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The future of mobile gaming

Replace the ‘of’ in the title above with ‘is’ and you’ve got an accurate picture of the views of the games industry’s movers and shakers. Mobile gaming is easily the fastest-growing sector in the industry, with publishers big and small bring existing brands to portable devices and creating brand new intellectual property to this blossoming market.

And if things look rosy at present, they’re set to get even more exciting in future, with several developments capable of transforming the way we play on the move. So here are six key factors set to influence the next few years of smartphone gaming.

HTML5

It’s now rare to find a website that isn’t optimised for viewing on a modern mobile, though mobile internet is still not all it could be. That should change with the advent of HTML5, which is partly geared towards more effective handling of multimedia web content without the need for plug-ins. Indeed, HTML5 is the reason Apple devices don’t support Flash, with Steve Jobs’ open letter last year claiming that the language was set to become the new standard compared with Adobe’s unstable and archaic platform, adding that it “will win on mobile devices (and PCs too).”
It isn’t hard to see how a more accessible language designed to run on all mobile devices could benefit gaming, particularly with consideration to cross-platform play, though PopCap’s Giordano Bruno Contestabile believes that until HTML5 is widely adopted and becomes a genuinely viable market, native apps will still be the standard delivery method for mobile games. “Adapting a game to a platform with a different input interface and screen size isn’t pain-free, as a new control method must be devised and implemented, and new art assets need to be created,” Contestabile explained.

Cross-platform play
As it gains traction, HTML5 should help enable cross-platform play, and indeed Aurora Feint has released a new beta for OpenFeint Connect, a new version of its mobile social gaming network that allows users of iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7 and Palm Pre devices to play together. Theoretically, developers wouldn’t need to program their games in HTML5 for this to work, with native titles for each platform able to communicate via OpenFeint Connect. It’s still very early days in the life of the new language, and any HTML5 games created so far compare poorly to their app-based counterparts. Yet cross-platform play is already possible with the likes of Zynga’s Mafia Wars Atlantic City, and it’s only a matter of time before developers and publishers find better ways to keep all their mobile customers connected, regardless of platform.

iOS 5.0
Without wishing to show favouritism towards any platform, it’s impossible to examine the future of mobile gaming without considering the impact of the fifth generation of Apple’s mobile devices. With the App Store holding close to a 60% market share, it’s undeniably the most potent force in mobile gaming at present – and as more and more apps are downloaded, it’s increasingly unlikely that iOS users will be prepared to switch platforms.
Even so, we can expect Apple’s next device to be something of a portable powerhouse, with talk of dual-core processors in the next model likely to bring it closer to the most capable Android handsets. As the favoured platform for the majority of the industry’s biggest publishers, all eyes will be on Apple to set the mobile gaming agenda – even if, with over 75 million iPhones already sold, it may be a while before we see exclusive titles that really take advantage of iOS 5.0’s capabilities.
 

Tegra 3
Apple may be the current portable platform of choice for app-makers, but the most technically-advanced devices on the market support the Android platform. And with Apple always keen to prioritise battery life, it could be that the disparity on the next generation of mobile devices is even more pronounced.

The introduction of the Tegra 3 (codenamed Kal-El) chipset will allow Android smartphones to run games with graphics of home console quality. The visually-dazzling third-person shooter Shadowgun is the first game announced to be supporting Kal-El, but should that be a success on Android, expect more of its ilk to follow. With Tegra 3 tablets likely to be available very soon, and phones to follow in the first quarter of next year, the gap between gaming at home and on the move could be almost invisible in six months’ time.

 

Freemium

One of the most significant App Store trends is the rise of the so-called ‘freemium’ model. This allows developers to release their games for free with a basic level of content, providing more by way of in-app purchases. In some cases, this takes the form of customisation, allowing users to personalise their game. In others, you’ll be able to use real-world money to increase your in-game currency, allowing you to buy extra weapons or abilities earlier than you would earn them through normal play, for example. Casual phenomenon Tiny Tower allows players to spend money on Tower Bux to expand their property, an idea that propelled it into the chart of top-grossing apps just weeks after its release. Freemium apps now total around 65% of revenue generated on the App Store, up from 39% just six months prior – suggesting it won’t be long until even the biggest publishers adopt a similar pricing model.

NFC
Near field communication is already paving the way to a credit card-free future, allowing mobile users to pay for purchases by waving their devices near (or tapping them against) compatible readers. And Angry Birds creator Rovio is now connecting the digital realm with the physical world with its NFC service Angry Birds Magic, which allows players to wave their devices over special stickers to unlock new secrets within the game. All Angry Birds merchandise will carry NFC incentives, like new bird types and additional levels.
Of course, not all phones are currently NFC-enabled. So while Angry Birds Magic will initially be only on Nokia’s phones, Rovio plans to have these new NFC capabilities available for all NFC-enabled devices soon. And so as not to alienate the millions of fans who’ve downloaded the game onto devices that don’t have NFC, you’ll also be able to unlock some of the Magic through GPS, not just via NFC-tagged products. Areas with NFC stickers will also carry their own individual leaderboards, allowing players to compare their best scores with others.

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