A look at how developers can bring console quality graphics to mobile
As mobile technology as a whole continues to evolve at pace, with Apple and the likes of Samsung consistently releasing new hardware to outdo their competitors in the power stakes, so too does gaming.
Ten years ago the notion of high-end graphics on mobile devices would have been laughable, but flash-forward to today and the technology powering mobile has moved on leaps and bounds, and stunning visuals can mean big business for the right games.
You only need to take a look at companies such as NaturalMotion, which built its games development business on high-end gaming through titles such as MyHorse and CSR Racing, to see the fruits of such endeavours. Such was its success, Zynga bought the firm for over half a billion dollars at the start of the year.
REACHING NEW HEIGHTS
Matt Spencer of ARM, a company that specialises in the creation of development tools and the technology powering mobiles, such as the Mali GPU, says mobile hardware is fast becoming more a fashion statement in the way it looks both physically and what it displays.
“This requires a high-quality display with high pixel density and CPU cores able to achieve a balance of high performance and efficiency paired with a high fidelity GPU to ensure consumers receive a silky smooth user experience,” explains Spencer.
“And once the consumer has bought into the high-end experience and has a mobile device that is capable of console quality gaming, their expectation is that when they pay for a game, it will make full use of the capability of the device they have.”
Chris Doran, founder of game lighting specialists Geomerics, says consumers have always sought out the best visuals, right from the earliest gaming handhelds through to the PS Vita and today’s tablets and phones, and he doesn’t see this trend ending any time soon.
“For mobile we are entering into a different space now,” he says. “Historically, mobile gaming meant a dedicated platform designed around games. That is no longer the case for smartphones and tablets. These are consumer devices that are designed to fulfil many roles, only one of which is gaming. This can complicate things for the consumer, but we have been here before.
“In the PC space, gamers had to fight for attention with other use cases. This ultimately resolved itself with more specialised high-end hardware being developed predominantly for gamers. GPU progress in particular was driven by satisfying the needs of high-end gamers.
“I’m sure the mobile space will develop along similar lines. Not all consumers will want to play high-end games on their mobile devices, but there will be a significant portion who do and devices will emerge that are targeted at their needs.”
Martin Ekdal, VP of business development at Donya Labs, creator of automatic optimisation solution Simplygon, adds: “I think 3D games are much more interesting. I’m not saying that 2D games are shit, because there’s a lot of really cool 2D games, but there’s just way much more you can do and much more things to explore in 3D.”
ADAPT OR DIE
As Ekdal says, 2D games or even minimalist titles can still find both niche and mass-market audiences. But as the app stores continue to get flooded with hundreds of thousands more games, visuals can act as an effective way to pull in players. After all, game mechanics don’t speak for themselves until users begin to evangelise the titles.
Will Eastcott, CEO at cloud game development platform firm PlayCanvas, says if developers don’t adapt, others will, but adds there are plenty of tools available to use to keep up with the latest developments.
“For example, the PlayCanvas engine is built on top of WebGL 1.0, but version 2.0 is already on the horizon,” he explains.
"The new API integrates features like multiple render targets, geometry instancing and new compressed texture formats, all designed to squeeze more performance from the GPU. When PlayCanvas finally incorporates v2.0, developers should simply see a performance boost and not spend weeks rewriting a proprietary game engine.
“That said, even if you use a commercial engine, I’d argue it’s still important to understand how the hardware is being driven. Companies like ARM produce some fantastic tools like the Mali Graphics Debugger which provide this insight.”
Doran agrees that a wealth of tools are available including its Enlighten tech, and says many are tuned for the speedy development and iteration-based game creation required for mobile.
IN WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
Despite powerful new tools taking advantage of the latest hardware, developers targeting a large market aren’t always able to target high-end devices for the best graphics possible. Whereas consoles have much lengthier generations than smartphones and use a single base spec, there are a plethora of mobile devices old and new, built by numerous different manufacturers.
It’s an issue that Spencer admits means developers targeting high quality 1920 x 1080 displays will be “cutting out 91 per cent of their potential market”.
“There are a number of high-end devices in the market with very high density screens and a games developer is always going to want to make sure that their flagship product looks great on these devices,” he says.
“But the truth of the matter is that the volume is to be found in the mid-range devices. If you take a look at publicly available stats from Unity, they show that the most popular screen resolution for playing unity games is on a screen resolution of 800 x 480 and the most popular mobile GPU model is still the ARM Mali-400 GPU.“
Ekdal adds: “If you want to reach the full potential, then yes, obviously [you need to target legacy devices]. Everybody won’t immediately get the latest hardware and if you look at certain markets, they might not ever be up to date, so there’s some kind of legacy.”
Another issue in the mobile market is that of power consumption, a challenge for developers looking to squeeze as much power out of the hardware for their high-end games as possible. After all, mobile devices have a number of uses, many social, outside of games, and titles that bleed dry the battery will not be welcome by many players.
Eastcott identifies some of the major culprits when it comes to the dreaded battery drain, but offers potential solutions to avoid the problem completely.
“If a developer is writing a game against native APIs, there is explicit control over how hardware features are accessed,” he explains.
“Utilising the radios, GPS receiver, accelerometers and so on will all drain battery life and there are guidelines for using these resources efficiently. Things are a little different if you have opted to develop on HTML5 and WebGL.
“In this case, it is the browser – or native wrapper – that is responsible for ensuring that hardware resources are managed intelligently. For obvious reasons, the major browser vendors take power consumption seriously and are working very hard to preserve battery life.”
ARM’s Spencer says the firm is constantly looking at creating more power efficient architectures for mobile devices, but admits this does not absolve the developer from making power efficient applications.
The company offers a number of tools to this end, including internal compression techniques such as Adaptive Scalable Texture Compression, the Mali Graphics Debugger and the DS-5 Streamline.
“The conflict between the performance demanded by the high quality of texture, lighting and effects of 3D gaming workloads and the increasing demand for better battery life calls for a commitment to deliver the most out of every milliwatt,” says Spencer.
“ARM has been driving advanced power management techniques such as ARM big.Little to save power in mobile SoCs, where high performance ‘big’ cores are paired with high efficiency ‘little’ cores. The operating system is able to run workloads such as games by using the right core for the right task.
“This comes in handy when the visuals and games you are designing have complex scene content, smaller tiles and short render times.”
With companies like ARM, Simplygon, Geomerics, PlayCanvas and a host of other firms around the world working on solutions and enhancements to mobile, smartphones could continue to close the gap on console quality graphics during the coming years.