What's Playing in Japan

Nokia's Corp.'s (NOK ) N-Gage may be this season's most anticipated new toy in Europe. But the Japanese have their own games to play. At the annual Tokyo Game Show in mid-September, NTT DoCoMo Inc., Japan's biggest cell-phone operator, wowed crowds with some two dozen titles designed for its latest handsets.

While European and North American cell-phone networks are still relatively pokey -- thus necessitating solutions like putting media-rich games onto memory cartridges -- in Japan the wide use of high-speed networks makes it possible for game players to download sophisticated games. Last April, DoCoMo released a series of high-resolution camera-and-video phones capable of delivering richer graphics and improved stereo sound for those interested in exploiting the handsets' game capabilities.

The games may not be quite as dynamic as N-Gage games. No matter. By July, providers of mobile game sites geared to the new phones noticed a big jump in users. Bandai Networks Co., which boasts some 4 million registered mobile Net users, says it has boosted its mobile game sites from 10 to 50 in the past few months. It's the same story at Sega. "This is becoming a big business," says Tomohiko Aita, who oversees Sega Corp.'s mobile game development.

One of the most successful is Dwango Co., a longtime provider of mobile content, such as ring-tone and fortune-telling downloads. Satomi Imai, who has designed several popular mobile games for Dwango, is constantly on the lookout for new games suited specifically for the mobile gamer. "Everything is evolving together, the cell-phone specs, the applications, and the game contents," she says.

What's next in this ever-evolving world? Many are betting that online games involving multiple players will migrate from desktops to cell phones in several years. Already, it's cheaper to download data on DoCoMo's high-speed, third-generation phone than it is on a 2.5G handset. Within two to three years, say Nokia Japan execs, a 3G version of N-Gage should be ready to make its debut here. The fun and games are just starting.

By Irene M. Kunii in Tokyo

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