Unity predicts "diminishing returns" for mobile gaming tech

Next console generation will be the last, tools and workflows key to future progress

Unity Technologies co-founders David Helgason and Nicholas Francis believe that improvements in mobile hardware will soon yield diminishing returns for games.

Speaking to at Unite 11, Francis, the company's CCO, agreed that mobile technology is approaching the power of the current generation of consoles, but questioned how useful that will be for games.

"If Sony and Microsoft did the PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720, they would completely blow mobiles out of the water, and that's good if you want to make those big experiences," said Francis.

"But having something that's much more powerful than an Xbox in my cell-phone? What am I going to do with that? It's a small screen, I'm playing on the bus, everything is shaking, there's light coming in."

"With mobile, I can see a point in making them two or four times as powerful, but after that it's diminishing returns."

Francis also predicted that consoles will survive for one more generation, "and then that will be it."

This will place more emphasis on improving tools: making them more efficient for established developers, and more accessible to aspiring talent.

What doesn't go away is the need for great workflows - the ability to put in a lot of complex content into scenes," added Unity CEO David Helgason. "That may run out at some point, but we can think of so many ways we can improve that experience."

"We have already made it possible for like 10 times more people to approach game tools than before, and there's probably another 10 times more."

To read more of our interview with Francis and Helgason, along with a full exploration of Unity Technologies' current plans, visit the features section.

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Latest comments (21)

Scott Reismanis Founder, CEO, DBolical6 years ago
Isn't he missing the point, where the "mobile" becomes the console? I.e. while i'm on the move speed isn't that important, so run the processor at 50% to conserve battery power.

But when I get home, I want to wirelessly connect my mobile to my TV and play games via it in full HD, eliminating the need for a console altogether.
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Russell Watson Senior Designer, Born Ready Games6 years ago
Mr Helgason and Mr Francis havent seen the Motorola Atrix? Thats where I want phones to be headed, why have multiple devices? so much potential.
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David Helgason CEO & Co-founder, Unity Technologies6 years ago
@Russell:oh I've seen it. I kind of fell in love with the idea, but I'm very happy with my Macbook Air for now :)
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Show all comments (21)
Francisco Javier QA Engineering & Coordination, Saber Interactive Spain6 years ago
Portable Gaming systems will be there for some years to come. Cheaper than phones and more dedicated to children, I think that that both models will work forever. Also, I think that the Nintendo familiar experience is going to be present for a long time too. I don't see phones quitting a Wii like system from the living room. never will happen.
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee6 years ago
I have a Motorola Atrix funnily enough. It really brings home just how technology is not only evolving but converging. Using the phone as a web top connected to a TV via HDMI is a surreal experience and you realise just what mobile devices are becoming.

I think there is reasoning behind the continual evolution in mobile processing, graphics and memory resources. These devices are always on, always connected and fast becoming (if not already being) the primary computing/communication/internet platform people use on a daily basis. I also do believe deep, rich gaming experiences are possible and practical on a 4" display because I've experienced glimpses of those games already and the richness and clarity one can experience.

Of course, it's not only processing power that should increase, the software has to continue in the current trajectory as do tools.
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damir CEO, Big Blue Bubble6 years ago
What he is trying to say (nicely wrapped) is 'You don't need Unreal engine for mobile, you should rather license our tech.'
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Dean Calver Lead Programmer, Splash Damage Ltd6 years ago
This is just the usual "Everything is done" mantra that come along in most fields every now and again. When my mobile can project a 3D image swapping between real and NPR effortlessly, when I can play with speech or gestures, when the AI appears human and the network is faultless, then I might *just* start to be convinced.

Whilst its in Unity interest to promote that its "all" done soon and you just need to buy there tool set, the reality is far far from that. Half the ideas I have for games aren't doable on mobiles, PC or consoles yet, on any engines. All engines development tools are basic at best, the HW and technology is basic and anaemic, we are decades even from some games being doable due to technical constraints. Ironically things like art production are the easy part, we at least can follow trailblazing from other media (TV/Films). When it comes to AI, real-time renderers and game design we are making this up as we go along. For example AI having vision (actually rendering its view) is miles away from having the spare horsepower to implement and yet would open entire new doors of cognitive ability.
Even simple things like a game noticing that the ticket conductor is talking to me and pausing will take considerable compute power.

To be a middle ware provider you have to have a vision so that your customers have enough functionality to make great games on, if the middle ware's vision stops in a generation then a lot of game possibilities won't be made on that middle ware.
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Pete Thompson Editor 6 years ago
One persons views on how they'd like to see the market evolve!

Im not into mobile gaming at all, Ive played Angry birds and a few others and they hold my attention for about 5 minutes tops, the small screen and awful audio is not for me, I much prefer sitting at home infront of my huge 60" TV or the 3D projector while in comfort. I spend around 3-4 hours per night playing online with friends, my mobile is on silent.

"mobile technology is approaching the power of the current generation of consoles"

This is made to sound like its groundbreaking, yet the current Gen of consoles were launched in 2005 and 2006, The X360 was launched in 2005, so its using tech developed in 2004/2005, Is there any wonder that A4/A5 Dual Core mobiles are approaching that sort of power 6 plus years down the road? I doubt a mobile device can cope with the graphics requirement of modern PS3/X360 games though..

You'd also look kinda stupid playing a mobile version of a Kinect/ motion controlled game on a bus or train! ;-)

A small screen is less than ideal for serious gamers..

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Pete Thompson on 18th October 2011 3:16pm

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David Bachowski VP Business Development, Babaroga6 years ago
This is definitely a nicely worded sales pitch. As a mobile developer I've worked on a variety of games that either don't make use of the full hardware power (like a board game) or are sucking the device dry and wanting more (like bleeding edge 3d games). There is room for more power, and once we have that power we will find things to do with it. I've never seen a case where engineers or artists are entirely satisfied with a platform's capabilities.
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John Donnelly Quality Assurance 6 years ago
The main problem with mobile devices is power.
Not in processing power but the electric needed to keep them runing while doing the heavy lifting AAA level games need.

Batteries are still a weakness that will take more time to solve than making mobile hardware more powerful and sooner or later you wont be able to get the power requirements any lower so you need a way to keep things charged easily.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 6 years ago
+10 John. 3-5 hours or so is definitely lame for folks who want to play a decent RPG without worrying about making it home so we can get a battery top-up. That and as I keep saying: what the hell do you do when there's an internet screw up of some sort and your formerly smart mobile phone or device carrying all your games collection (with saves or other important data on the cloud) becomes an overpriced brick?

Also, as Francisco says, there's the kid factor. I've seen enough iPods, iPads, phones and other not so cheap devices dropped by children (and the looks on any adult faces in the vicinity is priceless), so until someone cooks up a cheap, kid-proof mobile all-in wonder device, I'd say Nintendo at least has a longer future in the portable market (provided they don't make any more mistakes)...

Besides, SOME of us old fogeys with cranky reflexes need our primary video gaming on a larger screen with proper controls more than we do ones on a tiny thing that needs to be coddled, tapped and tilted. But oh well, there's gone the neighborhood and it's destined to be diminishing returns for everyone unless the big three become content providers at some point over console constructors.

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Ioan Palalau Producer, Ubisoft Paris6 years ago
It's still to be determined if games can sell for an important enough ammount of money on the smartphones market, enough to legitimate big investements in projects that will take full use of the platform power and providing enough content for users to see the bang for buck.
The big 3D games are still not in the top ten of iOS apps (neither top paying apps or top grossing) so all that power is probably useful somewhere else.
I don;t think mobile phones will replace the Xbox and PS3 any time soon - they lack the controllers and are not designed for home entertainment. entertainment on the go is vastly different than what you get from home consoles entertainment.
As for handhelds vs mobile - I don't think the handhelds will ever recover the lost market share. Even for kids, a $199 ipod and $1 games (or free) is much more interesting than a console asking $40 for each game.
not to say that an iPod is much more than just a casual gaming device...
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Corey Skiffington Programmer/Scripter 6 years ago
I'd say the convergence we are more likely to see in the next generation is Console and Computer. Consoles that come with a wireless keyboard and touchpad or mouse. If HTML5 support is in the console's browser it might even knock a chunk out of Flashes 'net ubiquitousness.

There's also the fact that console gaming is often in a social setting where 2-4 friends sit on a couch and play together or in turn. That dynamic just doesn't work well with a mobile platform. There are ways around that of course.. split-screen on the tv showing multiple mirrored screens streamed wirelessly from mobile systems.. but with the high saturation of wifi these days I can't see that being a reliable multi-stream unless we get some new technology on that front like multiple swarm net linked nano devices embedded in ceiling paint.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Corey Skiffington on 18th October 2011 6:00pm

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William D. Volk CCO, PlayScreen6 years ago
First off, I suspect tablet based games are going to match today's console games in the near term.

As to phones, the augmented reality games can benefit from this processing power. It will be interesting to see if someone can pull off a great title in that space.
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Brennan Martin Studying Russian language and culture, University of Ottawa6 years ago
The big difference will be where the developers go, looking at franchises like Call of Duty, it's evident that the console market is still a huge force, of course mobiles will start to eat into it, but I think you'll see that mobiles eat into the console market like VCRs did to the Theatre market. People will still want to have their big experiences, and for that they'll want something connected to the big screen, and the talented developers associated with those experiences. I think smaller more niche titles could run on portable hardware, or perhaps there will be a convergence like having a PSVita like device with wireless HDTV integration.

Being a lifelong gamer, I don't want the big budget games to disappear, they're really pushing the medium forward, I think no matter how many copies of Angry birds are sold, there will still be a growing market for those big budget games, especially with casual gamers becoming more familiar with playing games as entertainment.
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Charles Babb Associate Project Manager / Producer, Sony Computer Entertainment6 years ago
The constant increase in processing power in our phone technology will only push toward making our lives completely mobile. I look forward to ending a phone conversation with a friend, picking up my wireless controller (maybe dropping my phone into my controller), and firing up a game from my phone to my television to join my friend in a multiplayer game while inviting our mutual friends, who own the game, to join the game or spectate. Then, saving to my phone and having the ability to resume gameplay while in transit or at someone else's house.

I believe convergence will happen not only with our digital entertainment sources (portables, phones, television, digital music players, consoles, and computers), we will also see it happen between our social circles and activities. The next generation will bring us closer to centralizing our digital entertainment hub while keeping us connected to all the people, places, and things that we love.
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Kieren Bloomfield Software Engineer, EA Sports6 years ago
Well maybe I'm being plain stubborn but I think that just because mobile phones can play games doesn't mean they have to become someones primary gaming platform. I can never see a day when my phone replaces my home gaming console (even if I can plug in controllers and a TV). Here's why; the lifespan of a phone just isn't compatible with gaming hardware or other home electronics for that matter. New phones come out with alarming regularity and people get deals on whatever phone contracts they're on to get one. Just look at how many iterations of the iPhone we've already had. When to compare the cost of these devices to their lifespan they make an appalling value proposition. I'd rather be spending the money on a box that plugs into my TV than I know will be supported for 5+ years. What happens when you upgrade? What happens when you switch from iOS to Android? Will you be able to keep your old phone running to play older games? Convergence, no thank you!
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Adam Saslow Executive Producer, NT7 Games6 years ago
Yes, tablets and smart phones will match the hardware capability of previous generation consoles soon. The barriers to turning the console market into a thing of the past are a combination of solvable technical issues
coupled with more complicated business / production issues. Here's my list:

- Poor battery performance in the field

- Lack of seamless mobility (an old Motorola term) between mobile and home (i.e. - a docking station)

- Lack of haptic controls (Sorry folks, customers are not going to be happy playing Call of Duty on a touchscreen). I've heard no non-suction-cup solution to this problem.

- Developers like working on unified hardware. Semi-unified hardware architecture only begins to exist on iOS devices. Android phones' hardware is across the board, but the devices all share the same mobile application store.

- Lack of interest by the giants to put giant titles on platforms where the mean price is $0.99 (or free at this point!), and lack of desire by publishers to figure out how to make money on current console IP's in a freemium / in-app purchase / ad-supported format... If this is possible at all.

-Best Buy, GameStop, etc. will not sit idly by as their retail business is destroyed by digital distribution. The existing and lucrative relationships publishers currently enjoy with retailers is a barrier, as well.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adam Saslow on 18th October 2011 6:23pm

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Majd Abdulqadir6 years ago
"This will place more emphasis on improving tools: making them more efficient for established developers, and more accessible to aspiring talent. " -Francis

That's the main point here. Unity is so powerful not because of tech, but because of its workflow.
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Bill McIntosh Managing Director, Torus Games6 years ago
As soon as anyone achieves in our industry either by luck or design, they're immediately thrown up on a throne and they are asked to provide oracle like wisdom about how things will shape up in the future.
It's ridiculous to say that anything is the last of anything. The last first person shooter has not been written, neither has the last driving game. The big companies that rule the world at the moment will not rule the world in the future. The last console platform has not been released. The future is a very long time and things are changing and evolving. Nobody knows what the paradigms will be in 5 years never mind 50 years. The pseudo oracles can't help you.
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Raphael Meillat market research consultant 6 years ago
Some of this article's statements are shortcuts. Good for provocative headlines. However, it does raise some intereting points:
- technology cycles for home consoles are too slow. A refresh every 7-8 years is tough given how fast we get updated/better smartphones and tablets.
- Portable consoles don't update their processing power frequently enough either. Look at the generation gap between PSP and Vita! (PSP 2000 and 3000 hardly count!)
- How can the big 3 electonics players find a way to recoup R&D costs while updating their hardware capabilities more frequently?
- Can smartphone gaming success hurt core gaming enough to raise serious questions about the viability of AAA titles?
Those are tough questions the industry will need to face sooner rather than later.
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