banana with gun written down the side or by throwing a bucket of water with acid written on it over someone. No one know who everyone else is trying to kill and more importantly who is trying to bump you off. This means that your day to day life can become pretty jumpy as you never know when someone might try and kill you. One of the exciting things about playing a game like Killer is that it can run parallel to your everyday life and for a period of time it has a real impact on the way you live your life. Another reason Killer is exciting is that people around you aren’t in on what you are doing. Even though the other people in the game are trying to kill each other you still feel like you are part of something that other aren’t. The Killer model could be applied very easily to a Bluetooth mobile phone game. Instead of using pretend weapons your phone could easily become both a weapon and a way of detecting if you have been killed by another player. (See http://www.sjgames.com/killer/ for more information)
Once people are playing in their own groups the leap to setting up games on a larger scale is not so large. It may even be that the two levels of game can run along side each other. Similar to the way some fantasy football management games work. Although you are competing nationally with the thousands of other fantasy managers playing the game. Many games now let you set up leagues with your friends or coworkers so you can compete against them. being ranked 7824th nationally isn’t so cool but it is if that’s good enough to be winning your offices league.
Another factor that could help to speed up this process and make it easier for game communities to expand is how the game is distributed. Traditionally mobile phone games and applications are distributed in two ways. Over the air direct to the phone or via a computer connected to the phone. Bluetooth offers a new viral like form of distribution. With users being able to forward a copy of the game client to other potential players over Bluetooth.
Potential Game structures
In the beginning there was ‘Player 1’. One person playing against the computer. Then came ‘Player 2’. People could play against real people and even cooperate with them against the computer. Both player were still tied to the games console, computer or arcade cabinet though. Then two things happened. Games got portable through consoles like the game boy. And multi player became mass multi player via the Internet. Now you didn’t have to be next to the people you were playing and there was a lot more of them. When mobile phones came along initially it was back to level 1. ‘Player 1’ competing against the computer more often than not by guiding a snake. Then with WAP and other protocols people could use there phones to play against other people again. Bluetooth is designed as a replacement for cables. And when it appeared on phones it’s obvious first use was to allow people to play against people nearby without the need for cables. This is effectively the same model as people connecting Gameboys using link cables to play against each other. I think the interesting thing that Bluetooth will bring to gaming on mobile devices is not the organized meetings but the chance ones.
Games will be able to automate interactions so that the users doesn’t even have knowledge that it is taking place. Games could alert the user when they detect another player. A brief piece of gameplay could then take place before the connection is lost. Or the players could agree to stick around for a bit to play some more.
It will be interesting to see how games like this will effect the lives of the people playing them. With GPS games such as mogi (http://www.mogimogi.com/) some players would detour from their everyday routes to go and pick up a virtual object. With Bluetooth enabled game will people try to get within range of someone while there phone is in their bag so they are unlikely to hear it so that they can steal virtual objects without their knowledge. Or will they stay clear of people at work because they are at a high level than the game than them and they want to avoid defeat again. Or will they be constantly checking their phone because they’re convinced someone is trying to virtually assassinate them an could set of a bomb at any time. Meaning they would need to run with there phone to get it out of range of the blast.
Below are a couple of game ideas and themes that utilize some of the features discussed in this document.
Part Tamagotchi nurture style game and part trading game. Players have virtual gardens or greenhouses on their phone containing plants that they must look after. To encourage the users to leave the game running on their phone even when they are not playing the amount of time the application is running could effect the amount of sun that your plants get. The only way to get more plants is to get them pollenated. As there are no bees in this virtual word this job is done by the people playing the game. If they come into Bluetooth range of another phone with the game on the plants will be pollenated to the mutual benefit of both players. In this way players can expand their garden and make it more beautiful. When their garden has matured players could gain the option of using it as a screen saver. There could be downside to these chance encounters with other virtual gardeners though. Pests and diseases could also be past on as well.
The idea being that this game is very laid back and doesn’t have to impact heavily on a player day to day life. You don’t have to be looking at your phone when these automated events are happening. Instead you can take a look how your garden is doing when you have a spare 5 minutes and catch up on what has happened today. And maybe catch up on a bit of virtual weeding. Although this type of game is mainly passive if someone who you bump into on a regular basis is playing the game but not looking after their garden. You might start to avoid them or at least briefly stop the game running to avoid any of their pests spreading to your garden.
Trading card game
Players could have a pack of virtual cards that depict characters or objects. In a similar way to real world trading card games such as Magic or Top Trumps. When users come into contact with other users their top cards could be compared and the winner would keep both cards. Unlike Top Trumps though where you usually only play against a couple of players in this instance you could be playing against hundred or thousands of players online. And the people you’re playing against would change as you go about you day and bump into new players.
In top trumps style games one user picks an attribute and those attributes are compared. The player with the highest attribute keeps both cards. To allow for two levels of involvement in the game you could set the game to just pick one of the attributes automatically. This way you would not have to have any involvement at the time and could simply look at how many cards you had won or lost at the end of the day. However their is some skill to selecting you cards best attribute. Some users may prefer for the game to tell them when an interaction has taken place so that they can select the best attribute on the next card ready for the next player to come along. Rather than comparing how many cards you have against the person you are playing with at that time you are really competing with everyone playing the game.
It’s been interesting to spend some time exclusively thinking about Bluetooth and some of the new opportunities for gaming that it brings. And also to further explore some of the game ideas I’ve been looking at. I really hope that we will see more games of this type appearing in the near future. Either through traditional commercial models. Or because of the relative ease of development and the openness of the development environments through enthusiasts and artists. I myself am particularly interested in the virtual card trading game area and hope to take this further. As well as being comparatively easy to develop I think it is a style of game that people will have some familiarity with initially.