Last week's release of a tenth anniversary edition of Grand Theft Auto 3 on mobile devices presents developers and publishers with brand new opportunities in exercising the power of their back catalogues, and demonstrates just how far portable technology has progressed. But can the classic games of yesteryear work effectively on the touchscreen-driven interfaces that have defined the new mobile era? And to put it bluntly, are these titles good enough to compete with current mobile games?
The response to Rockstar's mobile GTA3 offering has mostly been positive, but its release has generated some controversy. Some view it as a straightforward port that in no way challenges the best that portable gaming currently offers, and yet still struggles to maintain graphical integrity. Alternatively it's been viewed as conclusive affirmation that mobile gaming is slowly growing up - that the divide between home and mobile gaming is blurring, and that with small tweaks, complex content is perfectly at home on devices geared towards casual gaming.
Publishers and developers will be looking at what Rockstar has achieved with GTA3 on mobile, and wondering which of their own classics they can exhume from the archives.
Both assessments are equally valid: in many ways, the conversion is a little rough around the edges and the introduction of various shadow glitches, depth-sorting issues and ugly pop-in artifacts that we never saw on the decade-old versions are disappointing. But it's equally important to point out that this is more than just a PC conversion, featuring many of the enhancements Rockstar Vienna added to the original Xbox version of the game which appeared two years after the original release in October 2001.
Think about that for a second: an Xbox in your pocket, with a catalogue of potential games spanning an entire console generation. The ability to run games of that quality and complexity - and in high definition too, no less - is a compelling proposition, and all made possible through what we would assume is a relatively straightforward porting process. Also intriguing is that the developers appear to have used the flexibility of the original PC version of the GTA3 engine combined with their own modifications to make the game work on a variety of iOS and Android devices, with specific profiles in play that kick in according to the level of hardware you are using.
On the Android side of things, a user with a full-on Tegra 2-powered tablet gets a significantly superior level of visuals compared to, say, an Xperia Play gamer. With iOS, additional levels of detail are deployed on iPad 2 compared to the iPhone 4. It's an interesting example of how the effort developers put into making their PC games playable on varying levels of hardware continues to pay off with a whole new generation of hardware a decade later.
How do we know this? Well, remarkably, the core assets are mostly unchanged from the PC original, leading to many erstwhile GTA3 modders to come out of retirement to try their luck at improving Rockstar's work. A jailbroken iOS device is needed for this level of tweakery, but it seems that modifications to the game can be carried out on Android platforms without any kind of hacking. Industrious modders are already hard at work enabling features only iPad 2 owners get to see on their more lowly phones, and the settings they're adjusting are the ones they've been working with for years. Impressive work is appearing just days after the game's release.
Many developers will be looking at what Rockstar has achieved with GTA3 and wondering which of their own classics they can exhume from the archives. After all, the phenomenon of the HD remake is already providing plenty of revenue from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, so why not bring mobile into the equation? GTA3 demonstrates that games can't just be ported across with little thought given to the way in which they will be played on the mobile platforms. In this respect, the conversion has both its strengths and weaknesses.
If you look at the comparison movie above you'll see that the most striking difference between the mobile game and the circa-2003 Xbox conversion is the radically altered colour scheme. The hazy look to the visuals has been dispensed with, the development team coming up with a deeper, stronger and brighter colour scheme that better suits varying mobile configurations (screens, specifically). It's also an acknowledgement that these devices are used in a variety of environments; the original look simply wouldn't play particularly well outdoors, for example.
There have also been concessions to some of the more user-friendly enhancements made to the general gameplay experience in the decade since the game first launched. The original GTA3 never auto-saved - you had to return to your hideout to save your game, but it's a simple enhancement added to the new mobile version. Also, dying in a mission would see you teleported to the nearest hospital, necessitating an often long journey back to the mission restart point. For the portable conversion, Rockstar has thoughtfully included the option to retry the mission should you fail abysmally.
Re-purposing control schemes designed for console control pads is one of the major challenges facing developers looking to bring their back catalogue titles to mobile.
In terms of how the gameplay "works" in a mobile environment, where players often snatch the odd, convenient five minutes of action as opposed to planting themselves in front of the telly for hours on end, Rockstar is fortunate in that the GTA formula transitions across well without needing any fundamental changes - a state of affairs we first saw affirmed in 2005's excellent Liberty City Stories spin-off for PSP, a game so good it transitioned seamlessly back onto PS2. The city itself offers up a range of casual challenges, while the storyline missions are self-contained and can be polished off relatively quickly.
So far, so good. However, it's clear that the control scheme is contentious - and the crux of whether a console game will work on a mobile device all hinges on the viability of the interface. It's in this respect that GTA3 doesn't quite deliver. A touchscreen based virtual joystick moves the player and context-sensitive buttons appear on-screen according to the available options. For example, if you're near a vehicle, a door icon manifests allowing you to gain entry.
It's disappointing in this respect that Rockstar couldn't come up with a touch-orientated control scheme: why not tap NPCs to shoot them, touch cars to enter them, or tap on locations to run there? We have to assume that it would have been too much trouble to retrofit into the game, or it may simply be the case that Rockstar gave it a shot during development but felt that the result wasn't quite good enough to be rolled out in the final game.
This is the single-most important challenge game-makers will face in bringing their existing back-catalogue over to mobile devices. Sure, pre-existing controls are virtualy no problem to owners of PlayStation Vita or Xperia Play and while USB pad support for Android is obviously welcome, it obviously impacts on the viable of these games as truly mobile endeavours. In terms of how GTA3 turned out, the game is still playable, but there's an obvious level of friction between player and game caused by the control method which takes some time to overcome, particularly in the all-important driving sections. It's no accident that the most popular mobile titles - the likes of Infinity Blade, Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja and Flight Control - are those which play to the strengths of the touch-driven interface.
There's also the question of whether the majority of PS2-era games are actually good enough to work as modern day mobile products. In GTA3, Rockstar has a genuinely classic game - a release that defined a genre, with a storyline, characters and gameplay that remains hugely enjoyable in the modern era, working particularly well on the small screen. Having recently assessed titles like the Splinter Cell HD offerings, it's clear that many games are very much of their time and would require extensive work to be worthwhile: just the transition to "HD" alone won't cut it, especially in a market where the majority of screens are under four inches in size.
However, it is clear that triple-A development productions offer something very different and very desirable to the mobile market place. As it stands, the market is still dominated by concept-driven games - bite-sized for the most part and ultra-cheap to match - a breath of fresh air in many ways but obviously lacking the "meat" of content exhibited by titles like GTA3. There's clearly room in the market for both styles of game, and the fact that these games would have - we hope - paid for their own development costs during their original releases means that they can be offered with attractive price-points. Rockstar's GTA3 on iOS costs a mere £2.99/$3.99: it may be a ten-year-old game, but it still offers a phenomenal amount of value for money.