Over the past four decades, computer games have changed beyond recognition. Late 1970s’ Atari titles like Combat featured two monochrome squares chasing each other around a blank screen, firing single-pixel bullets at each other. Compare that to the 18 quintillion planets in No Man’s Sky, which would take an estimated five billion years for a gamer to fully explore. Similarly, driving simulator Fuel lets you free-roam 14,000 square kilometers of deserts, forests, mountains and cities, all accurately modeled on America. It certainly puts Horace Goes Skiing into perspective.
However, even this astonishing progression is dwarfed by the achievements of mobile gaming. In half that time – just twenty years – we’ve evolved from tiny monochrome smartphone screens displaying a pixelated snake to Pokémon Go’s globe-spanning augmented reality mashup. Candy Crush Saga features thousands of bespoke levels, while Asphalt 9 offers exquisitely rendered supercars whose graphics which could shame many console titles. Offering a finely-honed blend of quick playability and enduring addictiveness, these games are available to download over the internet, often for free. They run on devices weighing roughly a third of the original Sega Game Gear, despite also serving as mobile phones, web browsers, streaming media centers and so on…
The progression of mobile gaming is partly attributable to its expansion beyond a core audience of teenage boys, targeting all ages and demographics. However, it’s been driven by seismic advances in microprocessor technology and smartphone design. Nokia’s introduction of Snake in 1997 seemed sophisticated at a time when mobile gaming was still the preserve of standalone games devices. In the 1980s, these were single-title machines with two-inch monochrome screens. By the 1990s, the Nintendo Game Boy was offering slot-in cartridges and 8-bit graphics comparable to home computers like the Commodore C64.
One device to rule them all
The multiplicity of digital devices in the 1990s constrained consumer demand for Game Boys and Game Gears, just as pocket cameras, personal organizers and portable music players enjoyed modest success without becoming ubiquitous. Smartphone manufacturers recognized the role their devices could play in convergence, and huge investment in new solutions saw a golden age of progress on either side of the millennium. Full-color displays and camera phones were rightly heralded as significant advances, though it was 1999’s introduction of a wireless application protocol for the Nokia 7110 which presaged the coming internet revolution.
Once 3G arrived in 2001, online gaming had a delivery vehicle. And when Apple opened the first App Store in 2008, unveiling their groundbreaking iPhone 3G the following day, the smartphone era had really commenced. Combining a 412MHz ARM CPU with a dedicated graphics processor, the iPhone provided up to 16GB of storage at a time when many people still used 700MB CD-Rs to install software or create data backups.
Cloudy with a chance of mainframes
Alongside the development of downloadable apps and bezel-free 4K smartphone screens, cloud computing has played a critical role in the evolution of mobile games. Most contemporary titles rely on cloud infrastructure, installing a basic framework onto the device before accessing game data from dedicated servers like the ones 100TB hosts in its secure global data centers.
Without 4G and high-speed domestic broadband connections, modern smartphone games wouldn’t enjoy the same levels of popularity. Offline titles lack ever-changing leaderboards and multiplayer gameplay, though they do consume more system resources and storage space. There’d be little scope for in-game purchases to accelerate progress and no hope of running open world titles like No Man’s Sky. Whichever directions online gameplay evolves into, stable internet access is bound to underpin future generations of mobile gaming success stories.