The portable revolution

The portable revolution
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

March 11th 2011 at 8:00AM

Both Sony and Nintendo have hit back with new platforms to take on iOS, but what does 3DS and NGP mean for game developers?

Now that both the 3DS and NGP are both officially unveiled, it’s clear the two devices are very different indeed.

Sony’s successor to the PSP is a ‘console in your pocket’ powerhouse, while Nintendo’s 3DS is defined by an innovative display unique among gaming platforms.

That technological variety considered, it’s clear that developers looking to work on handheld are going to have to expand their creative horizons and technical skill set significantly. The question is, can they rise to the challenge, or does the combined ambition of Sony’s NGP and Nintendo 3DS spell trouble for today’s studios?

CUSTOMER SATISFACTION

Certainly, satisfying the consumer is going to get increasingly hard, as Ubisoft’s Sofia Studio producer and creative director Julian Gollop explains. “As the hardware power of these handhelds grows, so too do players’ expectations,” he says, “For Ubisoft, that means we have to make sure we’re taking full advantage of the performance that’s available in these systems.”

That has meant optimising CPU and GPU usage on the 3DS without allowing stalls or frame rate drops, and looking to adopt a new paradigm of software engineering based on multi-core processing to create NGP titles. Even for the biggest studios, those are sizable challenges indeed.

Technological advances also mean the kinds of gameplay experiences players expect look set to change too. The traditional ‘short burst’ experience currently de rigueur with iOS users may not translate well on Nintendo and Sony’s new platforms.

“Most players spend 15 to 20 minutes with a handheld, then put it down for a while, which is radically different from console play patterns,” suggests JC Connors, studio head of Foundation 9’s handheld specialist subsidiary Griptonite Games, which was one of the first studios to begin work on a 3DS title. “Here’s where this generation is different, though – connectivity. The advanced hardware of both the 3DS and PSP2 can really help designers innovate new ways of keeping players engaged for repeat play, checking in with their friends, and syncing easily with their other consoles and devices.”

The 3DS, with its SpotPass and StreetPass technology, and the NGP’s equivalent wireless abilities mean that developers now have to assume handheld connectivity is something consumers will use.

Fortunately, that challenge is an opportunity, says Gollop: “I think it will be a while before the full potential of this type of connectivity is realised, but the power and the potential is there, and as Nintendo builds a critical mass of 3DS customers, we think we’ll see new and unique designs take hold as well.”

EVER THE OPTIMIST

So far, so optimistic. Developers seem enthusiastic about the way player expectation and new technology will change the kinds of games conceived. But what about the challenge of adapting to new platforms? Perhaps surprisingly, even here experienced developers’ outlook is pretty buoyant.

“If you are a developer that has worked on PCs and high end consoles, and have an existing engine as we do at Rebellion, then I think the learning curve is a lot less steep than people who are new to these sorts of platforms,” says Chris Kingsley, CTO of Rebellion, which has a wealth of experience crafting PSP games, and has now updated its Asura release to support NGP.

It would be foolish, however, not to recognise the challenge of what lies ahead. Taking the techniques perfected developing console games to the wave of multi-talented handhelds is going to be a challenge, and likely to be costly.

“The biggest challenge will be development budgets,” admits Kingsley. “When you have more powerful machines to develop on, expectations are higher and you have to spend more time and money creating larger and more detailed worlds, and then populate them with smarter and more compelling AIs. With more power comes greater expectation.”

The cost of making games clearly has studios in a pensive frame of mind, and there’s good reason for them to feel nervous about finances. Not only does the recent economic slump continue to furrow brows; there’s also the fact 99 cent iPhone games changed consumer views on pricing.

“If you wanted to spend console money on developing a NGP or 3DS title, every penny of it would show, and clearly some of the launch titles have budgets two-to-three times what typical DS games have seen in
the past,” says Connors.

“It simply takes more time and effort to design towards all the devices’ advanced features, and consumer expectations on depth and production value have significantly changed with the advent of the iPhone’s 99 cent games.”

PSP GROWS UP

Looking for a moment at the next Sony handheld in isolation, it is apparent that developers are clearly enamoured by the NGP, and have faith that it can escape the fate of its predecessor, which many agree suffered something of a fade from grace.

“The NGP is an amazing piece of hardware,” claims Connors, who clearly believes the ‘PSP2’ will empower creativity. “Unlike handhelds of the past, where many game design choices had to revolve around technical limitations, the NGP removes a lot of those and puts development and design decisions firmly into the hands of the creative folks on the team.”

Many powerful devices of the past, though, have been hamstrung by their position at the cutting edge. Devices like the NeoGeo and Dreamcast offered infamous challenges, and at one point even the PS3’s immense technical muscle looked set to overwhelm cash stretched developers.

“There are many challenges facing Sony, and a whole host of new competitors,” says Kingsley. “But’ they’ve seen it before, and know how to make a great handheld console into a big success.”

Again, optimism abounds, and the numerous studios familiar with developing for Sony platforms only have one thing on their minds; the new kinds of games they can make on  a handheld that, on the surface at least, looks somewhat traditional and familiar.

“If we can incorporate imaginative uses of the NGP’s GPS, 3G and the 3-axis compass, it could open up groundbreaking games that overlap game worlds with the real world, and that could deliver players a truly interactive entertainment experience that you can’t get from sitting in front of your TV and home console,” says Gollop.

NEXT DIMENSION PORTABLE

Meanwhile, the dawn of the 3DS is leaving developers a little more pragmatic. With an entire extra dimension to consider, both the technological and creative lessons that need learning will be very tough indeed. Studio models and team dynamics will need reworking, and a far greater union of effort may become essential.

“The 3DS really demands all your discipline teams working in perfect lockstep, way more than other consoles,” says Connors. “The technical demands of a 3D handheld means that your artists, designers, and programmers have to coordinate and communicate perfectly, otherwise you’ll end up with a gameplay experience that doesn’t translate well to the new handheld.”

With the 3DS, the new grammar of interactive 3D must now be mastered. Composition, player camera, geometry, colour saturation, and lighting; these and many others are the constants in game design that have been blown apart by the third dimension, leaving studios to pick up the pieces.

“The art and animation teams have seen some of the greatest challenges, tackling how we structure the environments to get the most out of the stereoscopic effect,” says Nick Ricks, producer at Traveller’s Tales, which has been at work taking Lego Star Wars III to 3DS.

“Determining where best to focus the camera, and the corresponding impact these decisions have had on the amount of screen depth when tracking a moving character, have taken time to balance correctly.”

THE PARALLAX VIEW

Another developer taking existing IP to 3DS is Paul Mottram, executive producer at Zoë Mode. Having revisited PSP puzzler Crush for the Nintendo handheld, Mottram and his colleagues have learned plenty of lessons about 3D.

“Developers need to be very careful with objects that have negative parallax,” he warns. “The illusion of depth is broken whenever they get clipped so this needs to be avoided at all costs.”

That considered, Zoë Mode has spent a lot of time ensuring this never happens, and has also invested a great deal of energy to stop cameras intersecting geometry as the renderer automatically moves them depending on the 3D slider position.

Mottram’s experiences highlight but a few of the many new factors 3DS developers will need to consider, but it is Mottram who is the first to point out the task in hand may be more approachable than some might think.

“The underlying technology has much more in common with other consoles and especially the original PSP,” he says, revealing a detail that may mean many more studios than expected are already prepared for work on the 3DS. “This has made a lot of the fundamental engine work simpler than if it had been on a DS, thereby freeing up more development time for gameplay and polish.”

Mottram is not alone in his assertion that developing for 3DS shares much in relation to creating a game for a traditional console. Over at Traveller’s Tales Ricks and his team have found that catering for the handheld’s diverse new feature set means creating its games is now a process familiar to those with big box games machine experience.

“Our approach now includes far more of the disciplines, technology and techniques more commonly associated with console development. Meaning that there’s now real parity between the console and 3DS experiences we’re crafting,” he says.

In the end, while the difficulties the 3DS and NGP introduce to developers are myriad, the opportunity outweighs the challenge. Past experience on both console and handheld capably arms long-standing teams, meaning the most pressing concern remains cost; something studios have long had to deal with, and will continue to do so.

The real problem, then, will be proving that the RRP for a NGP or 3DS game is worth the expense for customers spoiled by the minimised prices that have made iOS what it is today. Ultimately, it is that which will decide the fate of Sony and Nintendo’s bold new endeavours in the world of portable gaming.