Can You Play Me Now?

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Publishers generally want their online players to have total connectivity to their games. And gamers of course want to know what is going on in their favorite online worlds, even when they are at work or riding on the subway.

The obvious solution is to make games accessible to the mobile devices that everyone carries around with them, like phones or PDAs with wireless capabilities. But that's impossible right?

Well, perhaps not for long. Froghop is an innovative company that is working to tie persistent world games to these mobile devices. And the first couple of announcements from the company may not be very far off.

We chatted with Vicky Wu, founder of Froghop, to get the scoop on how this technology works and when exactly we can start checking in on our favorite game characters through our phones.

GiN: When was Froghop founded?

Wu: Froghop was founded June 2000. We started off as a web-to-wireless multiplayer games developer. Since 2002 Froghop has shaped the concept of transmedial access (TMA) so players can stay connected to peers and information regardless of where they are, and across multiple device types. These connected experiences are not an attempt to replicate the game from PC to mobile; rather, we concentrate on building complementary, asymmetric experiences.

GiN: Your core business is allowing gamers to interface with persistent world games via their mobile devices like phones. How exactly does this work?

Wu: Froghop works with game developers and publishers to provide — via web and wireless technologies — interaction with a persistent virtual world. Since Froghop is a full-service TMA solutions provider, we don't just give developers an SDK; the successful implementation of TMA is both technology and design critical, Froghop established an ADVISE process (assess, design, verify, integrate, support, educate) to help game developers and publishers extend their vision into the mobile arena.

This process facilitates the clearest and fastest communication of the game vision. Froghop doesn't do any MMOG design; we work off of the design doc to design proper TMA interaction. There are different levels of services we offer, so it's not a one-size fits all.

Some developers initially only want our design consulting services to see how mobile access could potentially fit into their game. Actual integration requires us to custom-build the mobile UI and integrate our RAIN platform with their game dB. We also create mobile mini-games (we call them pocket universes), and design our solutions to fit the developer/publisher business and creative goals.

In more detail, the first thing in getting TMA off the ground is to talk to the game developer and publisher to understand their needs and wants. This would be the "Assess" step of the above-mentioned ADVISE process. Sometimes the developer has a high-level vision already, while others don't have a clue what they want. We first need to understand what the vision of the overall game is, and objectives the developer is trying to accomplish.

We analyze their design document, and assess where we think TMA can benefit gameplay, in what way, why, who does it benefit, the ripple effects of that decision, priority level, among many other factors. This assessment is broken down, and the developer gets to see the detailed write-up to understand the appropriateness of TMA. If a requested aspect of game to be transmedialized, but is not actually improved by mobile interaction, we will explain why it is not optimal.

After these details are hammered out, Froghop designs a TMA solution. Before presenting the design in a design solution proposal, we put our design through a rigorous Content Verification Process (this is now the "Verify" of the ADVISE process). After the design solution proposal has been accepted, Froghop begins integrating our RAIN platform into the game. After integration, Froghop provides support and maintenance on a technological and educational front.

Having the formal structure makes the implementation of TMA as easy and clear as possible for the game designers. Froghop also has a RAIN platform already established that facilitates cross-platform communication, trigger management, device management, remote access and response system, data mining, etc. The mobile and web interface is custom, as are the pocket universes. In what our clients actually receive from TMA, it is fully customized to them and their game.

GiN: When a user is on a mobile device interfacing with a MMORPG, what exactly does he see?

Wu: Players see portions of game functions: they may see a chat function, inventory levels, an SMS, or a J2ME/BREW downloadable mobile gamelette for additional training (where points earned can be uploaded and translated into virtual world value)"a whole host of possibilities are available depending upon what we do for a specific game.

Since there are so many mobile devices with varying capabilities, Froghop has a very extensive device library to accommodate. Froghop ensures that gamers will be able to access game features regardless of which internet-enabled phone they have. In addition, not only does Froghop adapt its UI from a technological standpoint (graphics vs. text, etc), we also adapt its usability and how the gamer interacts with the application to accomplish its goals. Another great thing with Froghop is that not only can players communicate in-and-out-of-game, privacy is protected because players don't see each other's personal phone numbers. The messages are routed via Froghop, so the players use their existing game handle.

If you can send your readers to this link ( http://www.froghop.net/Daytrader/intro.htm ), the demo provides an example of how a character who's profession relies on trading can advance and affect in-game economy without logging into their game PC.

GiN: Does Froghop partner with the developers of an online game to provide mobile access? Do the game companies have to add specific code to their games?

Wu: The game developers/publishers are Froghop's clientele. Although the origin was to provide our services for Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs), we can enable mobile functionality for any game with a persistent environment or community focused. We are currently expanding our client base beyond MMOGs to other types of games that are community-focused, or have persistent elements.

The developers need to give us access to their game dB. Usually we also have access to their design document. As a full-solutions provider, Froghop takes care of custom design, performs needs analysis to match their business and game-experience objectives, and custom integrate the solution into our RAIN platform.

GiN: What games does Froghop currently work with?

Wu: Unfortunately I'm not at liberty to say. The announcement has to come from the publisher. Once they announce it, I will be allowed to speak about "pre-approved" topics.

GiN: So the developers pay Froghop for providing the service, and the gamers don't pay anything?

Wu: The devs/pubs are our clientele, so they pay Froghop for the design and custom integration of their transmedial solution. However, depending upon the dev/pub and how the mobile access is being utilized, players may have to pay the pubs a monthly fee. Players have indicated that they are willing to pay up to $4.95 per month for mobile access. We are strategizing with pubs on different business models. The possibility that players who choose to play more remotely (and less from the PC) will pay a lower base subscription fee + wireless access subscription is being discussed.

GiN: Specifically for one of the game that the Froghop technology works with, can you describe how a gamer would use the technology? Give us a situation in the game and how they would interface using the technology.

Wu: One thing that’s nice is being able to check on the status of the game remotely. Rather than having to log in to check your character’s stats or the progression of your faction, you can see it remotely. Even better, you can have a communication system: you can set it up so that if your base is attacked, your phone rings; guild members in-game can text message your phone, and you can message back.

That even can help with privacy, as no one would ever need to exchange real email or phone numbers, since all communication can be done via game handle. There is real interaction with the game world. Want to put a game item up for sale, or buy something in the game?

Now you can do that wherever you are, during a commute, on the street, or during a coffee break. One of the most interesting uses of TMA is to actually play a mini-game on your cell phone, then have the results of that actually affect your character. Imagine playing a racing game that when you complete your character in-game moves slightly faster or playing a puzzle that reveals more of the game’s plot.

Or imagine this: You’re at work, when you get a discreet text message on your cell phone. It’s from your guild leader online: he warns of an attack on your stronghold that night. Over the next few minutes you punch some buttons to order your online minions to pack up and move within the castle walls, then get back to your work. Later, as you're waiting in line to get your lunch, you use your phone to check on the status of the game world. The city’s governor has called a state of emergency, and is requesting permission to dip into the emergency magical weapons. As a member of that district, you click to vote ‘yes’ from your phone just as you're heading into your next meeting. As you sit in traffic on your way home after work, you IM on your phone with a few guild members in-game, planning strategy in anticipation of the evening's play. When you get home, your spouse and kids are waiting to eat dinner. You calmly enjoy hearing about their day, since you're confident that your guild is well prepared, and that you'll be alerted when the attack happens"then you can run to your computer in the next room and resume play.

We are also doing a mobile series of sims (related to a game mechanic) as a pre-release feature that would be free to players, and the achievements they earn can be uploaded and translated into an advantage leveraged in-game when the game is released.

The above link you saw for the day-trader demo also portrays an example scenario of how players can use TMA.

GiN: From a gamer point of view, is this service more for hardcore players or more casual ones?

Wu: It can actually be for both, however that is strongly dependent upon how the transmedial interaction is designed. If it's just access to character stats or inventory levels, it will most likely be for core gamers so that they can always be informed about important in-game events.

Moderate players get more interaction with the game of their choice — they can fit more play into their schedules. Mobile access can also level the playing field for three reasons: 1) with dedicated guilds already investing time setting up intricate systems to communicate and notify, transmedial access offers advanced communication and guild management utilities that can be opened up to the entire community; 2) the time investment required to "level up" in PVWs is often a barrier for those with less time available to play. "Day-trader" style character advancement through transmedial capabilities offers experiential depth without lengthy time commitments; 3) Since quantity of game play does not necessarily equal quality of game play, transmedial capabilities offer additional options for the multi-tasking crowd — allowing housekeeping issues to be managed remotely through thin client access, so the actual sit-down game play becomes a shorter, but more fulfilling session.

Actually, all players gain the benefit of performing their more mundane tasks remotely so that the time spent in front of the computer is only the game experience you want. In addition, players can be sure to keep in touch with their online friends even if they are away on vacation or are just too busy to log on. Fundamentally, almost all players crave more contact with their game: if they can’t play it right then, many are on forums.

With TMA, players can gain more hours per week connected to their game — not just with auxiliary material, but in a way that actually progresses their character – but spend less time chained in front of a computer. It's like the workaholic parent or the road warrior executive leveraging mobile tools to stay on top of dynamic events, without being tethered to their office. Froghop designs (with developer's final approval) the transmedial scenarios according to the devs/pubs overarching goals. It's about quality of gameplay, not quantity.

GiN: Has the Froghop technology had to evolve at all based on the many changes and increasing complexity of the online persistent worlds?

Wu: We definitely had to evolve more in the beginning as we were transitioning our technology from providing cross-platform multiplayer games into tools for the MMOG market. In fact, we have to continually evolve to meet the needs of persistent world developers. We originally thought that being a technology-enabler was enough, but as we started to grow, we realized that our offering was incomplete without also offering creative services to facilitate integration from the design perspective. (We only recently launched the TMA design consulting offering)

Since one of Froghop inclusive services is to alleviate developers from the hassle of bridging device disparity, facilitating cross network transparency, and handling the never-ending upkeep required with new device and technology rollouts, we have to continually do maintenance and R&D. We also have to continually update our device library, and keep up with other mobile technology advancement.

Every company's backend is different, so we have to custom integrate/map the databases. More so, the evolution has come from tailoring our feature offering more and more to the needs of virtual world participants. We learn from research, as well as productizing custom requests from a client. This means that our clientele can benefit from the aggregate experience and iterative technology enhancements. That's how Froghop is able to offer game developers the ability to take advantage of a full-spectrum of capabilities without having to re-invent the wheel each time. We will continue to make upgrades to accommodate the changing technologies that affect both the back-end as well as front-end features.

GiN: Is there anything new in the pipeline you want to tease us with from Froghop?

Wu: We've got a bunch of things in the works, and should be able to announce at least one of them in Q4. We'll also be making a splash in China in the coming year.

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