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Racing Ahead: The Rise Of Triple-A Mobile Games

CSR Racing's $12m iOS success is a welcome sign and a warning, writes Johnny Minkley

Two figures worthy of a 'Number Crunching' entry in British satirical magazine Private Eye popped up last week: £8.18m - the lowest week's revenue ever recorded in the UK for boxed games sales. $12m - the revenue generated by free-to-play iOS title CSR Racing in its first month.

While excuses were sought for the High Street's miserable performance - from the summer software drought, to the Olympics - that hasn't stopped consumers throwing easier-to-justify sums at Apple hand-over-fist.

And while we're on the subject of uncomfortable parallels for the Old Industry, as tensions between the games media and console games makers run high (from Borderland 2's 'Girlfriend Mode' debacle, to the Assassin's Creed III creative director's ill-considered allegations of "subtle racism"), sales of NaturalMotion's title have soared without the slightest need for in-depth developer interviews or magazine covers.

As the new age of gaming flies, the old era flounders as everyone fights amongst themselves. I'm over-simplifying, clearly, but the contrasts are striking nonetheless.

"As the new age of gaming flies, the old era flounders as everyone fights amongst themselves."

What's interesting about CSR's success is that it backs the point NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil made at last month's Game Horizon conference, where he argued that the way to stand out in the mobile space today is by insisting on console-quality production values.

This was intended as a positive message to veteran games developers: your expertise and investment in technology gives you an edge. And CSR is the proof - developed by Boss Alien, a studio formed from the ashes of cutting-edge console racing game maker Black Rock.

We've all seen what Epic has achieved with Infinity Blade and its sequel, probably the most recognisably 'triple-A' experiences on iOS. As a cosy tech bedfellow of all hardware manufacturers in the games space, Epic generally gets in there early - as evidenced by the huge exposure it received from Apple for Epic Citadel, its Unreal Engine iOS demo.

But with the latest mobile hardware capable of serious graphical performance - iterating ever upwards at a rate alien to the console business - more and more developers with the means are going to town on those tiny screens.

As my learned colleague Rich Leadbetter suggested in his piece on what to expect from iPhone 5, "within the next 12 months mobile graphics technology will finally catch up with the capabilities of the current-gen consoles."

The thing is, to most consumers it already looks like it has. And when the games are starting to look as good as EA's Real Racing 3 on iOS, it's little wonder. So the question then becomes: as mobile games begin to match triple-A console games in performance, will they attract more of the creators of them?

" So the question then becomes: as mobile games begin to match triple-A console games in performance, will they attract more of the creators of them? "

I was among the 1,200-strong crowd in Cologne last week for Sony's Gamescom press conference. And I gasped along with everyone else as Media Molecule's Alex Evans treated us to a superb demo of the enchanting Tearaway, the studio's new, Vita-exclusive IP.

But I might have gasped as well at the revelation that one of Sony's top studios was working on the portable platform. After all, Uncharted was handled not by Naughty Dog, but Bend; Resistance: Burning Skies by Nihilistic, not Insomniac; and still to come: Killzone: Mercenaries by Sony Cambridge, not Guerrilla; and Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified by Nihilistic, not Treyarch.

Now, considering PlayStation Vita is the most versatile gaming device ever created, and one of its main USP's was the promise of home console-style gaming without compromise, isn't it funny how many leading creators seem uninterested in making games for it? It's the PSP problem repeating itself, second stick or not.

Well, okay, it's not that funny. There's the resource-sapping lure of the next gen, naturally, but the commercial reality cannot be ignored, either: as strong as Sony's Gamescom content offering was, success remains far from assured for its handheld. And in being reluctant to truly commit to the platform, the creators of gaming's biggest franchises are simultaneously hurting its prospects by effectively making it less likely others will.

No such concerns with smartphones. "But you'll never be able to do proper games on a phone," the hardcore perpetually sneer. To which I say, why does triple-A gaming require a controller, or a mouse and keyboard for that matter? Where's the stone tablet with the words "Thou shalt point thy reticule with the right stick" angrily chiseled into it?

"While I cannot see - nor do I wish to imagine - a near-future in which I can't play deep, complex games using a controller, I can envisage one in which that becomes an increasingly specialised niche."

I was rather taken with an analogy made by Denki's Colin Anderson during a BAFTA panel in Dundee last week. Explaining why he believed consoles wouldn't be a mainstream proposition in a generation or two's time, he highlighted the plight of the arcade business: once home console tech caught up, to survive and thrive coin-ops all became super-specialised, bespoke contraptions.

While I cannot see - nor do I wish to imagine - a near-future in which I can't play deep, complex games using a controller, I can envisage one in which that becomes an increasingly specialised niche.

That's not going to happen tomorrow, and as the calamities befalling the OnLive business over the weekend have shown, we're not ready for all the future has to offer just yet.

PlayStation 4 and Xbox Whatever-It's-Called will be unveiled next year to great fanfare, and the games will look marvelous; but behind the beaming smiles on stage, there'll be serious fears about the road ahead - fears that no-one felt when the leap to HD was made.

"It's going to much more about creativity, much more about visual quality and obviously about gameplay, and we think that we have a head start on this because we started that sometime earlier," NaturalMotion's Reil told this site last week, discussing what he called "wave two of mobile social games".

And as the debate over the future of consoles rages on, high-end mobile titles such as CSR Racing will quietly continue to make a fortune.

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Johnny Minkley

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Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.

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