SAN FRANCISCO — A panel discussion on the future of mobile graphics at today’s Game Developers Conference drew a standing-room-only crowd eager to hear what our smartphones will be showing us next.

Envisioning a near future when smartphones and tablets are as powerful as the current but elderly consoles, the panel discussed Moore’s Law, the high cost of producing good-looking content, and the advent of 3D every-damn-thing.

Panelists included Steve Blackmon, Caustic Professional; Aras Pranckevičius, Unity; Tarnas Schlagl, Crytek Budapest; and Julien Merceron, Square Enix.

Blurring ‘mobile,’ blurring ‘games’

“The distinction between what’s a mobile device and what’s a laptop is beginning to blur,” said Pranckevičius, stating the obvious. The deciding factor, joked Merceron, is now whether or not the machine in question has a fan.

The real constraints today, Pranckevičius said, aren’t screen size but power management, temperature management, and network bandwidth.

Blackmon talked about the use of game-engine design in nongaming use cases — film directors being able to see their work in real time or retailers showing products to shoppers, for example.

Merceron said that the hybrid role of the GPU in other machines is also going to take over the mobile devices, where the GPU goes from graphics-only to cloud computing and other tasks.

“Tools are meant to empower artists,” he said, turning to the Unity exec seated next to him. “I see a lot of technologies being designed that make things more [in] real time, more accessible to artists, and that simplify the creative process.”

Higher quality, cheaper development

Of course, better devices means the need for better content.

Merceron said that in spite of the current frenzy over 3D capabilities and content, “2D is absolutely not going to disappear … 3D is obviously going to explode because of the capabilities of the devices.”

And it doesn’t hurt that some console developers are making their way over to mobile platforms, devices, and games.

“The way they’re going to approach 3D graphics will be pretty high-end and will actually drive other developers … in a race to triple-A production values,” said Merceron.

But higher-quality developed and designed games, in turn, means a more costly creation processes.

“The content creation industry is desperately trying to leverage these technologies,” Blackmon said. “There’s crises happening where, when you get to desktop gaming, the triple-A titles have gotten so expensive to create. And as mobile devices evolve, you’re gonna have the same problem.”

The essential question, he continued, will soon become, “Everyone can do amazing effects now, but who can do them the cheapest?”

Schlagl pointed out that being able to share assets across various mobile, desktop, and console platforms — assets like scenes and voiceovers — will decrease cost of content and increase quality exponentially.

Ultimately, the panelists said, while the future of mobile graphics is an exciting topic to discuss at a gaming conference, it doesn’t represent a truly unsolvable (or even a truly difficult) problem.

As Pranckevičius concluded, “Problems with graphics tend to be solved by Moore’s Law, but problems with business models do not.”

Image credit: Jolie O’Dell/VentureBeat