Qualcomm: "We're never going to build a chip that's faster than a console"
Mike Yuen calls for mobile devs to look beyond touch, and sees a bright future for Android-based big-screen gaming
The market-leading mobile chip manufacturer Qualcomm sees comparisons between the performance of consoles and smartphones as misleading - not only will smartphones never truly rival the power of a console, but mobile developers who place such importance on power may be investing their efforts in the wrong place.
Speaking to GamesIndustry International at the Unite conference in August, Qualcomm's Mike Yuen placed the progress the company has made with its Snapdragon 800 series processors in context. Phones and tablets featuring Qualcomm's 800 chips will start to hit the market this year, and they will be twice as fast as the now ubiquitous Snapdragon 600 series devices.
"The underlying technology will be there, but that doesn't mean that the games we create on mobile devices will necessarily be replications of console games"
However, Yuen, senior director of business development for Snapdragon Gaming, believes the ongoing debate comparing the performance of consoles to that of smartphones and tablets is misplaced. In terms of speed and power, the console companies will always have the upper hand.
"At some point there is a limit [for mobile devices]," Yuen says. "We're never going to build a chip that's faster than a console - in the truest sense."
The notion that smartphone and tablet technology could eventually surpass consoles has been seriously considered by a number of prominent figures in the games industry - most famously by id Software's John Carmack. But while Yuen believes that there will be processors in Snapdragon's 800 series that will be able to do, "anything you can do on Xbox 360" - and Qualcomm has spent $14 billion on R&D over the last five years to reach that point - concentrating on that aspect of hardware performance misses the unique strengths of a mobile platform.
"I think what's really interesting is that the underlying technology will be there, but that doesn't mean that the games and experiences and designs we create on mobile devices will necessarily be replications of console games," he says.
"The experiences will be different. The underlying technology will be there in hundreds of millions of devices, and that will increase each year. It's just that, as a developer, I don't think the intention is, 'I'm going to build a Blu-ray disc's worth of game on a mobile phone.' That just doesn't make sense."
Indeed, Yuen sees a great scope for progress in the way mobile games are designed, even on more rudimentary devices. The average modern smartphone or tablet has more inputs and features suitable for gameplay than perhaps any hardware in history, and yet the overwhelming majority of developers are focusing on touch alone.
"I hate to say it but, to a great extent, a lot of game development is a herd mentality - 'Let's go and make one like that'," says Yuen, who has worked for, founded, and served on the boards of numerous game developers in his 25 year career.
"There haven't really been games that showcase other inputs than touch. It's just a matter of time before something breaks through, but those things are harder to crack"
"There haven't really been games that showcase other inputs than touch. Cut The Rope, Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds - from a design perspective, there are examples where developers have really figured touch out. All those other things - whether it's sensors, gyros, voice, location, biometrics - we haven't seen that yet. It's just a matter of time before something breaks through, but those things are harder to crack."
However, as much as Yuen regards console and mobile as separate concerns, he is clear about Qualcomm's interest in supporting big-screen gaming through smartphones and tablets. Around half of all Snapdragon devices are based on 600 and 800 series chips, and when you consider that the 800 series has yet to even hit retail it gives a strong sense of where Qualcomm's priorities lie. Indeed, Yuen cites Snapdragon powered televisions as one of the key potential growth areas for the company over the next few years.
And Yuen has experience in that area - somewhat bitter experience, certainly, but experience nonetheless. In 2009, Yuen actually left Qualcomm to co-found Zeebo: a budget-priced 3G console, back by Qualcomm Ventures, aimed at emerging markets like those is Latin America and South East Asia. It was the evolution of a concept he been instrumental in developing while working at Qualcomm: in short, big-screen gaming on a television with nothing more than a phone and a controller.
Due to a lack of standardisation in the way smartphones could connect to TVs back in 2009, the focus of the concept necessarily shifted from a phone to a more conventional, console-style box. It was just one of many problems that Zeebo eventually faced, some of which were associated with how progressive the concept was for the time, and all of which Yuen declines to explain.
"The original idea was that you just carry your phone, and if you have a chip that's powerful enough just plug it in - with a Bluetooth game-pad or whatever - to the TV. And you could turn that over every one or two years with a new device and a new contract, and you just keep upping your power without the need for a box. There's a possibility of that happening in the future. That still hasn't happened yet.
"With Zeebo, we were early and maybe tapped the wrong markets, but it's interesting that all of these people are trying the same thing - whether they're console companies or a Chinese TV manufacturer."
Nevertheless, big-screen gaming through a mobile device remains a deceptively hard-sell for the mass audience. The end result is certainly a seductive prospect for casual gamers, but building the knowledge and confidence within that sort of consumer poses some very real challenges. It requires an understanding of these technologies that the vast majority of people who own them do not possess. For the most part, people are still happy to simply plug in a dedicated box or client - a belief shared by companies like Ouya and Gamestick. Using a mobile phone and Wifi may, in fact, be easier, but to the layperson it doesn't sound easier.
"I don't think it's very clear yet on how that's going to work," Yuen concedes, "but there's a bunch of themes and trends all pushing in that direction, and from every angle. Whether it will be this, or smart TV, or a box, there's just a lot of pushing towards getting games on a big screen with a gamepad.
"This idea of an Android-based console - whatever that ultimately looks like - it's coming. It may not fully disrupt the console business, but I don't think it's going away."