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Will Tablet Game Quality Soon Leapfrog Consoles?

Just as console gaming caught up to and overtook PC gaming, there are strong indications that tablets could be the next big gaming platform -- at least until the next-gen consoles reveal themselves.

Just as console gaming caught up to and overtook traditional PC gaming, there are strong indications that tablets could be the next big gaming platform -- at least until the next-gen consoles reveal themselves.

Indeed, according to Gartner, worldwide sales of media tablets (iPads and Androids) rose from 17.6 million in 2010 to 63.6 million in 2011 and are expected to grow to 103.5 million this year and to 326.3 million in 2015.

And tech providers -- like mobile graphics provider Nvidia and engine provider Unity Technologies -- are doing all they can to supply developers with whatever they need to create games that challenge AAA console titles head-on -- as evidenced by some of the demos at the recent CES show.

"There's no doubt that we have under-utilized technology in the tablet space," says Ben Cousins, general manager of mobile developer Ngmoco Sweden.

"With the iPad 2 and some of the more powerful Android tablets, we've got devices that are approaching the power of the current generation of HD consoles -- and probably surpassing the Wii.

"I am convinced that this calendar year we will see tablets that match the power of the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360... especially with the proposed power of the iPad 3 and with some of the upcoming chips from the big Android device chip makers."

Cousins also believes that, in addition to comparable horsepower, tablet games will run at higher screen resolutions -- exceeding 720p -- which is higher than many of today's HD console titles.

But in order to take on console games, developers need to stop making tablet games that are merely ports or HD versions of smartphone titles, he advises.

His research reveals tablets have completely different usage patterns than smartphones despite the fact that they run on the same OS and are made by the same manufacturers. Which is why their games need to be more like console or PC titles, he says.

"Tablet games need to be more involving, like console games... they need to serve customers who are using the device for longer periods of time than smartphones... they need to be adapted to their bigger screens, like console games... and they need to be more entertaining for longer, evening play periods, like console games," he explains.

"Unlike with a smartphone, based on the usage patterns we've seen from consumers, it's completely conceivable to have a fully immersive experience on a tablet akin to an Uncharted or a Skyrim."


It would be a mistake, however, to completely copy console games onto tablets, Cousins warns. Developers need to take advantage of tablets' continuous connectivity, their unique touchscreen-based control systems, their integrated features like push notifications, the freemium business model, and the "ultra-convenience" of being able to get software at the app stores. He doesn't see any of the current game consoles competing with the app stores in terms of their wide variety of freemium content and their ease of use of downloading and installing games.

"When I say tablet games ought to be like console games, I mean their graphics, their storyline, and their immersive multiplayer designs," he says.

Where tablets really shine is their "micro-convenience," according to Cousins, which includes not only their portability but the fact that they are usually nearby and are always on "standby."

"Even though my console isn't too far away -- right under my TV -- I need to interrupt my TV viewing to use it, I have to take 30 seconds or so to turn it on, sometimes I have to download a firmware update, and I have to reach over and pick up a controller," he says.

"My tablet is next to me on the sofa a lot of the time and, to play a game on it, I simply have to pick it up. I think these levels of increased micro-convenience actually do push consumer usage patterns more than people would expect."

He intends to discuss these topics when he gives his talk -- entitled "When the Consoles Die -- What Comes Next?" -- at GDC 2012.

Meanwhile, Cousins says the current strategy at Ngmoco Sweden is to examine how to make games that are playable on both smartphones and tablets. Gamers will be able to play a very high-end version on their tablet's big screen and then, when they're on the move, the title will "keep them engaged with the fiction and keep them involved with the community through their phone," says Cousins.

"I'm not talking about one of these kinds of meaningless social media apps that some console games add onto smartphones. I'm talking about extending the game so that it's playable on both platforms. Some aspects of the game will be more fun on tablet and some more appropriate to be played on phone."

He expects to announce more about the game -- which will launch later this year -- in coming months.

If, as Cousins says, tablet games are destined to overtake the popularity of console games, how quickly will that happen?

The timeline, he predicts, depends on what hardware manufacturers are able to deliver for the next generation of consoles -- and how aggressive chipset manufacturers are in terms of increasing the power of the chips in smartphones and tablets.

The fact is chipset manufacturers -- like Nvidia -- are being extremely aggressive in supporting the tablet makers, says Nick Stam, the company's director of technical marketing.

For example, Nvidia's most recent processor -- the Tegra 3, which was released in November -- powers such Android tablets as the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime and the Acer Iconia.

"I don't think tablets are in 'replacement mode' quite yet," he says, "but I think that, down the road -- perhaps in two years -- we will absolutely see tablets matching or even exceeding the performance of existing consoles."

Specifically, he says that the next-generation Tegra processor -- known as the "Wayne," which is scheduled for release this year -- "will be much closer to PlayStation 3 level. Then our next processor after that -- the 'Logan' -- will absolutely have power that is neck and neck with today's consoles."

The Wayne is expected to be about 10 times faster than the Tegra 2, which was unveiled in 2010; the Logan, scheduled for release in 2013, about 50 times faster than the Tegra 2.

"We're at the point where tablet games look console quality, but the consoles still have more horsepower," he explains. "I think next year we're going to be really close to true console equivalency. And then, the year after that, we may even surpass the current console generation. As for the next generation of consoles, there's no way to predict what they'll be like or how tablets will compare. I can't make any forecasts there."

"We're talking about tiny processors here that consume less than just a few watts of power," says Stam, "so they don't have the true horsepower of a higher-end system, of course. But by intelligently utilizing a combination of CPUs and the GPU cores that we have in these devices, we can provide a pretty amazing-looking experience on mobile platforms."

He cites as an example developer MadFinger's Shadowgun, a third-person shooter that "allows gamers to walk around in a nicely textured environment with great lighting, physical effects, and explosions that look phenomenal."


To enhance the tablet games to create a "console-class experience," Nvidia has worked with developers "to bring several cool features," says Sridhar Ramaswamy, senior technical marketing manager for Tegra. "You can just hook up any console controller -- or even a generic USB game pad -- to your tablet and play as if you were on a console. In addition, if you have a 3D TV, you can connect your tablet to the set, put on your glasses, and enjoy the game in 3D. We've even added up to eight player support for internet online multiplayer gaming."

Meanwhile, Unity Technologies also likes to point to Shadowgun, as well as Luma Arcade's upcoming sci-fi western Bladeslinger, as titles that "are approaching console quality" and are authored with Unity's game engine, says Oren Tversky, VP of business development at Union, Unity's content group. He recalls that Unity "worked very closely with both developers to add a lot of triple-A features to enable these types of experiences on mobile."

Indeed, Unity's forecast seems to be identical to Nvidia's -- "from a processing power standpoint, in about a year or a year and a half's time," says Tversky, we will see tablets -- either iPad or Android or both -- that are on par with today's consoles. And various middleware solutions, like ours, will help enable that market."

But the next generation of consoles, he says, "will certainly leapfrog the state-of-the-art on tablets... but then I wouldn't be surprised if a year or two later, the tablets catch up and exceed the best that consoles can do."

But who will develop these next generation tablet hits?

"I think each has its own set of advantages," Tversky explains. "The console guys have the triple-A production values background, while the mobile guys probably know how to monetize a bit better on tablets."

Ngmoco Sweden's Cousins observes that there are lots of tablet opportunities for developers, especially those who have console game experience.

"These days, it's almost impossible for a new or mid-range developer to enter the console space," he says. "There are very few games being signed up, certainly for the current gen consoles, and not many being signed up for the next gen consoles as far as I'm aware."

"So that's why I think many of the traditional console developers are very interested in the tablet space where it's easy to transfer their skills, there are opportunities to show off graphics, and there is less learning how to deal with the smaller screen real estate than there is in smartphone games. I have quite a few developer friends who are interested in tablets," he notes, "and are looking forward to riding the wave as the platform rapidly increases in performance."

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