The annual E3 Expo in LA is the biggest games industry event in the calendar and this year was certainly no exception. As the eyes of the gaming world turned to Los Angeles to see the latest in console and PC gaming, however, a quiet revolution is brewing in the mobile world.
Mobiles and tablets have a number of clear advantages over games consoles and PCs. They are permanently networked and connected, both to each other and to the cloud. They are also very portable and, in the case of smartphones, likely to be a constant “life companion” in a way that older handheld games machines are not.
In recent years games developers have begun to create deep, well-crafted games for mobile that are a quantum leap on from the kind of games that were popular on mobile phones even five years ago, both graphically and in terms of gameplay and replayability.
Despite this, smartphones have traditionally been viewed by some as the poor relation compared to consoles. Serious, so-called “hardcore” gamers demand serious, hardcore consoles - or so we have been led to believe by many in the industry.
Not any more. Smartphones are getting more and more powerful every year and the latest generation is a marked step up in terms of raw speed and graphical ability. Soon, the cutting edge will fit in your pocket and the Samsung GALAXY S4 is leading the way.
The GALAXY S4 packs a super-speedy processor, capable of competing at a speed that leaves last year's phones behind. Which is the main reason why mobile games developers love it.
Carter Randolph is one such developer, of Chocolate Homunculus fame, the developers of one-button platform game Spunk & Moxie, who says of the S4's processing power: "We're now more able to take all of the graphical features available on a version running on a high-end PC and have them work flawlessly on phones."
Randolph adds: "We're very glad to see Samsung really focus their attention on gaming, and it makes total sense."
Another developer who is a big fan of the S4 is Nate Boxer, a developer for Kabam - a mobile game publisher with a number of titles on Google Play, including the tie-in game for Fast & Furious 6. He describes his job as "Pushing the tech as far as it will go on Android."
"The S4 is pretty great," adds Boxer, "and will run games that phones from a year ago chug pretty badly on."
Uber-publisher Electronic Arts is one of the major “old-school” games companies investing heavily in mobile development, encouraging new talent and innovation on the Android platform.
Glenn Roland, EA’s Vice President of New Platforms and OEM explains how Android gaming has changed thanks to better devices.
"New devices, like the Samsung GALAXY S4, coming out in the Android system are driving up the quality of titles and enable us to create a vastly improved consumer experience with improved chip sets and screens," says the EA VP.
"We’ve already seen this recently with our successes on the Android platform for Bejeweled Blitz and Tetris Blitz, which had huge success following its recent launch."
Speaking about the increased power of the GALAXY S4's CPU, Roland adds: "The increase in power has allowed us to increase the visual levels across our titles, allowing us to create a richer experience for our fans. Our Real Racing franchise is a great example of the growth of these devices over the last few years.
"To develop each car, we use a computer animated design (CAD) system that produces triangular data that helps us render the cars in the game.
“For our first Real Racing title, launched in 2009, we were able to utilize 600 triangles per car. A year later - for Real Racing 2 - that number increased to 3,200. This year we are now up to massive 25,000 triangles per car, and the increase in quality is clearly evidenced in the fine detail we were able to put into each car.
"The increased power also allows the development team to build a richer experience through the use of weather particles, reflections, shadowing, and shaders - all of which add to the depth and realism of our titles – benefiting our fans immensely."
In addition to the S4’s impressive graphical prowess, what else can developers do with the S4 that they could not do before?
"In three words: 3D 3D 3D," laughs Nate Boxer. "That's where everything is going. Even simple games that don't require 3D are being built in 3D!"
Many coders make use of the Unity 3D engine - a framework for developers that does a lot of the complex mathematics behind 3D processing and greatly speeds up game development.
Unity was originally built to help create 3D games for PC and consoles but it has recently been ported to a number of mobile platforms and developers are finding that newer handsets like the GALAXY S4 are more than up to the task.
"The Unity game platform is the best tech out there,” says Boxer, “and because console gaming is dying, if (rival game engine) Unreal and other game engines don't quickly shift gears, they'll likely be sad stories in a year or two."
Samsung has led the way in giving mobile gaming fans more expansive screens and, at five inches, the GALAXY S4 is at the upper end of screen sizes, but - thanks to Samsung's clever design - it is still a comfortable fit in the hand. Having such a large display has two key advantages for mobile gaming.
The first is quite simply that games look significantly better. The S4's Super AMOLED screen offers Full HD with an amazing 441 pixels per inch - so many the human eye cannot distinguish between them, which leads to a pin-sharp image. This means that the S4 can show off a developer's graphical creations as they were intended and that gamers won't have to squint into their palms to take them in.
The second is control. A common criticism of smartphone games in the past has been that the on-screen touch controls would sometimes obscure the action. With the generous display of the S4 there is plenty of room for your thumbs to activate a virtual joypad while still giving you a good view of what you are shooting at, jumping over or otherwise engaging.
Of course, just having a large screen won't do anything for the games themselves. Developers need to look at what is happening with new smartphones like the GALAXY S4 and adapt their products to fit them.
"All the projects myself and my company are working on are designed to use the full resolution of all mobile devices, either in their first or second release," says Nate Boxer. "This means supporting native resolutions with all our art assets.
"A lot of work is being done to make this happen without creating huge downloads (some games out there currently are huge, 100 to 200MB each). This is a significant challenge that affects more than just engineering, but also art asset pipelines."
Electronic Arts’ Glenn Roland is adamant that the S4’s increased screen real estate “allows for a richer experience for our players and allows us to optimize our games to make use of that increased space.”
As for the future of mobile gaming, the EA VP also notes how: "The ability to connect to a TV via HDMI is yet another opportunity for us to enhance the entertainment value of our games. We’re always looking for new ways to create new and exciting experiences for our fans, and this will be something that we continue to monitor as the technology evolves. However, the key focus for us right now is developing exciting experiences on mobile devices where our fans play games."
Fast and reliable networking speeds are a key issue for mobile gaming and one that the S4 has clearly been designed to address, with Samsung's smartphone one of the first to market with built-in support for 4G/LTE networking. This technology is designed to eventually replace 3G as the standard for mobile data and offers significant advantages.
3G is capable of shifting up to 3 megabits of data per second (mbps) – which is generally fine for simple web browsing and even streaming video (if you are prepared to put up with low-quality images and some stuttering and buffering). What it can't do well is provide a reliable link for multiplayer gaming. Plus, big downloads can take a long time and a 3G device really needs to have the option of finding a Wi-Fi hotspot if you need to grab anything bigger than a few megabytes.
In comparison, 4G is capable of up to 100 mbps - comparable with the kind of speeds you get on your home or office broadband. 4G also has remarkably low latency compared to 3G - which means that the response time for a 4G data 'request' is very short (around 10ms).
Latency is a crucial factor for multiplayer gaming as the longer it takes for a server to get your data, the more likely it is your avatar will be on the receiving end of your opponent's hail of bullets or that you will smash a virtual car into a wall that your reflexes saw coming but couldn't make your phone tell the game about in time.
4G provision is still in its infancy in the UK with only major metropolitan areas currently receiving adequate coverage. Yet as more networks roll out transmitters and offer 4G packages to their customers, high-speed mobile networking will become the norm and smartphones such as the GALAXY S4 are right there, ready to play.
Simply having a fast phone with an expansive high def screen does not a successful gaming platform make. Samsung may have created a solid, high-performance device but without regular releases of great games to play it still wouldn’t necessarily appeal to gamers.
This is why Samsung is actively courting games developers and publishers, with EA’s Glenn Roland explaining that: "Samsung is a key partner for EA and we continue to work together to create exciting experiences for our fans. To point to a couple of recent examples, we showcased Need for Speed: Most Wanted on the S4 at our European launch event. In addition, we partnered with Samsung through our 100% Indie program, helping bring consumers even more new digital gaming experiences."
Many of the bigger developers creating games for Android are looking to the GALAXY S4 to try and exploit its capabilities, though it should also be stressed that Samsung is keen to nurture new ideas and establish a community of developers that share its ideas about the future of mobile gaming.
This is exactly why Samsung has lent its support to the aforementioned 100% Indie program - a self-publishing initiative put together by the founders of leading games publisher Chillingo. As well as developer tools and information packs, www.100percentindie.com provides both useful resources and an encouraging community to help promote the creation of S4-compatible games.
Developers can submit their games to 100% Indie via its portal where they will be checked and assessed by a team of testers to ensure they meet Samsung's app guidelines and standards.
Once a game is given the green light, Samsung has agreed to publish it through its mobile marketplace, Samsung Apps, which is available to users of the GALAXY S4 and other Samsung GALAXY devices via the built-in Samsung Apps icon. Samsung will pass on 100% of all revenues from games published in this way, until September 2013, giving new developers both a fresh market and a welcome cash injection to fund further creations.
The GALAXY S4 already looks set to be one of Samsung’s fastest selling smartphones and is likely to be the major Android mobile of this generation - putting cutting-edge gaming power in the palms of hundreds of thousands of gamers and helping to encourage innovation in mobile gaming.
Which is why the question on the lips of the most clued-up developers at this year’s E3 expo is not “can mobile games match console games?” but “can consoles ever catch up?”