With a background and passion for Computer Graphics, I’ve been to a slew of GDC conferences and over a dozen ACM SIGGRAPHs. Over the years, it’s interesting to see technologies come and go, and then come back again.
The things I like to look for at these events are the technologies that have the potential to disrupt the apple cart. These revolutionary movements do more than simply evolve last year’s technology. They beg the question whether whole companies or industries will radically change and shift to address this new force, and whether or not new players will emerge as drivers in this movement. At GDC this year, I could see that such a shift is starting to take place and I’m excited that BlackBerry is actively engaged in this movement. What’s the shift? We’re starting to see mobile devices provide a console gaming experience, anywhere, anytime.
We’ve been playing games on phones for many years, why talk about this now? What’s changed?
As with many disruptive forces, a number of normal evolutionary changes take place first that, by themselves, are not disruptive. However, when brought together, they can change the game considerably and challenge an entire once-stable industry. The critical technologies all on mobile devices that are beginning to put pressure on the gaming console industry are the following:
- Multitasking Operating Systems
- High Performance GPUs
- High Definition Video (HDMI)
- Wireless Mobile Game Controllers
- Portable Game Software
When all these technology advancement come together in a smartphone, you have something very close to a game console in the palm of your hand. Each of these plays a vital role. Let’s explore the contribution of each.
Multitasking Operating Systems
A true multitasking operating system is critical for providing smooth performance and interactivity for today’s most demanding games. Not only must the OS manage the game itself, but it must also juggle location information, gyro, accelerometer and other sensors, concurrent voice or VOIP for trash-talking your friends during gameplay, and interact with the cloud and social networks for storing and sharing your results. Neither iOS nor Android has a great multitasking solution here. In contrast however, BlackBerry 10, powered by QNX Neutrino (a leading world class RTOS), is very well positioned to provide all the power necessary for managing the ever-increasing demand of concurrent functionality in the next generation of mobile games.
High Performance GPUs
GPUs render the images. Without them, our game visuals would be slow, blocky, and flat. There’s no question how important these processors are. Over the last couple of years, the advancements made by companies like ARM, Imagination, NVidia, and Qualcomm for smartphones have been enormous. It’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between a game rendered by a GPU on a laptop vs. a game rendered by a smartphone GPU. Perhaps the most obvious difference has been the physical screen size. However, when you add a multitasking OS and a high performance GPU to HD Video (the next critical technology), things start to get really interesting.
High Definition Video (HDMI)
One of the things we did in the BlackBerry booth this year at GDC was connect a bunch of our BlackBerry Z10 smartphones (using the standard HDMI port) to large HD monitors. We also did this at our interactive pods in the Unity and Marmalade booths. I can’t tell you how many times people walked up and asked questions like, “Since when did BlackBerry start making game consoles?” When we told them they were looking at a game being rendered and played on the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone they had that mind blown look on their face.
In the picture above, a young gamer is playing “Shadow Gun” on a BlackBerry Z10. This is a great First Person Shooter game built on the Unity3D game engine. You can just see the Z10 on the table in front of him below the monitor. What you can’t see in this picture is the awesome SteelSeries Free game controller he’s using to play the game. That piece of critical technology is next on my list.
Wireless Mobile Game Controllers
To an awesome multitasking OS, killer GPU, and HDMI out, you add a wireless game controller and you’ve just about got the whole package. Using a controller accomplishes two important things: First, it gets your fingers off the valuable screen real estate freeing up more pixes for game play. The other benefit of the controller is that it adds that real, immersive game feeling you get with console controllers. The controllers we used at GDC are the SteelSeries Free Mobile Wireless Controllers (shown below). The last time I checked, the controller will set you back about $80USD and you can find one here. Other controllers, such as the Wii Remote and the Gametel, are also usable and there’s more to come.
For you game developers out there, you can get more information about how to instrument your code to work with these controllers including samples and tutorials by checking out Sean Paul Taylor’s devblog: “Adding Gamepad Support to Your BlackBerry 10 Game”. You can also read about Ramprasad Madhavan’s experience at GDC this year and the Unity BlackBerry 10 Open Beta coming soon on his devblog: “Unity and BlackBerry Gaming at GDC 2013”
Portable Game Engines & Frameworks
The final critical technology contributing to the end of the game console industry as we know it is portable game engines and frameworks. The easier it is to get your game ported from one platform to another, the harder it is for games to be locked to a single console or device. Companies like Marmalade, ShiVa3D, and Unity3D/Union all contribute here. As a developer, you want the highest quality game experience you can get with the largest distribution possible. This is exactly what these frameworks offer and each has been tuned to deliver a killer experience on BlackBerry 10.
I confess I own an Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and a PlayStation 3. However, I more often find myself connecting my Z10 to my 46” flat screen, the audio-out to my surround system, and kick back on the couch with my SteelSeries Free remote to enjoy a great game of Angry Bots or Critical Wave. There’s no question that smartphones like the BlackBerry Z10 are providing near console game experiences. This is being driven by advancements in 5 areas: real multitasking OS’s, high performance mobile GPUs, HD Video, mobile game controllers, and portable frameworks.
Consoles will need to adapt and add value to remain competitive. Where does that leave game consoles in the future then? Are they becoming extinct? Will smartphones replace game consoles outright? Will consoles evolve into something even better? Or, will they become the mobile extension of their stationary counterparts? As the great Yoda once said, “Always in motion the future is”.