Are games becoming the killer app for tablet manufacturers?

by John Gaudiosi

March 9 2012

The 2012 Game Developers Conference offeres up ample proof that 'hardcore' video games will play a more pivotal role in the success of tablet sales.

Coincidence or not? Apple's new iPad launch on March 7 was held right across the street from GDC 2012.

Not surprisingly given the location, Apple's big reveal offered further proof that games are increasingly considered killer apps for tablet devices.

At the halfway mark of the iPad event, Apple brought Epic Games on stage to introduce and demonstrate Infinity Blade: Dungeons, the next game in the highly popular and critically acclaimed series. 

Just next door to Apple’s press conference was the Game Developers Conference (GDC 2012), where tablets and the rise of mobile gaming was a major topic yet again.

Intel, NVIDIA, Google and Qualcomm were out in force to attract new developers and promote the latest chips and processors that are enabling game makers to create more console-like interactive experiences on tablet devices.

“We already see gaming playing a significant role, as games continues to be one of the most popular categories in Android Market,” said Jamie Rosenberg, Director of Digital Content, Android. “The game developer community has a track record of matching innovation in hardware capability with innovation in the gaming experience -- it's a great dynamic for consumers."

An Epic opportunity

Epic Games is leveraging the burgeoning tablet market to extend the reach of its already popular Unreal Engine 3 technology. This engine has enabled the independent game studio to sell licenses to big studios and to offer more affordable, and even free, technology to small developers and aspiring game makers.

“One of the constants for any technology developer or studio that you need to continue to adjust to is the idea of change,” said Cliff Bleszinski, design director, Epic Games.

“Technology is constantly morphing, and evolving on a regular basis. When you look at the recent rise of tablet gaming, our efforts with games like Infinity Blade and Infinity Blade: Dungeons have changed dramatically in order to tap into that new market."

Bleszinski says that "Epic has changed dramatically from its beginnings as a small shop in Tim Sweeney’s basement to a virtual office all over the world, to ultimately consolidating in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we have approximately 160 people, as well as subsidiaries in Shanghai, Poland and Utah.”

NVIDIA's goal: games for hard-core gamers

NVIDIA used GDC to show off the latest wave of Tegra 3 games coming to quad-core tablets like the LG Optimus 4X HD and the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime.

“There will be many more choices in how users can experience high quality gaming,” said Keita Iida, director of global content management at NVIDIA. “The majority of new Tegra phones will support resolutions of 720p and beyond, and tablets with 19x10 resolutions (and higher) will be available soon. Combine that with game controller support and HDMI, and gamers will truly have devices that can be enjoyed anywhere….without compromise.”

Sega was one of several game makers on hand to demonstrate new Tegra 3 gaming experiences for tablets. The game publisher showcased its new May release, Sonic the Hedgehog: Episode 2.

“The Tegra 3 chip allowed us to bring over high resolution artwork from the console version of the game,” said David Zemke director of mobile business at Sega of America. “And the quad-core processing enabled us to run both the graphics processing and game processing at a high speed. We use 90% of chip because for Sonic game speed is important. Gamers will be able to see that these backgrounds are high resolution and Sonic’s animation is a lot clearer than in previous mobile iterations.”

Sony Computer Entertainment has been differentiating its new PlayStation Vita portable gaming device by touting deep and engaging console-quality games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and WipeOut 2048.

But the tablets are quickly catching up. Tegra 3 games like November Entertainment’s cooperative action Golden Arrow THD and GOGN Entertainment’s role-playing game Dark Kingdom THD demonstrate that the gap is narrowing, not just visually, but in the core depth of gameplay.

CPU wars will also open up opportunities for game developers

Competition between NVIDIA, which is already readying Tegra 4 for deployment later this year, Intel, and Qualcomm is opening up new opportunities for developers.

Qualcomm showcased its new S4 Snapdragon technology at GDC, which will be available on several tablet/smartphone hybrids including Panasonic's Eluga Power, Asus' Padfone and the HTC One Series. The chipmaker used brand new games like The Reem, Reign of Amira, The Ball and Virtua Tennis Challenge at GDC to demonstrate the capabilities of its new mobile chip.

“We believe we are already at console-quality level with games,” said Raj Talluri, vice president of product management at Qualcomm. “Our gaming and graphics engineers walk into work every day with the goal of building platforms that can deliver a console gaming experience.

"Mobile graphics technology has come a long way in a short period of time," he continued. "The intention is for smartphones and tablets to emerge as an all-in-one entertainment device – encompassing the qualities of several different gaming consoles experiences as well.”

Although late to the mobile game, Intel has consistently spent a considerable amount of time and energy pushing PC gaming. Now the company hopes to do the same in the portable space, which itself is evolving for cross-platform gaming experiences.

“The most exciting thing occurring here is that gamers are able to stay connected to their games in ways that was never previously possible,” said Intel Graphics Planner Matt Ployhar. “So the ability to communicate, connect, and share those gaming experiences is only going to get increasingly more immersive over time. Smartphones and tablets are opening up new horizons on the gaming front that we’re only beginning to scratch the surface on.”

What's in store in 2013 and beyond?

PJ McNealy, videogame analyst at Digital World Research, believes the introduction of the new quad-core iPad and the next wave of Android tablets will usher in even more immersive gaming experiences.

“We've seen new technologies become part of the gaming experience, such as accelerometers and gyroscopes,” said McNealy. “The next wave is sensor bars, driven by built-in cameras. We haven't seen many tablets yet take advantage of built-in cameras, or voice response, but my gut feel is the camera-driven wave is next for mobile gaming.”

Tablets have already crippled the portable gaming space and analysts like Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities believes consoles are the next target. More game makers who previously focused their business on PC and console games are now on board for the mobile evolution. American McGee has three new games debuting this year for tablets, including a Tegra 3 dungeon crawl experience optimized for NVIDIA hardware.

“I moved to Shanghai seven years ago because I saw the future of games there,” said McGee, who heads up Spicy Horse. “Free-to-play is blending nicely with the new wave of tablet devices that we’re seeing.”

McGee, like many independent development studios, likes the ability to create games quickly for tablets, and in the free-to-play space, continue to tweak the gameplay experience based on player feedback.

At GDC 2012, the feedback from game makers, and the industry, is that tablets are here to stay.

Perhaps even more importantly, this new platform offers an abundance of business opportunities on an even playing ground. It’s not just the big publishers that are poised to cash in on this new wave of innovation.

John Gaudiosi has been covering the videogame industry for 20 years for outlets like Reuters, The Washington Post, Forbes and The Hollywood Reporter

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