Blister Entertainment Inc. of Calgary has launched North America’s first assisted global positioning satellite (GPS) game with the introduction of Swordfish, a high-tech contest that pits cellular phone users against elusive, deep-sea fish equipped with artificial intelligence.
Making a splash across Bell Mobility’s wireless network of 4.6 million subscribers, Swordfish relies upon a network of global positioning satellites that triangulates or “fixes” cellular phone users’ co-ordinates on the ground, relative to the schools of fish swimming around them.
Developed from concept to commercialization in just one year, Swordfish’s launch on Bell Mobility has Blister swimming with the big fish.
Blister president Paul Poutanen says Swordfish “puts the mobile back into mobile games.” The game, according to Poutanen, promotes fitness – users can play it while they’re walking the dog, shopping at West Edmonton Mall or waiting for the bus.
|Larry MacDougal, Business Edge|
|Blister president Paul Poutanen is ready to fish on his phone as staff try out earlier technology.|
“Unlike some virtual games, Swordfish isn’t violent,” says Poutanen. “It’s designed for the entire family.” Just as in real-life fishing, players have to develop skills to tackle Swordfish.
“The bigger the virtual fish are, the harder they fight.”
Akin to an old-fashioned orienteering outing, Swordfish takes players on an excursion – their fishing trip is monitored in real time by a network of satellites – that can often span two to three city blocks. When users play Swordfish, their cellular phones become virtual boats, complete with fish scanners and fishing rods. The environment around them is transformed into a virtual ocean populated with moving schools of swordfish.
Poutanen, an entrepreneur in his mid-40s, comes to the mobile gaming industry from a geomatics or geospatial solutions background. “We see ourselves as location experts,” he says of the Blister team. Poutanen originated the idea of a virtual, location-based fishing game while on a fishing trip last summer.
Swordfish is the first of many applications that Blister is designing using assisted GPS technology. Poutanen describes the possibility of running a virtual marathon, with runners from around the world competing randomly against each other. In fact, Poutanen and his team have an inventory of up to 200 location-based entertainment applications in their back pockets.
Featuring Java programming, Swordfish is controlled by the cellular phone pad, providing the user with a multimedia experience – sound, motion and enhanced moving graphics. When a fisherman hooks a fish, the phone pad vibrates; when he reels in “the big one,” the player hears the sound of the rod and reel spinning. Users launch the game on their cellular phones (it’s free), and pay 15 cents each time the satellite network scans or fixes their position relative to the fish. Statistics posted in real time on the Swordfish website enable players to compare their fishing prowess with the competition across Canada.
Bell Mobility’s national wireless network has been equipped with satellite technology since 2002. According to Adrian Vella, assistant director of services development for Bell Mobility, a division of Bell Canada, 30 per cent of Bell’s customers currently use handsets equipped with assisted Global Positioning Systems (A-GPS) technology. “We’re the first carrier in Canada to have A-GPS capabilities in our phones,” explains Vella.
Global positioning or location-based services, he says, were originally developed for personal safety, including 9-11 applications.
Location-based services have evolved from personal safety to include mobile entertainment services, such as music, information services and gaming. Gaming applications sit third – in terms of market share – after music and information services.
“Swordfish delivers a new experience to our customers, providing a more interactive experience,” says Vella. “We’re very excited by the innovation.”
Paul Merry, a research analyst with the London-based ARC Group, estimates that mobile entertainment services will be worth more than $27 billion US globally by 2008, and will have more than 2.5 billion users. A study released by the ARC Group in 2003 predicts that the wireless gaming market will grow from worldwide revenues of $1.1 billion US in 2003 to $8.4 billion US in 2008. According to Merry, about 950 million users will be playing mobile games by 2008. “Mobile gaming will eventually overtake mobile music applications,” says Merry. “It will be massive.”
The primary driver of the mobile entertainment business, he explains, is the youth segment. “Youth are innovators and early adopters of technologies and games.”
For example, explains Merry, “Mobile ring tones are driven by the youth segment.”
Meanwhile, Poutanen hopes to snag a small percentage of the global market share. He has just returned from a trade mission to China that was hosted by the Canadian Embassy in Beijing and the Canadian consulate general in Shanghai. The mission was “the first of its kind,” according to Agnes Cui, a commercial officer responsible for information and communication technology with the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. The mission’s mandate, says Cui, was to raise the profile of the Canadian gaming industry during a strategic stage in the growth of China’s gaming industry. She says the Chinese gaming market is currently worth $70 million US, with a projected growth of $1.2 billion US by 2007. “North American and European firms have yet to establish a significant presence and market share in China,” adds Cui.
Blister was one of seven Canadian gaming firms to participate in the trade mission to China. According to Poutanen, China has 400 million cellular phone users. He explains that many emerging nations lacking land-based phone infrastructure are choosing cellular phone networks.
“I saw rickshaw drivers with cellular phones,” he says. “The Chinese can’t afford a Game Boy, but the phone is there.” He adds, “The Chinese market is looking for North American products – it’s a prestige thing,” he adds.
In June, Blister was one of three recipients of the Leapfrog Award sponsored by NEWT, the Calgary-based Network for Emerging Wireless Technologies. Eric Larson, NEWT’s marketing director, sees five to 10 start-up companies a week, and places Blister in the top five per cent of emerging companies with wireless applications.
“Blister is not just about one game called Swordfish – they’ve got a location-based gaming platform that allows you to apply that technology to new games,” he says. “You’ve got to think outside of the box, with regards to what a cellular phone can do.”
He describes the word “game” as a bit of a lightweight term, suggesting, instead, that Blister’s location-based, A-GPS platform could have many business applications.
Larson categorizes location based entertainment as “a consumer play.”
He adds, “These guys have the right stuff to do it; they’re investor-worthy, and they’ve protected intellectual property through patents.”
(Susan Eaton is a Calgary-based geologist, geophysicist and freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)