Interview: Superscape's Donald Wisniewski
Mobile 3D is here to stay, but where is it headed? We ask Superscape VP Donald Wisniewski about his company's decision to focus exclusively on 3D...
The mobile market's rapid evolution and expansion is either a very good thing, or a very bad thing, depending on your point of view. There are opportunities abound for those individuals and organizations able to keep track of what's here today, and what will be here tomorrow, but the market is also full of pitfalls for those unable to keep up. Mobile timetables are outlined in terms of months and quarters, not years.
This technology acceleration effects all mobile sectors but it seems to be especially apropos to mobile games. Think about where mobile games were in Q1, 2005 - how they looked, played, and were developed. In just one year the industry is already quite different. Most of the players in the industry are the same, but they're playing an almost entirely new game.
This is most apparent in the rapid rise of 3D, made possible thanks to a combination of high-speed networks, high-end handsets, and increased development budget capabilities. None know this better than Superscape Senior Vice President of Publishing Donald Wisniewski. The company's singular focus on 3D gaming has uniquely positioned it apart from its competitors, and uniquely positioned the organization for growth.
Modojo recently conducted a Q&A with Wisniewski to gain insight into the short and long term opportunities (and threats) present in mobile 3D game development.
Modojo: Superscape hasn't always been a 3D-oriented company. Tell me about that decision. Why (and when) was it made?
Donald Wisniewski: Actually Superscape HAS always been a 3D oriented company - its origins were in 3D games on the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. Superscape first entered mobile 3d working with industry leaders like ARM, Motorola, Nokia and others to develop JSR184 - the open 3D standard for JAVA known as M3G which has been widely adopted throughout our industry. I think M3G was a huge advancement for mobile gaming, especially when you consider today you are much more likely to be able to play a 3D game on your mobile than say listen to layered audio.
Mo: Is the transition from 2D to 3D difficult? Has there been any growing pains? It's a smart long term decision because 3D capabilities will become more and more commonplace, but that doesn't make it easy to get by today, May 2006.
DW: It is a difficult transition for anyone - we have seen a lot of developers coming from the 2D mobile and from the console space, all trying to create 3D games - and many are struggling, technically and financially. It's understandable. Compared to 2d, the challenges are magnitudes larger. But the good news is, most all the growing pains are behind us now and our processes and procedures allow us to move from concept to market relatively quickly. Of course in today's market 2d game revenues still dominate, that's why we still launch most of our titles in both 2d and 3d formats.
Mo: Let me play devil's advocate for a moment - why push so hard for 3D on handsets? They'll never produce 3D that reaches PC or console quality, so why put out a 3D golf game that's inferior to, say, Tiger Woods on the Xbox 360, instead of a really polished 2D golf game, that exists in its own category?
DW: It's inevitable that the technology on the handsets will improve and it's proven by the fact we're already seeing PS1 quality on phones today. When hardware acceleration comes online we'll be closer to PSP/PS2 quality. But the real reason to pursue 3d is that there is a clear, measurable consumer benefit. When you show a group of mobile gamers a 3d game next to a 2d title - hands down, 3d wins every time. What makes it even better, you can take the games anywhere you go - you can't do that with your Xbox 360.
Mo: What challenges/threats exist to your business (3D mobile games), from a technology standpoint? Screen real estate? RAM? Storage space? How has this technology changed, and what other changes are coming down the pipe?
DW: In the early days we had some very restrictive handsets, but now that we are seeing new technologies like 3G networks, larger screens, faster processors, more RAM and storage - it is like a breath of fresh air. All of a sudden we have the ability to implement features that were unheard of as little as a year ago. In our mind, these aren't challenges but more likely new opportunities to make better games. From a business perspective, one of the major continuing challenges is finding the right technology to invest in and effectively extract revenue from the addressable handset market. When you're out on the cutting edge, you surely can bleed a lot.
Mo: What about non-tech challenges/threats?
Most all of the same issues facing 2d games we face in 3d as well - poor shopping experience, limited/no marketing support, slow consumer adoption. But you need to add the fact that 3D game creation carries with it higher inherit risks. It simply takes more time and cost more money to develop, port and distribute a mobile 3D title. This drives your margins down and increases the pressure on your business.
Mo: In my opinion one of the biggest problems to mobile 3D titles is input. How does Superscape avoid the problem of no analogue input? Are there any other solutions on the horizon?
DW: While analogue input is a necessary part of console in gaming, we feel it is not a prerequisite to an entertaining game experience on mobile. In fact, some of the greatest game platforms have digital input, GBA and DS for example. Some of the ways to handle the limitations of mobile input are to first ensure you use simple, easy to understand control schemes, and use context sensitive controls to help the player do what is best. Properly thought out, you can effectively avoid the problem in design phase.
Mo: Are certain genres or types of games more appropriate for the mobile 3D treatment, or is it wide-open?
DW: Just like any other game treatment, it's wide open. 3D is simply a way of displaying the game environment to the player. When designed correctly, 3D environments are more immersive than their 2D counterparts, so any game benefits from it. It's important to make sure that the 3D nature of a game only enhances the experience and doesn't interfere with the intuitiveness of the interface.
Mo: Is the future of mobile 3D on a fairly predictable path? Higher res,
better textures, better frame rate, etc.? Or will its progress/development differ from what happened in the console/PC space?
DW: Yes, I think that it is. Something to consider is how quickly will the extra performance be adopted and implemented in the games? In the PC world, better hardware drove better games, which drove more hardware sales. We are in the very early days of mobile 3D and gaming is still low on the list of the reasons why people choose a handset. Therefore gaming is not in a position to push the hardware limits to the same degree as happened in the PC space in the near future - not yet anyway.