Mobile gaming prepares for takeoff
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 8 (August 2004)

Mobile gaming prepares for takeoff

Certainly growth looks substantial, if not explosive. According to a recent report titled "Winning and Losing in Mobile Games" from wireless communications analyst Alexander Resources, worldwide revenues from mobile games are forecasted to grow from just under $500 million in 2002 to nearly $2 billion by 2006.

Without a doubt, there are game-related riches to be mined by companies that make mobile hardware, provide wireless service, or write software for mobile platforms. And many companies are now looking beyond the vein of 2D applications currently available in the US, toward 3D, which will demand a new generation of 3D-enabled devices.

"We have an interest in seeing that graphics devices continually improve," candidly notes Brian Murray, system architect for Freescale Semiconductor, a recently formed subsidiary of Motorola. Freescale produces applications processors, including the iMX family that is being incorporated into many of the next-generation mobile devices enabling small-screen 3D graphics. From the carrier standpoint, companies such as Verizon are preparing an expanding menu of 3D content in the hopes of enticing customers into extending their phone usage beyond voice calls.

These plans are not based on analyst predictions and wishful thinking alone. Consider the success of 2D mobile gaming: Blue Lava's Tetris, for example, enjoyed its one-millionth paid download earlier this year. If 2D titles are so popular, then 3D titles will be even more so, goes the conventional wisdom. This could be the case, because 3D game titles have more or less eclipsed 2D on the PC and console platforms.

The most tantalizing aspect of the market involves the sheer number of potential 3D game users. Industry firms estimate that between 500 million and 600 million wireless handheld devices, including PDAs and phones, are sold each year worldwide, notes Robert McNair, Intel's director of marketing for handheld graphics. These figures compare to a mere 100 million to 200 million PCs sold annually. "It's analogous to what happened to PCs [when these became standard items], but half an order of magnitude larger," says McNair.

Despite the fanfare—which is considerable, with announcements of new mobile 3D processors, handsets, and game titles as numerous as cicadas this summer and nearly as buzzy—there actually isn't a great deal of mobile 3D gaming going on yet in the US. It's not that the announcements are without basis—game developers are developing, and processor and phone manufacturers are ramping up production of 3D-enabled devices. It's just that not many of the actual hardware or software products have arrived yet.

What exists now in terms of commercially available products are phones and handheld gaming devices that can handle some 3D, but more often what game developers refer to as "2.5D"—in which height is modeled by storing a Z value at each point. The effect is that of 2D graphics with some depth.

The mobile gaming devices with the highest 3D capability at present include Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, Nokia's N-Gage game deck, and some 3D-capable wireless phones. Game developers have been busy at work providing 3D, 2.5D, and 2D titles for these platforms. Sony Pictures Mobile, for example, is currently developing several 3D games for mobile phones, including a 3D version of Spider-Man 2 (it also has 2D Spider-Man 2 games), a first-person shooter called S.W.A.T. the Movie: 3D Game, and a 3D Ghostbusters. These titles will be available in Asia first, and then in the US in early fall as capable hardware comes to market, according to Rio Caraeff, vice president of Sony Pictures Mobile.

But 3D mobile games, and especially those on phones, don't approach console or desktop quality in terms of graphics. That quality will begin to appear, say many experts, when a new generation of hardware and software begins shipping at the end of this year to the early part of next. That's when phones that can handle 3D, and the software that works with the phones that can handle 3D, will begin to appear in sufficient numbers to spark even further development.

The phones themselves are a major gating factor. Wireless 3D content requires a handset of a sophistication that the average cell phone in the US currently lacks. Many, for example, still use black-and-white displays. In Korea and Japan, where mobile technology is more cutting-edge, the situation is a bit different. Japan's HI Corp., for example, has been creating and selling mobile 3D content for well more than a year (see "Graphics to Go," April 2003, pg. 28). Most experts say that users in the Far East, and even in Europe, are more inclined to mobile technology than their North American counterparts. Whatever the reasons, the US lags behind Korea, Japan, and Europe when it comes to wireless applications.

The new PXA27x processors from Intel, incorporate the company's Wireless MMX technology for better 3D gaming and video performance, as well as extended battery life.

Users and their attitudes toward wireless aside, a few hurdles must be cleared before 3D mobile technology can take off in a big way in North America. New phones represent just one obstacle. Other components—the processors, service providers, operating systems, and the content itself—must mesh to enable 3D on cell phones and other devices. To help ensure that they do, the Khronos Group, an open standards body with more than 50 members from the graphics industry, has established OpenGL ES (OpenGL for embedded systems), a low-level API (application program interface).

"There are certainly some core issues that a low-level API like OpenGL ES can solve, just as it [OpenGL] did on the PC," says Neil Trevett, senior vice president of market development at 3Dlabs and president of the Khronos Group. "It's the contract between the hardware and the software community. Once the industry can agree on a standard, suddenly everyone is enabled. The hardware vendors, particularly the graphics vendors, can go off and implement it in their silicon. And the software vendors know what functionality the hardware platforms are going to provide to them. This is even more important in the embedded space than it was on the PC, because the embedded space is much more fragmented and diverse."

A laundry list of who's behind the OpenGL ES reads like a who's who of hardware graphics technology. "It has all the right people," says Freescale's Murray. First, there are the cell phone vendors: Nokia, Sony-Ericsson, Motorola, and Samsung, among others. There are the silicon vendors that supply the chips and accelerators that power the devices, including ARM, Motorola, and TI. The graphics accelerator community is represented by Nvidia, ATI, and 3Dlabs. Wireless OS developers, such as Palm and Symbian, belong to the Khronos Group, as well as such wireless middleware vendors as Hybrid Graphics and Fathammer. Discreet (whose 3ds max 3D content creation tool is already well entrenched in PC and console game development houses), is a member, and so is Sun. Sun's JSR 184, a high-level API for Java -based mobile 3D, is another important factor in the future of high-quality 3D on the mobile platform. JSR 184 is designed to mesh smoothly with the lower-level OpenGL ES API, in much the same way that Java3D sits atop OpenGL on the PC platform. (For developers that prefer a low-level graphics interface, Sun also has JSR.239.)
Spider-Man 2 vs. Doc Ock is a 2D game title from Sony Pictures Mobile that is available now for wireless platforms. Sony is preparing a 3D Spider-Man title for release later this year.

We even have our first service provider member, which is SK Telecom [out of Korea]," says Trevett. "Korea seems to be ground zero for handheld gaming. You can already walk into a store in Korea and buy an OpenGL ES-enabled cell phone. It will be possible everywhere else, but it's happening there first."

OpenGL ES doesn't have any competition from other standards bodies, which is one reason why experts are predicting that wireless 3D will blossom quickly. One major player is noticeably absent from the initiative, however: Microsoft. The company has an-nounced plans to build its own API—Direct 3D Mobile—into its Windows Mobile operating system. However, just as on the PC, OpenGL ES will be made available on Windows platforms by third-party hardware and software vendors—easing the portability of games titles between Windows and other platforms.

Some of the game developers themselves are taking a wait-and-see approach with regard to the emergence of the market and OpenGL ES-based content and devices in the US. Though many support OpenGL ES, it is possible, they note, to create high-quality 3D content without it. "We follow OpenGL ES. We support it, but aren't participating in it," says Chris Ruff, vice president of marketing at UIEvolution, a platform developer for mobile games and other wireless content recently acquired by Square Enix. "We think it's a great initiative, but the problem with standards is that to get everyone to agree, the specs get watered down." Keeping the customer in mind, the company would, for example, potentially deviate from the spec to ship a better product.

It is also possible that 3D game graphics may not prove popular on little screens. Cell phone users, who represent the great majority of potential customers, may not care whether the game they're playing is 3D or not. As Kari Pulli, a research fellow for Nokia, points out, the play is the thing, not just pretty graphics. "You can make lots of compelling and quite good-looking games with 2.5D," he notes. But 3D in general could be helpful to game developers, according to ARM's 3D graphics product manager Ed Plowman. "There are significant advantages to developing mobile content in 3D. For example, it scales nicely [to small screens]," he observes. On the other hand, notes Sony's Caraeff, "3D games cost more and take longer to develop."
The Nokia N-Gage QD game deck can run 3D games, but also handles tasks such as personal information management, Web browsing, and e-mail.

The next generation of 3D-enabled mobile devices, which will probably, though not necessarily, be OpenGL ES-based, is poised to ship around the end of this year or the beginning of the next. Nokia, for example, is releasing a number of high-end "smart phones" that will run on the Symbian mobile OS and be OpenGL ES-compliant. A number of new mobile devices will be based on Intel's new 2700 graphics processor line, which will support both OpenGL ES and Microsoft's Direct 3D Mobile. Names are hard to come by at this point in time, however. With the exception of Dell, which is coming out with a 2700-based Axim handheld, PDA-type device, Intel could not at press time name partners creating products with its new processor.

Though manufacturers are reluctant right now to divulge dates, and consumer demand remains an unequivocal wild card, the general consensus from hardware providers to software developers is that 3D mobile gaming is now more than a gleam in the eye of the service provider.

"My prediction," says Intel's McNair, "is that the mobile gaming market [including 2D and 3D] will be as big as the console market in five years' time, then even bigger."
Farmer of the Month was one of 14 finalists in a mobile game prototype contest sponsored by Discreet this past year. For more about Discreet's contest, see "Mobile Gaming Goes 3D" on page 80.

"It's picking up," says Ville Miettinen, CTO for mobile platform middleware developer Hybrid Graphics. "Once the critical mass of devices in this market is reached, there will be loads of games. Trust me. It'll be huge." Companies and experts have predicted wrongly before, but the stage does seem set for a large-scale graphics revolution on some very tiny screens.

Jenny Donelan ( is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World.

Blue Lava
Freescale Semiconductor
HI Corp.
Hybrid Graphics
Sony Pictures Mobile
Square Enix