Let's Talk Business
Issue: Volume 33 Issue 7: (July 2010)

Let's Talk Business

Years ago, the term “mobile gaming” referred to games that were easy to carry from one location to another: cards, dice, marbles, checkers, or any variety of so-called travel-size versions of your favorite board game. Today, mobile gaming means something entirely different. Ever since black-and-white portable consoles, such as Nintendo’s GameBoy, first hit the market in the late 1980s, these small, electronic devices have grown in popularity to the point where they have become commonplace around the world. Throughout their 20-year existence, these portable game consoles have evolved, and never more so than the revolution the market is experiencing right now, as the advent of mobile networking, faster graphics, and smartphones have created whole new ways to create, distribute, and play these types of games.

Nintendo is, without a doubt, the longest-lasting company in the mobile gaming arena. The firm’s original GameBoy was created more than two decades ago and has been updated every few years to keep up with the latest and greatest technology—and has even set a few trends of its own. The current Nintendo platform is the Nintendo DSi, which offers two screens, two cameras, and wide-area networking. Competing against Nintendo is Sony’s PlayStation Portable, or PSP. This handheld console—which has under­gone several updates since its 2004 introduction—is Web capable, and includes even a Web browser.

The latest mobile devices, such as Apple’s iPad, have become popular gaming devices. Shown here is Firemint’s Real Racing HD app for the iPad.

Mobile gaming, however, is not just restricted to dedicated consoles (which seem to be in danger of becoming old technology). Probably the biggest area of growth for this genre has been in the mobile phone and mobile device market. Today’s smartphones are essentially pocket-sized personal computers with sophisticated graphics and networking. These powerful little devices are extremely capable of doing multiple functions, from making phone calls to surfing the Web and, of course, gaming. When it comes to mobility, having one device that does everything significantly cuts down on clutter and pocket space, which makes these devices highly desirable.

Apple’s Ripe Offerings

Without a doubt, the de-facto standard in mobile gaming is Apple’s iPhone and its sister device, the iPod Touch. The iPhone was the first phone that offered the ideal combination of interface, speed, graphics, and connectivity. The iPhone’s fast hardware also makes it a natural when it comes to gaming. The OS supports OpenGL with acceleration as well as other standards that make game development easy.

Equally as important as the hardware was the creation of Apple’s App Store, which made distribution quite easy for developers big and small. Early on, there were a number of success stories whereby a single developer created a hit game that made that company rich. As the App Store has grown to well over 150,000 titles—a third of which are games—it’s become much harder for the little guy to get noticed. Adding to this hurdle is a number of new restrictions that Apple has imposed on developers. More and more applications and games are being rejected from the App Store since Apple changed its standards for App Store acceptance.

CastleCraft by Freeverse is a multiplayer city-building game for the iPad.

Following the iPhone is Apple’s latest object of desire, the iPad, which is essentially an iPod Touch with a much larger screen. This new device sold 300,000 units on the first day, and 600,000 within the first month, illustrating the public’s desire for this new offering. And that desire is not waning: The iPad is projected to sell as many as 10 million units in the first year. These numbers alone make it a major player, but the new format also adds room for richer and more complex gaming. The larger screen is actually quite a big deal, as the extra real estate offers a more immersive gaming experience. The larger screen also changes the way interactivity happens on the device. An iPhone only has enough screen space for one or two fingers, while the iPad has space for all 10, allowing for more complex multitouch interfaces.

While everything looks delicious for Apple and its cutting-edge devices, the company is not without controversy. The biggest sour note in the Apple community is over the company’s recent decision to require all applications to be written using its development tools, which are based on C++. This action has been widely viewed as directed at Adobe’s Flash development tools, which promised fast development for multiple platforms. Other third-party development tools may also be affected. Apple claims that developing in its own tools will ensure speed and compatibility. Some developers, however, have bristled at having to use C++ as the development language, especially since other development platforms, such as Flash, allow for much faster production and prototyping.

Google’s Solution

Hot on Apple’s heels is Google’s Android operating system. Unlike Apple, which offers a bundled hardware/software solution, Google’s Android is simply an operating system, and not tied to specific hardware. The competition between Apple and Google in the mobile arena is heating up rapidly and has some of the same hallmarks as the Apple/Microsoft battles of the 1980s, with Apple once again sticking to its own hardware and Google playing Microsoft’s role by distributing software while letting the hardware become a commodity.

Android phones, like the HTC EVO 4G, offer very fast performance that serves the gaming community well.

Though it had a later start, Android is catching up quickly to the iPhone and has actually surpassed it in hardware sales (though the venerable Blackberry still leads the smartphone market). Android-based tablets designed to compete with the iPad also have been spotted at conferences and trade shows, though no products have shipped as of press time.

Gaming for the Android is not quite as mature as it is for the iPhone. The Android market only has about a third as many titles as Apple’s App Store, but the numbers are catching up quickly. Android is definitely poising itself to be more open, both in terms of the development environment and in the way it handles distribution. This openness, however, comes with a catch: Because hardware is less standardized than the iPhone, developers are forced to write to a lower common denominator.

The Android OS is Linux-based and, therefore, open source, and has a number of advantages over the iPhone, including full support for multitasking (some of which Apple is addressing with iPhone OS 4.0, announced last month). Unlike the iPhone, Android development mostly happens in Java, with the option to delve into C++.?This can be appealing for new developers because Java is widely accepted as a much easier language to get started in than C++. One big assist to game developers came with the release of Android’s Native Development Kit Version 3, which finally gives developers full support for OpenGL, which is crucial for creating fast 3D games and content. 

ShiVa 3D offers the first game development environment geared toward Android, the iPhone, and Palm’s WebOS.

Google also has announced its intention to fully support mobile Flash 10.1 on Android, which opens up Web-based game and video to the platform. In a related move, Adobe just announced AIR for Android, which brings the Flash development environment to Android. This allows Android developers to create native content using the AIR tool kit originally created for iPhone development but denied by Apple’s policy change.

Android’s distribution model is slightly different than Apple’s, with the Android market being much less restrictive. The open nature of Android also allows for applications to be installed from outside of Google’s official channels, including third-party app stores or a developer’s own Web site. While this certainly democratizes distribution, it potentially opens up the platform for malicious software, as well. This may be the price paid for Android’s open nature, but, hopefully, smart users will only install software from trusted sources.

Getting in the Game

Mobile game development on smartphones and tablets has opened the door to a lot of new studios. The simplicity of mobile games offers small developers a much lower barrier to entry into the business of gaming. In many ways, it represents a return to more entrepreneurial times, when a singe developer or small team could spend a few months in isolation and come up with a best-selling classic. Add to this incentive the fact that most development can take place on a simple PC or Mac with development tools that are affordable or even free, and you can see why mobile gaming, and mobile development in general, is becoming such a hotbed of activity.

Flash is certainly one of the most popular Web development platforms for gaming, and has been for some time. Any mobile device that accesses the Internet will certainly run across Flash-based Web content, including games. Writing games for the Web makes game development easy, because playing the game simply requires a browser that supports Flash.

While it was originally intended as a Web-development tool, Adobe had expanded Flash CS5 as an iPhone development platform—that is, until Apple revised its development guidelines and fired a shot across Adobe’s bow. While this is certainly a blow to Adobe, it does not take Flash out of the game entirely. Google has offered full support for mobile Flash 10.1 on Android, allowing for any Web-based content to be viewed on Android devices. And while Adobe doesn’t have an app-generation program for Android just yet, that could also be a possibility in the future.

Pocket Legends (left) and X-Plane (right) are for the iPad, and iPhone and iPad, respectively.

In addition to Flash, there are a number of other development environments aimed toward specific platforms and directly at games. Probably the most notable of these is Unity 3D, which is a cross-platform development tool that supports the iPhone, Web, native Mac and Windows, and the Nintendo Wii. This environment allows developers to create the game once and then distribute it in many places.

Unity provides the ability to create 3D environments, characters, and assets, or import those from a number of 3D content creation packages, including Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Maya, Maxon’s Cinema 4D, and the Blender game engine. The environment includes a complete scripting language that allows developers to author games. It’s important to note that Unity 3D does not seem to suffer the limitations imposed on Flash as a development environment for the iPhone. This is because Unity 3D outputs Xcode, which is compatible with the approved iPhone development environment.

French-based Stonetrip’s ShiVa3D is another trailblazing game development environment. The ShiVa3D environment offers output to both the iPhone/iPad and Android, as well as WebOS, Web publishing, and console publishing for the Wii. Much like Unity, ShiVa3D offers a complete game development environment with the ability to import assets from a number of 3D packages and use a scripting environment to pull it all together into an interactive game. The environment also opens up the 3D capabilities of advanced Android phones, allowing for fast, rich games that can compete with the best content currently on the iPhone.

Mobile gaming is one of the fastest changing areas in 3D development today, as both the associated hardware and software are evolving at a staggering pace. At this point, it looks like the big battle will be between Apple and Google for dominance, with other companies falling by the wayside. Either way, it’s a good time to develop 3D content for mobile gaming.

George Maestri is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World and president/CEO of RubberBug animation studio. He can be reached at maestri@rubberbug.com.