Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Can Warcraft go Nomadic?

nomad38 years ago today (well possibly yesterday, or the day before, depending on when I get round to finishing this post), the first ever public mobile phone call was made.  A guy called Martin Cooper wandered the streets of New York with what is akin to a brick with an antenna sticking out of the top held to his ear.  Unsurprisingly this caused a bit of a stir, people quite literally stopped in their tracks and pointed.  Fast forward 38 years and you’d be hard pushed to find a single person walking the streets of New York, or any other city in the developed world, who isn’t carrying a mobile.  They’re not just mobile phones now either, they’re cameras, GPS, web browsers, email clients, MP3 players, games platforms, RSS readers and much, much more.  Even the plain old SMS, the text message, hadn’t even been conceived back 38 years ago, in 2010 6 trillion were sent globally.

How people use mobiles has changed drastically over the years, those of you who had one of the earlier mobiles may have been lucky enough to have the ability to send texts, if you were like me, you could only store three at any time on the phone, and could only send to other phones on the same operators network.  Mobiles have entered into almost every aspect of modern life.  The advent of the smartphone has only increased this influence, roughly half of the phones sold in the UK is what I’d term a smartphone, this is only going to increase as users demand more and more functionality.

So will you ever be sat on the train playing WOW on your phone?  In a nutshell, I think the answer is ‘yes’ but with some caveats.  Firstly lets have a look at how mobiles are already influence how you play the game.  firstly, logging on to the game, the thing you do at least once every time you play WOW, most people (or at least those with any sense) use an authenticator; these come in two flavours; a specific hardware dongle which you can buy from Blizzard, or a mobile application.  A pretty minimal influence on the face of it, but actually, I don’t want another RSA security dongle, its a to carry around, adding the ability to have the authentication done on my mobile makes me far more likely to use it. 

More recent releases from Blizzard have seen the armoury made available on your mobile, you can view do pretty much everything you can on the web based armoury from viewing your calendar to playing with your talent build.  Going even further, the auction house application allows you to browse the AH, look at your bids, and if you buy the ‘premium’ version you can even create auctions, buy stuff and collect your mail.  It all boils down to what your definition of ‘playing’ the game is, interaction with the auction house is something that you could only previously do in-game, there's no question that this is an integral part of the playing experience.  Going forward there's potential for a similar application for trade skills, and any other ‘windowed’ type interface in your normal WOW UI.

But what about really playing, I don’t mean messing around with the AH, I mean doing things like running around and hitting things, doing quests, and herbing.  This is quite difficult to do on a mobile phone for a number of reasons, firstly raw processing power; mobile chips aren’t the same as your standard desktop machines processor, they are optimised to give a balance between power, battery usage, heat and cost.  They are not generally intended for use in rendering graphics (nor are standard processors, hence why you’ve shelled out a small fortune for your graphics card).   Screen size is an issue, I struggle for space on a 17 inch widescreen, on a 3 inch mobile screen you’re really going to suffer.  The restrictions of the mobile network is also an issue, both bandwidth and latency, we’re already starting to see broadband providers limit gaming traffic, I talked about it here, this happens widely in mobile contracts too, most mobile providers have realised that they’ve previously given away more data capacity than they can supply (if fully used by each customer) so have started limiting mobile contracts to 1Gb of data a month.  Latency is the real killer however, even if you have a bank balance the size of the GDP of a small African country, and can afford the mobile data, with latency figures sometimes in the seconds for mobile data the game play experience will be abysmal when you’re needing something sub 100ms for optimum playing experience.

Wifi could be he answer to this, most, if not all, smart phones have wifi built in, most come with free hotspot wifi access with the contract.  So if you happen to be sat near a wifi hotspot you could be onto a winner.  However, even if you have a super-duper mobile with a massive processor, graphics card and a decent wifi hotspot in your location (is anyone else remembering the brick sized original mobile?).  Even given all of that, you’re still stuck with a 3 inch screen, no keyboard, and no mouse;  I don’t know about you, but I have all my number buttons bound, plus a few other specials, plus movement keys, AND for healing I use a combination of alt, shift, ctrl and mouse clicks to cast particular spells.  On a mobile, this simply isn’t going to happen.  There may be a niche of gaming specific mobile phones, the Sony Xperia already aims to do that with PlayStation games, but for this to be included in mobiles as standard is a long way off.  There’s potential for the use of accelerometers and other innovative control and UI developments to aid this, but the implications for user interaction will always put you at a disadvantage to players sat at a standard desktop.  If you don;t believe me, imagine trying to play something like Counter Strike on an Xbox against someone using a keyboard and mouse; you wouldn’t stand a chance.  There's no possibility of having mobile only realms, this removes the attraction of being able to do stuff with your main characters while on the move.  There’s potential for the development in 3D screen technology to solve some of the UI, I’ve got a post in the pipelines around this, as it’s such a big topic, which will be coming along in due course.

Even assuming someone can solve all of the above, any iPhone or Android user will still point out, that unless you’re less than 1m away from a power socket, you’re still screwed.  This kind of defeats the object; unless you fancy carrying a car battery around on your back, you’re not going to last more than 20 minutes before your phone dies, I barely get 45 minutes of hardcore Angry Birding out of my phone as it is, and that’s relatively non-existent on the graphics load front compared to WOW.

You can actually ‘play’ WOW now if you install a remote desktop app on your desktop which basically screen scrapes the desktop display and punts it to your mobile, but this is very clunky and adds even more latency to the link. I’m convinced gaming, and specifically WOW has a future on mobile, it almost certainly wont be the same experience as playing via your PC, things like pvp, raiding or instances strike me as being very difficult, but why not offer the ability to herb, mine, fish, possibly one or two quest zones aimed at mobile usage (i.e. areas which aren’t going to tax the processing load, or require every spell or ability in your kitbag.  I’d certainly like to spend my train journeys collecting herbs or mining, it’d save you guys having to read this drivel…

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