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From Snake to Tegra: the evolution of mobile phone gaming

The history of smartphone games traces the history of video games, albeit on a vastly accelerated timeline. It’s only been 14 years since the first real mobile breakthrough, when the Nokia 6610 arrived on the scene preloaded with the classic Snake. Now, with the rise of Tegra-powered devices, smartphones are capable of providing console-quality experiences. Little wonder, then, that Doom creator John Carmack – whose company id launched its much-anticipated shooter RAGE on iOS before its console release -says “it’s unquestionable that within a very short time, we’re going to have portable cell phones that are more powerful than the current-gen consoles”.

Tetris and Snake
The beginning came in 1994, with the earliest pre-installed mobile phone game – a version of Tetris on the Hagenuk MT-2000 (right, pict Handy Sammler). Yet it wasn’t until three years later that mobile phones had their first true hit. It might have been incredibly basic, but Snake’s appearance on the Nokia 6610 handset was a watershed moment for the industry. Seven additional updates later, this seminal title is estimated to have shipped 400 million copies. Its simplicity was its key to attracting a large audience of casual players and non-gamers. Suddenly, people were regularly using their phones for something other than making calls.


Like the film industry, mobile gaming’s early years were exclusively black and white. It wasn’t until four years later, when Nokia finally introduced colour screens that mobile gaming took its next technological leap forward. By this time, two of the giants of the industry had been established – JAMDAT Mobile and Ludigames were eventually swallowed up by EA and Gameloft respectively, but they dominated the smartphone game space during the early Noughties.

Wap and Java

The advent of Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) technology allowed devices to connect to the internet, another major step forward for the medium. As networking capabilities improved, simple board games like Connect Four saw some success, while in 2003, JAMDAT’s exceptional Bejewelled Multiplayer helped to bring match-three puzzling to the masses.

Another key development was the spread of the Java programming environment, with handsets like the hugely popular Nokia 3410 supporting Java games. In 2003, Nokia took an even bolder step as smartphones and gaming converged in the form of the N-Gage.

 

Widely ridiculed for its ‘taco’ design, the N-Gage was hardly a big success, but it was a product ahead of its time – the mobile technology of the era just wasn’t ready for such a concept. The fact that handheld consoles at the time offered both superior graphics and comfort meant it was all but ignored by gamers, while its unusual design made it undesirable as a phone.

Asphalt Urban GT to Doom RPG

By 2004, with mobile investment booming, publishers started to pour money into big-name licences. Games based on console titles (Driv3r) and films (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) became commonplace, as racing games became one of the most popular mobile game genres. Gameloft’s Asphalt Urban GT was the first major mobile racing franchise, while the same company’s Midnight Pool was also a critical and commercial success. Meanwhile, Downtown Texas Hold ‘Em took advantage of the card game’s popularity at the time, earning its developer a big-money deal from JAMDAT. UK publisher iFone’s range of titles based on classic computer and console games – including Amiga hit Lemmings and Atari’s V-Rally – helped it become the biggest mobile mover in this country.

Casual game giant Digital Chocolate, led by industry legend Trip Hawkins, was starting to make waves with games like the one-button skyscraper-builder Tower Bloxx – since updated for iPhone – while other developers learned how to make more traditional games work on a mobile format – Doom RPG being the perfect example, reworking the shooter classic to great acclaim in 2005.

The next major development wasn’t to happen for a couple of years, so in the meantime mobile publishers looked for ways to drum up interest in their games. Celebrity endorsements became more common, reaching their apotheosis in 2006, as a certain infamous socialite appeared at the Electronics Entertainment Expo to promote Paris Hilton’s Diamond Quest, a simple gem-matching puzzle game with Ms. Hilton’s presence awkwardly shoehorned in.

The iPhone’s arrival

Then, in 2007, the iPhone arrived and changed everything. An instant hit, its touchscreen interface offered new and accessible ways to play. However, it wasn’t until the launch of the App Store the following year that it gained traction as a gaming device. With users now able to purchase and download games much as they did with MP3’s on iTunes, it revolutionised game sales. Not only that, but smaller developers suddenly found a platform which cut out the middle man, allowing them to reach a wide audience without needing to find a publisher.

Doodle Jump was perhaps the App Store’s first big hit, as players attempted to guide an alien up an endless series of platforms without falling. But later that same year came the game which arguably defines the iOS experience: Angry Birds. The game’s simple physics puzzles catapulted small Finnish developer Rovio into the big league, as its product expanded from a simple game to a huge global brand. Since its release Angry Birds has clocked up over 42 million downloads, making it one of the biggest mobile success stories of all time.

Just as Angry Birds began its rise to ubiquity, an equally significant development was about to offer something more sophisticated for serious gamers. Epic’s Unreal Engine technology showed just how graphically capable Apple’s devices could be, and 2010’s Infinity Blade made good on that promise, offering a level of visual splendour that came close to console quality – and easily usurped Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PlayStation Portable. The most powerful portable gaming device was no longer a dedicated games console, but a smartphone.

Tegra

Yet despite Apple’s dominance of the market, its rivals are also at the vanguard of mobile gaming technology. Android devices containing NVIDIA’s Tegra architecture currently offer premium mobile experiences with some of the most advanced graphics on any portable device.


And there’s more to come – the capabilities of the new Kal-El quad-core superchip have been amply demonstrated in early images of Madfinger Games’ Shadowgun, the forthcoming third-person shooter offering graphics to rival anything on current HD consoles. Perhaps Carmack’s insistence that “two years from now, there will be mobile devices more powerful than what we’re doing all these fabulous games on right now” may happen even sooner than predicted.

Words: Chris Schilling

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