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E3 2005: Ojom's Killer Mobile Games
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posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Ojom
developer: Ojom
date posted: 12:00 AM Fri May 27th, 2005
last revision: 12:00 AM Fri May 27th, 2005

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Click to read.Ojom is a small company with a big parent company. A subsidiary of Verisign (yeah, that Verisign), Ojom has been making innovative games for the European market for years now. And as any US-based mobile geek can tell you, we in the States have been missing out on lots and lots of cool stuff. Pretty much everywhere else in the world has better cell phones, better services, more features, faster Internet access, and more. Within the US we've been tied to our SUV-like desktops or Miata-like laptops, and, quite frankly, we'd rather put on our iPod earbuds and isolate ourselves from everyone else rather than flash mobbing up to the platz for a group espresso. So perhaps a bit of background is warranted. 

The same myopia that has afflicted mobile technology development and marketing in America carries over to mobile gaming, where almost every game that is created is fairly unsuited to the cell phone. Take even very impressive games like THUG 2 on the cell phone: It is a great achievment in it's J2ME (one of two popular game formats for mobile phones) form, but basically unplayable on all but a few handsets because of the variation in how phone hardware is designed and the number of buttons required to control the game.

The problem can be summed up by simply understanding that most companies developing games for cell phones are trying to copy the console, even the handheld console, and are failing in huge ways. The issues here stretch beyond the wonky hardware interfaces of most phones (which, surprisingly, are designed to be used as phones and not game controllers). There are issues of technology (several companies are experimenting with 3D in expensive handsets, but it looks a lot like 3D on a Super Nintendo) as well as audience (most people tricking out their mobiles are full-blown adults with a credit card and free time on the commute). Aiming for a Game Boy audience, and then failing to hit even that technical marker, is not going to move cell phone based games. 

Enter Ojom, a company with a new idea. Although Ojom has dabbled in some more traditional sidescrolling adventures (Duke Nukem and The Crow for example), they have mainly worked to break new ground in what mobile games can be. There is a boatload of technology embedded in these little handsets, and most games ignore everything a phone can do except the display. Ojom understands that gamers want a different thing from their cell phone games, and that the audience for cell phone games is potentially much broader than that for any console system. Following that philosophy, Ojom's lineup reads more like that of a prolific PC game developer than the GBA greatest hits list.

First, they understand that not every game has to be a game. Or, at least, that not every game-like experience revolves around you hopping some avatar over sets of crates and squashing cute little monsters. Amazing Pocket Voodoo is an Ojom title that demonstrates this alternative style. There is not much game? here; rather, the user interacts with an electronic voodoo kit. You create a voodoo doll in the image of your enemy, then proceed to torture and damage it in a variety of ways, using everything from traditional pins to nuclear warheads. Once you've finished with your victim, you can send a record of the carnage to your friend (or victim) in the form of a SMS text message. If your friend has a copy of Amazing Pocket Voodoo on their phone, she can replay the atrocities, and together you can laugh at your imaginary torture play. 

The Ojom take on the football game is enacted through a Jerry Maguire sim, where the goal is not to steer some little sprite through your opponent's defensive line, but to manage a roster of players as you try to become the most powerful sports agent in the world. It strikes me that fans of the sport will enjoy this analytical/statistical angle on their favorite game more than yet another shoddy implementation of a football game only mildly enhanced from the Mattell Electronics version.

Exploring some other technologies, Ojom plays in the sandbox with some of the cutting-edge experimentation happening on home consoles and dedicated gaming handhelds. Action Twister is a Pac-like maze game which the user controls by moving the phone. Rather than using a special device or adapter, the game uses the phone camera to track movement, and the control is incredibly sensitive. The level of precision in the motion detection is pretty impressive, and the challenge of playing Action Twister comes with the gentle motions required. It is like a super touchy version of the old Labyrinth coffee table game. 

Foto Fighter builds on the concept of finding monsters in the world and then raising them up to be good little fighters, not unlike the popular Monster Rancher series. Players can shoot photographs of objects in the real world, and the game then analyzes that photo to reveal hidden monsters and useful items. Learning about what levels of light and dark, or which objects tend to yield the most helpful items, is a part of the gameplay. The rest of the game relies mostly on statistics management. Enhance and train your monsters to buff them out, then unleash them into the arena, where they can either challenge or be challenged. You select a list of offensive and defensive moves, and then send them off. The server crunches the data and returns a resulting animation and stats sheet (the animation is optional for power players). These kinds of games feel a little like playing Chess through the mail, but the online multiplayer aspect is a real bonus here.

It has always seemed silly to me that we  almost never see games for mobiles that involve multiple players, yet here we are playing them on the thing that we use to keep in touch with people and information all over the world. I can SMS Google for almost all the info in the world; I can send photos to GF! from the E3 show floor; but I the only multiplayer game I have for my phone is Worms and to play that I have to pass the phone back and forth. It's high time we see developers working with all of the technology available to them. We need to liberate the idea of the game from the mainstream dogma of graphical prowess and cinematic forms. And that's something Ojom does very well in its most unique, and most exciting games, Attack of the Killer Virus and Mosquitoes. 

Attack of the Killer Virus and Mosquitoes are augmented reality games. They utilize the phone camera to record your environment and use it in the background of the game. In Killer Virus, your world is being infested with killer germs and you must use your phone to locate and zap the virii. This game had us flailing around, reacting to the little on-screen radar and craning our phone to find virii hiding among the crowd at E3. Playing Killer Virus puts you in a totally sixth sense? frame of mind:  I see deadly germs attacking people! As you gain levels, the virii become more wiley and try harder to attack you. By calculating a Z-proximity, the game knows when a virus reaches you, providing an intense feeling of there being something at stake? in the gameplay. This kind of game, and a technical execution that allows the gamer to fully suspend disbelief and buy into? the game world, is absolutely perfect for the mobile platform. The cell phone is now not only my communication device, but also a sophisticated tool for saving the world.

Mosquitoes is a similar style of augmented reality game, but with a more light-hearted approach. Cartoony skeeters are after your blood, and you must zap them out of the environment. Although it's not as sci-frightening as Attack of the Killer Virus, the game is intensified by improved artificial intelligence and a few more gameplay modes to keep you on your toes. 

So far Ojom has made some excellent headway towards showing us how to play with our phones. After hearing about some of their still in-development projects, we're excited to see more from the company, which obviously partners a good sense of humor (playfulness is so often lacking in game design these days) with a great aptitude for innovative use of technology.

And now that we've started thinking about these things, we're making a list of features we would like to see mobile game developers play with. We want to do more of this SMS or email sending of game data to friends and competitors. We want more simulation and management titles that aren't just sports oriented. We would love to incorporate some more audio components, even if these were just clues hidden in ringtones or recorded messages left on our voice mail. And the phone camera integration is key; we love the augmented reality. Why are there no good photography games on the cell phone? Think Pokemon Snap. Or Beyond Good and Evil. 

We hope for the best for Ojom's American debut, and highly recommend that US customers check out their offerings, if only for the wow? factor of real handheld augmented reality. Keep an eye out for these and other Ojom titles on your carrier's games list.

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