Players of the highly popular mobile game Fruit Ninja need a blade to slice watermelons into pieces. And they need a slingshot to exact revenge on evil green pigs in Angry Birds, and a sharp eye to match gems in Bejeweled. But what they do not need to play such games are robust graphics cards for their smartphones and tablets.
That hasn't slowed graphics card powerhouse Nvidia from aggressively going after the market: Earlier this month the company launched its most robust mobile chip yet, the Tegra 3. The chip, says CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, makes devices it runs on "far far better than the PlayStation 2 and first generation Xbox."
Huang believes that mobile gaming will eventually become as graphically intense as it is on PCs and consoles. Nvidia already powers 70% of non-Apple tablets and more than a dozen smartphone models, which according to Huang is a strong indicator that the rest of the mobile market will migrate to more powerful graphics and not less.
"I don't expect mobile devices to be any less powerful," he says.
Of course, Huang's business depends on that prediction coming true. Nvidia raked in $3.3 billion in revenue last year, most of which derived from the sale or license of products on desktops and notebook PCs. Processor intensive games like Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 have driven the popularity of Nvidia's graphics cards on PCs and consoles. But on mobile devices, where the size, weight, and energy efficiency of processors is a serious issue, Nvidia's chips have less of a presence. Apple's iPad and iPhone, for example, use in-house designed A4 and A5 processors rather than third-party cards from Nvidia competitors AMD and Intel like its MacBook Pros support.
The question here for Nvidia and competitors such as Qualcomm is whether there's a limit to the types of games that can be adapted to tablets and smartphones. If users are less interested in playing games as immersive as Heavy Rain on the subway, it would limit graphics card makers' ability to crack the mobile market.
"It's hard for us to predict what it's going to be like," Huang admits. "I think you'll see new interesting games. The analog control isn't as good, on the one hand, but [the device] is with you all the time. You have touch, too, so how would take advantage of that? The gyro? The compass? GPS? Camera? All of that is going to get integrated into the gameplay someday."
That's why Nvidia is investing so heavily in the space. It's a bet that the next generation of mobile games will arrive if the technology is there—a bet Nvidia made decades ago during what Huang refers to as the "Atari generation," when he and his cofounders built a processor company before there was anything needed to process. "There were no games then," he recalls. "Only 2-D side scrollers."
"People are playing Zynga [games] on their PCs, too, not because the PC is not capable of better games. It's because they enjoy playing Zynga. Think of it like video," says Huang. "There are three-minute movies; there are 30-minute TV shows; there are two-hour movies. You have to get that range: video games with low production value to video games with high production value. You're going to get video games that are very easy to play, just like there are books that are very easy to read."
The important point here, Huang adds, is not to let the current catalog of games limit mobile gaming's potential. "You have to get the technology ready first," he says.
[Image: Flickr user johanl]