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SMS Game Development. Making the Most of a Sucky Technology. Greg Costikyan. ... In most games, the result of interaction can be minor (turn left 30 ...

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sms game development

SMS Game Development

Making the Most of a Sucky Technology

Greg Costikyan

what is sms
What Is SMS?
  • Short Text Message Service

Built into GSM from the startso everyone in Europe can “text” everyone else

20 b + messages exchanged every month

Not yet successful in North Americacarrier walled gardens breaking down but lower prices for voice & pager/IM availability may continue to keep this smaller here

why develop sms games
Why Develop SMS Games?
  • Everyone in Europe texts
    • Comfortable with technology
    • Perceived as cool (while “WAP sucks”)
    • Potential large audience (and market)
  • Carriers & Aggregators eager for SMS titles
    • In North America, too, where they’re waking up to the missed opportunity
how does it work
How Does it Work?
  • Originator inputs phone number & message.
  • Sends message over air to SMSC.
  • SMSC forwards message over Internet to recipient’s SMSC.
  • SMSC sends message over air to recipient.
smsc can send receive with game server
SMSC Can Send & Receive with Game Server

Server is assigned a “Phone Number”

  • User requests game by sending SMS to that number

Header info identifies user’s phone number; server parses, processes, responds to user.

SMSC must know that phone number = server’s IP address—game service must have a deal with the carrier!

sms costs money
SMS Costs Money
  • Typically 10¢/message (7p in UK)

Carrier can choose to charge more or less for a game’s messages, or to charge a flat fee for a game.

Revenues shared with game service

Marketing cost in making users aware of phone number to message

game should be playable in just a few message exchanges
Game Should be Playable in Just a Few Message Exchanges
  • Otherwise will be too costly for many players

Try to keep it to <10 messages per game (or 1-3 per day for games played over a period of time)

each message must advance the game
Each Message Must Advance the Game
  • In most games, the result of interaction can be minor (turn left 30 degrees; a card is played). With SMS, a handful of interactions must combine to a satisfying game. A non-trivial design challenge.
each message 160 characters
Each Message <=160 Characters
  • That’s a =hard= limit.

Can break into multiple messages, but each costs money…

That’s basically 25 words or less.

Localizing generally increases the number of characters in text.

tricks to help
Tricks to Help
  • 2, not two.

Abbrev. if can keep clear.

Cn u use txting abbrevs?

Edit ruthlessly.

Put rules in separate “Help” message.

Test all boundary conditions.

no graphics means
No Graphics Means...
  • Hard to show physical layout with pure text.
    • Text adventures (N thru Door)—but a lot of text used for navigation.
    • Text representations (Ship 2 > 3,7)—but hard to visualize.
can t rely on a monospace font
Can’t Rely on a Monospace Font

This: looks like this:



avoid games that depend on locations
Avoid Games that Depend on Locations
  • Most electronic games are an exploration of space

But it’s not true of all game styles:

  • Word Games
  • “Choose a Maneuver” Fighting games
  • Tamagotchi
  • Hammurabi
  • #conquest
a player s orders are text
A Player’s Orders Are Text
  • A command-line environment.
  • Syntax Must be Transparent
  • Syntax Must be Forgiving

Demand the least text entry possible.

Allow “stackable”orders.

latency is off the scale
Latency is Off the Scale
  • Typically, a minute or more.

Interaction at discrete, separated moments.

Each message really must count

dealing with latency
Dealing with Latency
  • Turn-based games.
    • Round-robin
    • Simultaneous movement
  • “Act whenever” games.
    • Limited by real time

“Slow update” games.

multiplayer or die
Multiplayer or Die
  • Head-to-Head games

Limited-interaction large-scale multiplayer games

Handful of players

In-game messaging

smart messaging
“Smart Messaging”
  • Message concatenation (459 characters)

B&W bitmapped images (72x28)

Ring tones (single voice)

ems enhanced message service
EMS: Enhanced Message Service
  • Message concatenation (3-6 messages)

B&W images, max 1k (32x32)

Flip animations (32x32, 4-frame)

Ringtones & sounds

10 pre-installed sounds

mms multimedia message service
MMS: Multimedia Message Service
  • GIF89a animations, PNGs, JPEGs
    • 640x480 in theory, in practice 174x133

Sound: AMR, WAV

No limit to message length

punisher the mobile game
Punisher: The Mobile Game



mobile rome
Mobile Rome

doing better
Doing Better
  • Messaging & Challenges


Algorithmic, not Instantial

  • Nokia information & emulator for MMS:,35452,1_2_7,00.html(requires free registration)

Ericsson info & emulator for MMS: free registration)