Yes, I sometimes play Snake to pass the time,” I reply meekly when the Airtel representative asks if I know anything about cellphone games. Beats of silence.
Then he exhales flamboyantly, says, “Okayyy, let me explain how the Mobile Gaming Championship works.”
Download the four hitech games that have been given official status for the championship, spend days and nights honing your skills at them, upload your highest scores onto the portal.
Downloading the games and uploading each score costs money, but it’ll be worth it in the end: once you’re among the top four contestants from India, you can participate in the grand finale in Singapore next month; by the simple expedient of winning that competition, you’ll get $12,000 in prize money.
Never again will your parents accuse you of wasting your time playing games when you could be working a 10 pm8 am shift in a call centre instead.
That, at least, is the dream Airtel is selling to its subscribers, and it appears to be reaping dividends. “We’ve already registered tens of thousands of downloads for the Mobile Gaming Championship,” says Mohit Bhatnagar, senior vice president, New Product Development, Value Added Services Alliances, Bharti TeleVentures.
Mobile gaming is now the company’s number one revenuegenerating application, he says. “It’s larger than computer gaming in a country like India, because of the far greater proliferation of cellphones. Another advantage from our point of view is that piracycontrol is much stronger than with computer games.”
The World Cyber Games Committee is doing everything to ensure that the mobile gaming championship is taken seriously. Though international competitions for PC and console games have been on since 2000, this is the first year that a similar tournament is being organised for mobile games.
The preliminary stage, which ends on October 31, is simultaneously being held in a number of countries including the US, Australia, South Africa, Spain and India but the action will begin in full flow in Singapore next month, when the leading contestants from each country will face off in the grand finale.
If you think this will be an amateurish event, with hordes of geeks randomly drifting in and out, check the long and impressive list of rules and regulations on the official website.
There are ID cards, uniforms and even a yellow and red card system to monitor defaulters. Referees closely monitor the players on their seats; each participant is solemnly asked to “uphold the highest level of sportsmanship as representatives of their respective countries”.
The onetime registration fee for the Mobile Gaming Championship is Rs 50, and it costs the same amount to download each of the four games approved by the competition “Bruce Lee”, “Midtown Madness”, “Chopper Rescue” and the intriguingly named “Goolie”.
However, an administrative fee of Rs 10 is also charged each time a user uploads a high score to the Airtel portal, and this can prove expensive for some dedicated gamers. “I was a dedicated gamer but had to leave this competition because the cost was working out to be too much,” says Delhi’s Deepak Wadhwa woefully.
Others think of it as a good investment; another Delhibased gamer, Kamal Arora, points out that for every three scores you submit, you get a bonus of 150 points added to your top score, “which helps your cause in the long run”.
Arora, who is currently the Asian leader in “Midtown Madness” and who is confident of making it to Singapore for the final, has clearly spent a large chunk of his life preparing for this opportunity. “I’ve been playing games on the mobile for six to seven years now,” he says.
“Before that, I was an avid gamer on my personal computer.” How do the two media compare? “Mobile gaming is more flexible,” says Arora, “but your fingers have to be nimbler, else there’s always the chance you’ll press the wrong key.”
Service providers are pulling out all the stops to press the right keys, and why wouldn’t they: while the total mobile gaming market in India at present is around Rs 45 crore (Rs 450 million) annually, it is projected to grow fourfold to Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion) in the next two years.
“Research shows that across all service providers countrywide, between 15,000 and 20,000 games are downloaded every day,” says an Airtel spokesperson (on average, each game download costs the user Rs 6065).
But what’s interesting is that the number of downloads is so high despite the fact that only around a quarter of all mobile users in the country have GPRSenabled handsets.
“Imagine the potential market once more consumers upgrade their handsets,” says the spokesperson. (Are you itching to ask what “GPRS” means? You’re one of those potential customers.)
This promise is leading service providers to aggressively develop and market their gaming products. Like Hutch, which recently introduced a multiplayer gaming service that allows its subscribers to challenge any player across the globe on their Nokia NGage handset.
Which is important, for many gamers get their thrills not just from playing but from regularly checking their scores and positions on the online portals, to see how they stack up against contestants from around the world.
As a Hutch user, I can testify to an alarming increase in the number of service messages received per day, enticing me to download some very complicatedsounding games.
For a technophobe who once considered it a day well spent if he succeeded in making it to Level 2 of Pacman, such offers hold little attraction. For millions of dedicated gamers though, it’s manna from the satellites.