Following the recent release of Nintendo's auto-stereoscopic 3D ("glasses free") 3DS handheld earlier this spring, there has been a lot of discussion and debate amongst gamers and games developers about the future of interactive 3D entertainment in the palm of your hand.
Sony is set to release its new PS Vita handheld in the UK early next year, although there has – to date – been no mention of any plans for 3D handheld content on the new portable PlayStation device.
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It's also fair to say that the commercial and critical response to the 3DS, to date, has been somewhat muted. Nintendo hopes that the recent launch of a 3D remake of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and 3D versions of a number of other hardcore favourites such as
Mario, Kid Icarus and Starfox slated for release later this year should help to drive sales of its new hardware.
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"While Nintendo's shown a huge ability to innovate and remove themselves from the traditional "better hardware, better graphics" race, the 3DS sales have so far been a disappointment," says Adam Taylor, in-house analyst at gaming agency Adotomi.com, "[it suggests] that people's imagination have not been captured by 3D technology as they were by motion control.
"Sony, opting for stronger hardware and a bigger, better screen with the new PS Vita, likely read the market correctly (before 3DS sales made it clear) and made the surer bet in the short-to-medium term to forego 3D technology in order to deliver what handheld players are probably looking for: a better traditional handheld gaming experience. The superior OLED screen is probably the most obvious evidence of this choice."
Nintendo also recently revealed that forthcoming new Wii U console – slated for release later in 2012 – is also going to be fully 3D capable, although 3D content will not be the company's major focus around that console's launch. But it has led to speculation that there could well be some form of synchronisation of 3DS 3D gaming content and 3D gaming content on your TV via your Wii U console in the future.
What about mobile?
Back to the present day, Nintendo is set to face some serious competition in the glasses-free 3D gaming stakes from mobile phone companies over the coming year, with the likes of HTC and LG already announcing their plans for 3D mobiles and accompanying partnerships with leading mobile games developers to create 3D titles for these latest smartphones.
LG is first off the starting blocks this month, having already announced a number of 3D mobile games from Gameloft for the new LG Optimus 3D - with Dr. Jong-seok Park, President and CEO of LG Electronics Mobile, going as far as announcing that "the era of dedicated handheld gaming platform is over."
LG later retracted that release and removed that part of the CEO's statement, although the intention of the company when it comes to 3D mobile gaming is clear.
"Today's smartphones have the horsepower to compete with the best portable gaming devices and LG Optimus 3D is our proof," read the CEO's re-jigged statement. "We think 3D is the natural next step in portable entertainment and LG is eager to throw its hat in the ring with the Optimus 3D and Gameloft's 'must-be-seen-to-be-believed' titles."
Users can download 17 Gameloft S-3D games via the 3D Games icon on the LG Optimus 3D, with a decent smattering of titles on offer at launch, including Assassin's Creed: Altaïr's Chronicles, James Cameron's Avatar, Ultimate Spider Man: Total Mayhem, GT Racing: Motor Academy, Shrek Kart, Modern Combat 2: Black Pegasus, Real Football 2011, Star Battalion, N.O.V.A. 2 and more.
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"Here at Gameloft we've always had a philosophy of making games for the platforms people want to play them on," says Callum Rowley, Gameloft's UK PR manager. "With the emergence of the Nintendo 3DS and now various smartphones with glasses-free 3D capabilities such as the LG Optimus 3D, we're seeing 3D as one of those platforms.
"For now we're focused on bringing existing titles into the S-3D realm, but this doesn't mean we won't look at developing bespoke titles in the near future which take full advantage of the benefits S-3D brings to the enjoyment of games.
"As long as phone manufacturers continue to bring innovative ideas, such as 3D, to their devices Gameloft will continue to develop tailored games to bring a truly entertaining experience to the end user."
So this first batch of stereoscopic 3D mobile gaming content from Gameloft is clearly an important toe-in-the-water for mobile games development, with many others in the mobile entertainment industry – the likes of Zynga, PopCap and EA Mobile – no doubt watching very closely, to ascertain the value of releasing 3D versions of their bigger mobile titles, or even developing brand new 3D IP purely for use on 3D-capable smartphones.
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One challenge to marketing 3D mobile gaming is the fact that you really do need to see and play it to understand how it works. And then decide whether or not you like it and want to shell out for it.
LG has recently employed London-based experiential marketing specialists HotCow in an attempt to get Optimus 3D mobiles into the hands of gamers, "because the thing that we have found, and all the research that we have done with this device, is that people don't actually believe it until they see it," says LG's UK PR manager Jerome Demare.
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While HTC has yet to announce any similar tie-ups with games developers, the company has recently announced news that it is to buy S3 Graphics, the US-based graphics-technology licensing company, for $300 million to boost its 3D graphics offerings in future.
This follows further recent acquisitions of London-based mobile-platform company Saffron Digital for $48.5 million (£30.2 million) and HTC also making a $40 million investment in cloud gaming company OnLive. With that latter announcement, following the release of the HTC Evo 3D, obviously raising the question: "might we soon see 3D gaming content streamed directly to our mobile phones?"
3DS vs 3D tablets
Still, despite these interesting first moves by the likes of Gameloft and LG, there are many in the 3D display industry that continue to cast aspersions on the long-term viability of 3D entertainment on mobile devices.
"I think the simple reason is that 3D on a small screen is not very compelling," says Chris Chinnock, president of display industry analysts' Insight Media. "You have tight and narrow sweet spots and the depth volume is very small, so nothing has that much impact. This latter is a fundamental limitation of any handheld 3D display."
This is perhaps where 7-inch and 10-inch 3D tablet-style displays may start to win out over the Nintendo 3DS and smaller 3D smartphone screens in the future. Interestingly, established games developers who have traditionally focused on console and PC gaming are also branching out into the 3D mobile and tablet gaming arena, as Blitz Games' CTO Andrew Oliver explains:
"The potential for 3D on handheld devices is exciting. While the 3DS provides a great single-player no-glasses 3D experience, this would only be improved with a larger screen on a smart phone or tablet.
"As well as the possibility for ultimately more advanced screen technology, these platforms also add the ability to view 3D movies and other content, either streamed or downloaded from a digital store, which will clearly be a big draw for a lot of consumers. As a lot of this content already exists I'd be surprised if we don't see a device-and-business-model combination that will enable this for the mainstream before too long."
And there's the key. LG's team-up with Gameloft is a pointer towards what this type of "device-and-business-model" combination to deliver quality 3D content to your mobile might well look like in future.
3D gaming baby steps
The ability to shoot your own 3D video and photos, or view other rudimentary 3D content on YouTube, with phones such as the LG Optimus 3D, is really little more than an interesting gimmick for most users.
Yet when the market reaches that sweet-spot point where the average user is able to access quality AAA 3D games and movie content, easily and for a decent price, that is when 3D mobile games development will really start to take off.
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"The introduction of 3D onto mobile devices brings the potential of enhanced level of richness to the multimedia experience," according to Stephen Yap, analyst and group director at TNS Technology, publishers of the annual Mobile Life study.
"The TNS Mobile Life study shows that gaming on mobile phones continues to increase - 55% of mobile phone owners in the UK are now playing games on their handsets. LG Optimus 3D and HTC EVO 3D are already at our door and operating on a common platform, presenting an opportunity for the increasingly talented developer community to break into 3D in a big way.
However, the analyst still thinks that "the jury is still out on where exactly the sweet-spot for portable 3D gaming will reside… perhaps with the less-than-stellar take-up of 3DTV in mind, the gaming ecosystem is taking a cautious approach to the rollout of 3D gaming.
"The lesson from 3DTV is that a "build it and they will come" approach may disappoint. Instead, with emerging technologies such as 3D and augmented reality the industry would be well served by first identifying consumer needs that the technology addresses, and marketing benefits, not technology itself."
Adotomi's Adam Taylor is adamant that 3D gaming has a healthy future, but is adamant that "it lies on smartphones, not on dedicated gaming devices."
Taylor argues that Nintendo and Sony can mitigate this threat: "Sony by delivering on a proper "PlayStation phone", and Nintendo either following a similar route and partnering with a handset maker, or – even better – publishing games for play across mobile phones, perhaps packaging its offer into some sort of "Nintendo app" in which its games could be purchased, played and stored, and through which the integrity of the Nintendo brand would be preserved."