The earliest known game on a mobile phone was a Tetris variant on the Hagenuk MT-2000 device from 1994.
In 1997, Nokia launched the very successful Snake. Snake (and its variants), that was preinstalled in most mobile devices manufactured by Nokia, has since become one of the most played video games and is found on more than 350 million devices worldwide. A variant of the Snake game for the Nokia 6110, using the infrared port, was also the first two-player game for mobile phones.
Today, mobile games are usually downloaded from app stores as well as from mobile operator's portals, but in some cases are also preloaded in the handheld devices by the OEM or by the mobile operator when purchased, via infrared connection, Bluetooth, memory card or side loaded onto the handset with a cable.
Downloadable mobile games were first commercialised in Japan circa the launch of NTT DoCoMo's I-mode platform in 1999, and by the early 2000s were available through a variety of platforms throughout Asia, Europe, North America and ultimately most territories where modern carrier networks and handsets were available by the mid-2000s. However, mobile games distributed by mobile operators and third party portals (channels initially developed to monetise downloadable ringtones, wallpapers and other small pieces of content using premium SMS or direct carrier charges as a billing mechanism) remained a marginal form of gaming until Apple's iOS App Store was launched in 2008. As the first mobile content marketplace operated directly by a mobile platform holder, the App Store significantly changed the consumer behaviour and quickly broadened the market for mobile games, as almost every smartphone owner started to download mobile apps.
Towards the end of the 20th century, mobile phone ownership became ubiquitous in the industrialised world due to the establishment of industry standards and the rapid fall in cost of handset ownership and use driven by economies of scale. As a result of this explosion, technological advancement by handset manufacturers became rapid. With these technological advances, mobile phone games also became increasingly sophisticated, taking advantage of exponential improvements in display, processing, storage, interfaces, network bandwidth and operating system functionality.
Preloaded (or embedded) games on turn-of-the-century mobile phones were usually limited to crude monochrome dot matrix graphics (or text) and single channel tones. Commands would be input via the device's keypad buttons. For a period in the early 2000s, WAP and other early mobile internet protocols allowed simple client-server games to be hosted online, which could be played through a WAP browser on devices that lacked the capability to download and run discrete applications.
With the advent of feature phones (contemporarily referred to as the 'camera phone') more hardware power became available even in bottom-of-the-range devices. Colour screens, multi-channel sound and most importantly the ability to download and store new applications (implemented in cross-industry standards such as J2ME and BREW) paved the way for commercial mobile game publishing. Some early companies utilized the camera phone technology for mobile games such as Namco and Panasonic. In 2003 Namco released a fighting game that used the cell phone's camera to create a character based on the player's profile and determined the character's speed and power based on the image taken; the character could then be sent to another friend's mobile phone to battle. That same year Panasonic released a virtual pet game in which the pet is fed by photos of foods taken with the camera phone.
In the early 2000s, mobile games gained popularity in Japan's mobile phone culture, years before the United States or Europe. By 2003, a wide variety of mobile games were available on Japanese phones, ranging from puzzle games and virtual pet titles that utilized camera phone and fingerprint scanner technologies to 3D games with exceptionally high quality graphics. Older arcade-style games became particularly popular on mobile phones, which were an ideal platform for arcade-style games designed for shorter play sessions.
In the present day, Japan is the world's largest market by revenue for mobile games. The Japanese gaming market today is becoming increasingly dominated by mobile games, which generated $5.1 billion in 2013, more than traditional console games in the country.
Nokia tried to create its own dedicated mobile gaming platform with the N-Gage in 2003 but this effort failed due to a mixture of unpopular design decisions, poor software support and competition from (widely regarded as more technically advanced) handheld consoles. The N-Gage brand was retained for a few years as a games service included on Nokia's general-purpose phones.
In Europe, downloadable mobile games were introduced by the “Les Games” portal from Orange France, run by In-fusio, in 2000. Whereas before mobile games were usually commissioned directly by handset manufacturers, now also mobile operators started to act as distributors of games. As the operators were not keen on handling potentially hundreds of relationships with one- or two-person developers, mobile aggregators and publishers started to act as a middleman between operators and developers that further reduced the revenue share seen by developers.
The launch of Apple's App Store in 2008 radically changed the market. First of all, it widened consumers' opportunities to choose where to download apps; the application store on the device, operator’s store or third party stores via the open internet, such as GetJar and Handango. The Apple users, however, can only use the Apple App Store, since Apple forbids the distribution of apps via any other distribution channel. Secondly, mobile developers can upload applications directly to the App Store without the typically lengthy negotiations with publishers and operators, which increased their revenue share and made mobile game development more profitable. Thirdly, the tight integration of the App Store with the device itself led many consumers to try out apps, and the games market received a considerable boost.
Consequently, the number of commercially highly successful mobile games proliferated soon after the launch of the App Store. Early App Store successes such as Angry Birds, Rolando, Flight Control, Doodle Jump were highly publicised successes that introduced many millions of new players to mobile games and encouraged an early 'gold rush' of developers and publishers to enter the market.
An early example is the type-in program Darth Vader's Force Battle for the TI-59, published in BYTE in October 1980. The magazine also published a version of Hunt the Wumpus for the HP-41C. Few other games exist for the earliest of programmable calculators (including the Hewlett-Packard 9100A, one of the first scientific calculators), including the long-popular Lunar Lander game often used as an early programming exercise. However, limited program address space and lack of easy program storage made calculator gaming a rarity even as programmables became cheap and relatively easy to obtain. It wasn't until the early 1990s when graphing calculators became more powerful and cheap enough to be common among high school students for use in mathematics. The new graphing calculators, with their ability to transfer files to one another and from a computer for backup, could double as game consoles.
Calculators such as HP-48 and TI-82 could be programmed in proprietary programming languages such as RPL programming language or TI-BASIC directly on the calculator; programs could also be written in assembly language or (less often) C on a desktop computer and transferred to the calculator. As calculators became more powerful and memory sizes increased, games increased in complexity.
By the 1990s, programmable calculators were able to run implementations by hobbyists of games such as Lemmings and Doom (Lemmings for HP-48 was released in 1993; Doom for HP-48 was created in 1995). Some games such as Dope Wars caused controversy when students played them in school.
The look and feel of these games on an HP-48 class calculator, due to the lack of dedicated audio and video circuitry providing hardware acceleration, can at most be compared to the one offered by 8-bit handheld consoles such as the early Game Boy or the Gameking (low resolution, monochrome or grayscale graphics), or to the built-in games of non-Java or BREW enabled cell phones.
Games continue to be programmed on graphing calculators with increasing complexity. A new wave of games has appeared after the release of the TI-83 Plus/TI-84 Plus series, among TI's first graphing calculators to natively support assembly. TI-BASIC programming also rose in popularity after the release of third-party libraries. Assembly remained the language of choice for these calculators, which run on a Zilog Z80 processor, although some assembly implements, have been created to ease the difficulty of learning assembly language. For those running on a Motorola 68000 processor (like the TI-89), C programming (possible using TIGCC) has begun to displace assembly.
Total global revenue from mobile games was estimated at $2.6 billion in 2005 by Informa Telecoms and Media. Total revenue in 2008 was $5.8 billion. The largest mobile gaming markets were in the Asia-Pacific nations Japan and China, followed by the United States. In 2012, the market had already reached $7.8 billion A new report was released in November 2015 showing that 1887 app developers would make more than one million dollars on the Google and iOS app stores in 2015.
Mobile games have been developed to run on a wide variety of platforms and technologies. These include the (today largely defunct) Palm OS, Symbian, Adobe Flash Lite, NTT DoCoMo's DoJa, Sun's Java ME, Qualcomm's BREW, WIPI, Blackberry, Nook and early incarnations of Windows Mobile. Today, the most widely supported platforms are Apple's iOS and Google's Android. The mobile version of Microsoft's Windows 10 (formerly Windows Phone) is also actively supported, although in terms of market share remains marginal compared to iOS and Android.
Java was at one time the most common platform for mobile games, however its performance limits lead to the adoption of various native binary formats for more sophisticated games.
Due to its ease of porting between mobile operating systems and extensive developer community, Unity is one of the most widely used engines used by modern mobile games. Apple provide a number of proprietary technologies (such as Metal) intended to allow developers to make more effective use of their hardware in iOS-native games.
Typically, commercial mobile games use one of the following monetisation models: pay-per-download, subscription, free-to-play ('freemium') or advertising-supported. Until recently, the main option for generating revenues was a simple payment on downloading a game. Subscription business models also existed and had proven popular in some markets (notably Japan) but were rare in Europe. Today, a number of new business models have emerged which are often collectively referred to as “freemium”. The game download itself is typically free and then revenue is generated after download either through in-app transactions or advertisements; this resulted in $34 billion spent on mobile games in 2013.
Common limits of mobile games
Mobile games tend to be small in scope (in relation to mainstream PC and console games) and many prioritise innovative design and ease of play over visual spectacle. Storage and memory limitations (sometimes dictated at the platform level) place constraints on file size that presently rule out the direct migration of many modern PC and console games to mobile. One major problem for developers and publishers of mobile games is describing a game in such detail that it gives the customer enough information to make a purchasing decision.
Location-based mobile games
Games played on a mobile device using localization technology like GPS are called location-based games or Location-based mobile games. These are not only played on mobile hardware but also integrate the player's position into the game concept. In other words: while it does not matter for a normal mobile game where exactly you are (play them anywhere at any time), the player's coordinate and movement are main elements in a Location-based mobile game.
A well known example is the treasure hunt game Geocaching, which can be played on any mobile device with integrated or external GPS receiver. External GPS receivers are usually connected via Bluetooth. More and more mobile phones with integrated GPS are expected to come.
Multiplayer mobile games
Many mobile games support multiple players, either remotely over a network or locally via wifi, Bluetooth or similar technology.
There are several options for playing multiplayer games on mobile phones: live synchronous tournaments and turn-based asynchronous tournaments. In live tournaments, random players from around the world are matched together to compete. This is done using different networks including Game Center, Google+, Mobango, Nextpeer, and Facebook.
In asynchronous tournaments, there are two methods used by game developers centered around the idea that players matches are recorded and then broadcast at a later time to other players in the same tournament. Asynchronous gameplay resolves the issue of needing players to have a continuous live connection. This gameplay is different since players take individual turns in the game, therefore allowing players to continue playing against human opponents.
This is done using different networks including OpenFeint (now defunct) and Facebook. Some companies use a regular turn based system where the end results are posted so all the players can see who won the tournament. Other companies take screen recordings of live players and broadcast them to other players at a later point in time to allow players to feel that they are always interacting with another human opponent.
Older mobile phones supporting mobile gaming have infrared connectivity for data sharing with other phones or PCs.
Some mobile games are connected through Bluetooth using special hardware. The games are designed to communicate with each other through this protocol to share game information. The basic restriction is that both the users have to be within a limited distance to get connected. A bluetooth device can accept up to 7 connections from other devices using a client/server architecture.
3G allows in most cases realtime multiplayer gaming and is based on technologies faster than GPRS.
LTE and Wi-Fi
LTE allows very fast data rates combined with low stalls and is based on technologies faster than 3G. Wi-Fi is often used for connecting at home.
Mobile games can be distributed in one of four ways:
- Over the Air (OTA) - a game binary file is delivered to the mobile device via wireless carrier networks.
- Sideloaded - a game binary file is loaded onto the phone while connected to a PC, either via USB cable or Bluetooth.
- Pre-installed - a game binary file is preloaded onto the device by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
- Mobile browser download - a game file is downloaded directly from a mobile website.
Until the launch of Apple App Store, in the US, the majority of mobile games were sold by the US wireless carriers, such as AT&T Mobility, Verizon, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile. In Europe, games were distributed equally between carriers, such as Orange and Vodafone, and off-deck, third party stores such as Jamba!, Kalador and Gameloft.
After the launch of Apple App Store, the mobile OS platforms like Apple iOS, Google Android, and Microsoft Windows Phone, the mobile OS developers themselves have launched digital download storefronts that can be run on the devices using the OS or from software used on PCs. These storefronts (like Apple's iOS App Store) act as centralized digital download services from which a variety of entertainment media and software can be downloaded, including games and nowadays majority of games are distributed through them.
The popularity of mobile games has increased in the 2000s, as over $3 billion USD worth of games were sold in 2007 internationally, and projected annual growth of over 40%. Ownership of a smartphone alone increases the likelihood that a consumer will play mobile games. Over 90% of smartphone users play a mobile game at least once a week.
Many mobile games are distributed free to the end user, but carry paid advertising: examples are Flappy Bird and Candy Crush Saga. The latter follows the "freemium" model, in which the base game is free but additional items for the game can be purchased separately.