Girl playing a video game on a cellphone2011 was a banner year for mobile gaming. We’re now seeing 60 percent of smartphone users regularly playing games on their devices and surveys indicate that number will only increase. That’s a remarkable achievement considering only 18 percent of gamers played on mobile devices in 2009.

Mobile game development has also transitioned, from niche hobby to lucrative profession. While developers continue to push the boundaries of mobile gaming, the industry must consider the business imperatives affecting the evolution of this dynamic marketplace. As it does so, companies will have to address three distinct challenges:

Console vs. mobile

Technology hurdles that once prevented mobile gaming from rivaling console gaming are gone. Battery life, formerly a huge hurdle for mobile devices, is less of an issue now, although there will always be trade-offs around how and where the best gaming experiences are delivered. Advanced mobile technologies are offering better power performance for longer play as well as new innovations, all of which can match the console online experience. This raises the question of whether the next-generation gamer will need to buy a dedicated gaming machine at all, if their mobile devices can match the console experience.

At the same time, visionary companies are taking mobile gaming to uncharted places. Take vision-based augmented reality (AR), which superimposes 3D graphics on real world objects and landscapes to create immersive 3D games that combine real and virtual worlds. The mobile technology in this area is advancing and bringing brand new gaming experiences to life. Imagine the camera in your smartphone being able to recognize the objects you see and provide information in real time that would be useful to you as you moved around. Companies doing research in AR for mobile are working on the technologies to make that possible — and it’s something that you can’t do at all in the traditional console world.

The LTE revolution

Next-generation 4G networks are winning points with consumers as game developers harness bigger, faster pipelines in new and creative ways. The industry-leading 4G standard is now Long Term Evolution, or LTE, and it’s enabling a whole new kind of mobile game.

For example, Gameloft (a Qualcomm partner) will soon release Modern Combat 3, an exclusive game that is one of the first massively multiplayer on-line (MMO) mobile games to take advantage of LTE’s bandwidth and low latency. LTE opens the door to MMO games for more powerful mobile gaming experiences. That’s exciting for the millions of players seeking to replicate the intensity of online console gaming on their mobile devices.

LTE’s main game development challenge is production expense: It costs more to make an LTE game, with its richer graphics and larger amounts of data, than a game meant for a lower-bandwidth connection. While LTE is quickly expanding in the U.S., it needs broader penetration to become a profitable and viable option. Until then, games made for LTE will be slow in coming to market, especially from smaller game developers.

The solution? An ongoing commitment from the mobile industry to double down on proliferating LTE on a global scale. As the networks become universal and more LTE-enabled devices come to market, it will make economic sense for developers to commit to the technological investment. Mobile enablers and carriers can help set the table for their game developer partners and bring more LTE games to life by driving LTE access and adoption.

Getting graphic

Mobile graphics innovation is at an all-time high. Enhanced graphics processing units (GPUs) make it possible for consumers to enjoy immersive gaming experiences on mobile devices that were previously only possible on consoles or desktop PCs.

Many developers have started to enhance their games with the addition of new location-aware and social features, as well as optimizations to enable higher performance when running on mobile devices. However, this is still far from the norm. Business realities often necessitate optimizing games for the capabilities of lowest common denominator hardware, resulting in a less impressive user experience for a wider audience. Managing that balancing act is a challenge for any developer.

Chipset companies and manufacturers must work with middleware and game engine vendors to bring an increased supply of optimized implementations to mobile platforms. By offering developers the best of both worlds, we’ll progress toward an ecosystem where the optimal gaming experience — one that takes full advantage of the GPU — is possible on the majority of mobile devices.

A whole new world

The future is bright. We’re on the verge of mobile experiences that previously only seemed possible if Captain Kirk and Spock were prominently involved.

Creating the best possible gaming experience across wireless platforms is the only way to equal (and potentially surpass) console gaming while spurring innovation within the mobile industry. But we can only get there by thinking bigger. That means increasing the ratio of games fully optimized for the capabilities provided by modern mobile hardware.

If we’re to make AR and LTE gaming an everyday reality, we must begin by embracing and taking full advantage of the incredible developments made over the past couple years. It’s a daunting challenge, but it’s one we can take on together. Game on!

Dave Dernil, QualcommDave Durnil is Qualcomm’s director of advanced gaming. Qualcomm will have the latest mobile gaming advancements on display at CES Booth #30313 in the South Hall.

Top photo: Judy van der Velden/Flickr