3D graphics add a new dimension to mobile games

By Nathan Eddy Put simply, three-dimensional games are critical to the future of the mobile game industry. Production and development studios are focusing their attention to 3D graphics that add richness and depth to the most standard mobile offerings. At the other end of the spectrum, groundbreaking technologies allow ambitious developers the ability to create a game experience on a level fast approaching portable console levels. Richer content often means higher development costs, and with some mobile games costing upwards of $500,000, maximizing investment through innovation and quality game production is a top concern for large and small developers alike. When it comes to consumers, 3D holds the unmistakable power to impress; a characteristic not lost on companies in the business. “You can’t deny if you look at a 3D game vs. a 2D game it looks more appealing,” says Don Wisniewski, senior vice president of publishing for Superscape. He estimates that Superscape’s portfolio is now 90 percent 3D games. “You could show two games to a novice and eight times out of 10 they’ll go with the 3D game,” he says. Using 3D wisely But all the crisp graphics and richly detailed worlds fall short if game play does not match up, Wisniewski says. “One of the problems I see with 3D is a lot of times it’s used just to show off the 3D capability of a product and doesn’t enhance the game.” Travis Boatman, EA Mobile’s vice president of worldwide studios, agrees. He argues that a disciplined focus on enhancing the user experience through 3D graphics is a crucial part of 3D mobile games. “It’s really knowing what you want to draw in 3D—picking your battles,” he says. “Really optimizing what you want to draw in 3D and then optimizing the game around it is important.” Optimizing file size, on the other hand, is becoming less of an issue as mobile phones increase storage capacity. “The challenge at the beginning was handset performance,” says Gonzague de Vallois, Gameloft's vice president of publishing. “3D graphics require a certain file size, but all the handsets today are powerful enough to handle it.” Boatman credits carriers such as Verizon and its VCAST brand for providing a consumer-identifiable benchmark of quality handsets. “Verizon’s idea of creating a benchmark for the premium quality gaming experience with VCAST was a great way of marketing those experiences,” he says. Special skills Making a 3D game is also more work than making a 2D game, and requires a development team with a particular set of skills. In the past, finding developers for mobile games hasn’t always been easy for companies, but that is changing. “Because its awareness is so high, and people are playing games so much more, we’re finding a lot of people who want to create these games,” Wisniewski says. “But making 3D mobile games requires a whole different skill set-- you can’t just take a [Nintendo] DS guy and put him into a 3D mobile game.” Indeed, de Vallois says finding the right people was Gameloft’s biggest challenge when developing 3D mobile games. “When we started to develop in 3D a few years ago we had to build all new teams,” he says. BREW is one of the tools that make mobile game development easier, de Vallois says. He labels BREW’s native coding capability as one of the “biggest advantages” in simplifying development. “It gives you better performance which is one of the key elements for 3D games,” he says. “We’ve been supporting 3D gaming on BREW from the beginning.” Wisniewski says some of BREW’s competitors fail to meet the quality standards Qualcomm has set and have “nowhere near” the level of testing or carrier reach. “BREW, with its backbone system, allows us to go to all these different carriers,” he says. “It’s all one shot, and it helps us maximize our return on investment. The BREW development network is one of the most polished set of tools we use to develop the product.” Costly choice No matter how streamlined the platform is, however, there is no denying that developing in 3D is costlier than making 2D games—and costs will continue to rise. “I think they’re going up, because we’re adding more levels, more environments, more characters, more of everything,” says Wisniewski. “When you’re adding that at the level required for a 3D artist your costs are going to go up.” Today, most 3D mobile games cost from $300,000 to $500,000, Wisniewski says, which can be a barrier to smaller developers. “At the same time, 3D gives you a leg up because it’s just so much more entertaining than 2D,” he says. “For the small guys who have innovative ideas, 3D can be a way to advance your product—and if you don’t take advantage of that, someone else will.” Both de Vallois and Boatman found the extra investment boosted returns. “Satisfaction from the 3D games is higher, which is reflected in the higher purchase rates from the handsets,” says de Vallois. “It shows a segment of the population is highly expecting of these games and highly satisfied with them.” Boatman says 3D games are “significantly more expensive” to develop than 2D games are, but like de Vallois notes “healthy returns” from market titles. As for the day when the million-dollar mobile game is commonplace? Boatman believes that while some million-dollar mobile games exist today, soon they will be more prevalent. The business case for BREW®-based 3D games will be discussed at the “Making Money With BREW 3D Games – A Publisher’s Perspective” panel on Thursday at 2:45 p.m.