Thursday, September 15, 2011

Nom: the One-Button, Phone-Rotating, Running Game

The rise of the mobile games industry is one of the best things to happen to video games within the last decade. This market has vastly expanded the number of people who play video games, while fostering a very fertile environment for innovation and creativity that cannot be matched by other game markets.

Having said that, however, I personally don't pay much attention to the mobile games industry. I don't even have a good excuse. I have an iPod Touch but I mainly use it as a pocket-sized web browser. What finally got me thinking about mobile games was the fact that my client for the class project is Riverman Media, a two-person mobile-game studio. I figured that if I'm going to be of any use to them, then it's about time I started learning all I can about this market.

And that's how I came across a popular cell-phone game called Nom. This game was made way back in 2003 by a Korean game studio called Gamevil. Before talking about the game, I think it'd be best to give some historical context first.

The State of Mobile Games in 2003

During the few years prior to 2003, there was quite a lot of hype about video games on phones. Phone companies loved the idea of using games to make their customers use more data. New mobile-game studios were receiving billions of dollars from venture capitalists in anticipation of a bright new market.
A typical phone from 2003

Cell phones came very close to surpassing handheld video game consoles. In 2003, Nokia released the N-Gage gaming phone, which was even more powerful than Nintendo's Game Boy Advanced SP. However, not only was it expensive, but it was overshadowed by Sony's unveiling of the PlayStation Portable during the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) just a few months prior to its release. Cell phones had to wait another five years for the iPhone's revolution before they threatened the balance of handheld consoles again.

Mobile games from this era had to put up with some severe technical limitations. Phone displays were incredibly small and had only recently adopted color. Even with Java, a supposedly platform-free programming language, porting games from phone to phone involved quite a bit of work, as each phone had varying processing capabilities. It was a very frustrating area to be working in, and the awkward button interfaces only made things worse. Phones just didn't seem like very interesting gadgets to be making games for.

Gamevil's Nom

A wise game designer believes that a game should be defined just as much by the technology that's running it as by its gameplay mechanics or visual style. Rather than ignoring the fact that the game is being played on a phone, successful games such as Nom used the cell-phone's qualities (both the good and the bad) to create an experience that the player couldn't have enjoyed anywhere else.

Nom is game about running. As Nom runs across the screen, its your job to help him avoid obstacles, which become more surprising as you progress. This game did something that was very innovative at the time by using only one button. While the action button is mainly used for jumping, it can also trigger other actions such as kicking monsters, dancing with a girl, and giving grandma a ride on your back. Perhaps the most interesting mechanic was the fact that the player would have to rotate the phone in order to keep Nom at the bottom of the screen.

Click here to watch Nom in action! 
Through its simplistic graphics, colors, and mechanics, the game had more personality than most other phone games at the time, which seemed to be more concerned with making mobile versions of existing games rather than making new ones.

The Sequel Will Blow Your Mind

Nom 2 expanded on this concept even further. This time Nom is on a journey through the human mind. Aside from an upgraded visual and musical style, the game also featured an "Out of Body" mechanic, where Nom is split into two people (physical and mental). Both characters move separately and are controlled by two separate buttons. By forcing the player to use his/her brain in such a way as to be two different people at once, the game's designer Bong Koo Shin was trying to make the player feel the Out-of-Body weirdness that was the theme of the game.

And if that wasn't enough, beating the game awarded the player with the opportunity to enter a message and then beam it into outer space! The message was a 16x16-pixel box, that allowed the player to write or draw anything they wanted. The phone would then send the message to a Ukraine Space Agency satellite, free of charge, where it would then be projected towards a galaxy 45 light years away. After just three months, the game had sent over 160,000 messages to this unknown world.

Broken Biases

I'm so used to the high-tech smartphones of today that when I was learning about how limited the old cell-phones were, I had a hard time seeing why anyone would waste their time trying to make games on them. But the Nom games shattered my biases through how it used the limited technology as a strength, rather than a weakness, in order to create a truly incredible experience.

By the way, Gamevil has already published Nom 5. While it would be fun to talk about three more Nom games, I can't seem to find any information about Nom 4, unfortunately.

And it seems that most iOS games, including Nom 5, are incompatible with my iPod Touch. Will I ever get into mobile games? :(

No comments:

Post a Comment