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The Pipeline for Making Mobile Games

The mobile world as it stands today has been playing catch-up. The computer and console memory specs and computing power are miles ahead of mobile devices. However, it is not an even race. Mobile hardware, spec-wise, is at about the level of a good PC from the year 1994. But considering that the smart mobile phone has not been around as long as the PC, it’s doing pretty well.

So when you look at the graphics of mobile games available now and are wondering where the future of mobile gaming is headed, look no further than the current PC/Mac games market for a glimpse of the future (FIGURE 4.1).

FIGURE 4.1

FIGURE 4.1 Modern mobile games.

Mobile Game Specifics

Knowing the limitations of a mobile device and how to push its performance as far as possible has become a sought-after skill in the game industry. Those who know how to squeeze the most out of every little bit of bandwidth and memory are integral to creating the best-looking games. Right now, console games are at the techno-forefront, followed by social games, with mobile showing up in third place. Obviously, the key to success for the mobile gaming world is being able to replicate the console experience on a phone. Developers are on their way toward that goal, but they are just not there yet.

Levels

The levels in a mobile game are a bit different than you might expect. Take your average games featuring a robot on an alien planet with hostile locals, for example. A normal level in a console game would probably provide about 2 hours of play. That 2 hours x 10 levels costs you 60 bucks, or around 20 hours of average game play.

A mobile game works a little differently. The levels are far shorter, lasting only several minutes at the most. This is because most mobile game players only play while waiting for the bus or standing in line at the bank. Getting involved in a long campaign in which you have to start and stop all the time just does not go over very well. Also, implementing a “save anywhere” feature gets a little memory heavy and is usually not possible in the world of mobile hardware.

Characters

The characters in a mobile game follow this same trend. In a console game, the characters might have millions of polygons. (Polygons are the 3D version of pixels, the basic unit of 3D graphics. They will be further explained in Chapter 5, “Creating Console Game Assets.”) Mobile hardware is challenged to animate a character with only thousands of polygons. That makes quite a visual difference. Why is this? Phones just don’t have enough computing power yet. Moving the characters, calculating the polygons, and mapping the textures is very memory and processor intensive.

The Bank

You might think of the constraints for making a mobile game as similar to dealing with a bank. You have only so much money in the bank that you can draw on. Although you can take money out, the bank is not going to give you more money than you start with. Mobile games are like that. The phone can only process so much data at a time. If you factor all the things in a game happening at once—the audio, the effects, the playable character, the non-playable characters, the environment, the HUD, all the code, tracking your play history—you can see how you quickly you can become technologically overdrawn in a mobile game.

How do you work with this? You budget your game, processing only those things you need at the moment you need them. Those Level Three aliens do not need to be loaded in Level One so they are stored (probably in a compressed file format) until they are needed. When their time comes, the Level One aliens are dumped from memory so all available storage and computing power can go to running their Level Three companions. Similar resource budgeting and asset swapping is applied to audio and special effects and levels. This way you are always using the most amount of game budget on precisely what you need to be showing at the time.

Your creative choices can also contribute to optimizing your use of hardware resources. If you need more aliens onscreen in Level Four, then Level Four is designed as a graphically simple environment with snow and no trees to calculate. With mobile games, you borrow from here to enhance there. If you find you need trees in the level, then you reduce the aliens’ graphic detail. Same fixed techno-budget, you just spend it differently.

Digital game makers have worked like this since games began. Working out a realistic technology “budget” is usually done at the beginning of a project, and then revised on the fly as the project progresses. The keepers of this techno-bank are the engineers. They are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the game remains within a certain memory footprint, and able to run at a reasonable frame rate.

Aspect Ratios and Screen Resolutions

Mobile phones, smartphones, cells, and whatever else you want to call them, mobile devices come in a variety of sizes, and as with the social game scene, they represent an ever-moving target to try and find an aspect ratio and resolution to build to (FIGURE 4.2). As the mobile device window size remains in constant flux, the resolution gets better and better, and the amount of pixels one can use at a time also shifts. Fortunately, it always seems to lean toward more pixels not less, so that is good news.

FIGURE 4.2

FIGURE 4.2 Mobile pixel ratios.

Generally speaking, before you start a mobile game you do some research to see what the current trend in screen specs is. Just like you did with the social game, you pick one that will allow you to stretch or reduce the screen to fit other screens that might be just a little off your numbers. This allows you to make one game that will be playable on multiple phone types.

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