Brass Lantern
the adventure game web site


Adventure Games on Cellphones

by Stephen Granade

I know, I know. You've heard about cellphone-based adventure games before, most notably that bit about Bedouin and Red Grendel a while back. Nothing more has come of Red Grendel since then, as Bedouin was bought by Inprise (née Borland) and they have little interest in adventure games on cellphones.

But companies are still working on the occasional adventure game for WAP-enabled cellphones. In the UK, one company is giving the genre another go, with hopes of making some money from the project.

bang new media, a digital design company, is a newcomer, having only been around for some six months. They have created a Flash movie for Hallmark Jewellers, and are currently working on a complete redesign of the Jordan Grand Prix web site.

They became interested in creating a WAP game when they saw the game Airlock. Airlock was created by renowned Spectrum game designer Jonathon Smith (or "Joffa Smifff," as he was also known) and made available on the Orange cellphone network in the UK. The game combines simple text-adventure play with the occasional bit of graphics and a simplified menuing interface.

It also had its problems, at least in the eyes of Charles Bell, CEO of bang new media. "When we played [Airlock], we found there were a number of shortcomings -- you couldn't save position and the graphics were always on." The lack of saved games is the most crippling, as it limits the game's appeal to people such as commuters, who have a fixed amount of time each day in which they might be interested in playing such a game.

Programmers tend to view others' successful programs as a challenge. "Y'know, I could do a better version of that" has been a driving force in program design for a long time. The programmers at bang new media were no different. The result was Clarence's Mansion.

Like Airlock, Clarence's Mansion is a text adventure with occasional graphics. Much of the game's design was driven by the limitations of cellphones. The small screen necessitates terse prose, similar to that of early Scott Adams games. The awkward user interface -- to type "MOVE NORTH" would require some 21 keypresses -- led to the use of a command menu rather than a parser as the method of input. The game as a whole is more of a choose-your-own-adventure than a true text adventure.

The game is server-driven, with all game information stored on the computer providing the game. This makes the technical job of saving your game easy: the server records the game state in a database and saves that to disk. Clarence's Mansion itself was created using an XML schema, to make "programming" such a game simple.

bang new media hopes to create several other games starring the lead character in Clarence's Mansion, Clarence Clark. Will they be able to? That depends on how popular the first game is. According to Charles, "The text based nature of adventure games means that it is one medium which translates really easily on to the WAP platform. The images can be kept really simple and with one or two click playing, the unfriendly nature of the user interface (the cellphone) is largely nullified.

"The problem with WAP is that it was sold as 'the internet on your phone'. That's a bit like saying metal is a good thing for building time machines. The theory is sound; the delivery is infinitely more difficult. However, gaming is a good pasttime for people and adventure games are particulary suited to the device."

The company doesn't expect to make its fortune from Clarence's Mansion. The fee to play the game will be around 75 cents, with bang new media getting some percentage of that.

Should you like to see the game in action, you can, even if you don't have a cellphone. The game will work in the Opera browser, as well as stand-alone and Web-based WAP emulators, which are listed on the Clarence's Mansion page.

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