TechRadar recently caught up with the directors of Oxford-based Exient, one of the UK's fastest growing handheld and mobile games developers, co-founded in Jan 2001 by Charles Chapman (Technical Director) and Dave Hawkins (Managing Director), who shared their thoughts on the importance of iPhone gaming and the future of handheld consoles.
The team at Exient, currently busying away putting the finishing touches to EA's SKATE IT on DS, has grown considerably over the last seven years – recently making moves into the home console space - and is now an authorised developer for Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, PS2 as well as Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii.
The company claims its Oxford base allows them to tailor its burgeoning team, marrying up a good "mix of seasoned gaming professionals" with "highly intelligent technical resources" which seems to have proven to be a winning formula.
Exient has picked up a trophy room full of awards in its short life, for games such as Total Soccer, FIFA GBA, FIFA NDS, not to mention being awarded TIGA's coveted Best Handheld Games Development Studio award in 2005 and being listed in last year's Develop 100 – the definitive list of "The World's Most Successful Game Studios".
TechRadar: What are the key problems with developing for mobile? Do you think that the iPhone is going to change the scene as much as some predict?
Dave Hawkins: The main problems with the mobile format are things like user interfaces and the huge number of SKUs that need to be produced to cover a decent proportion of the overall market.
Charles Chapman: Another issue is the audience – we have to address a casual audience and as we've seen, versions of console titles aren't as popular as products specifically targeted at the mobile platform and casual players.
The iPhone goes a long way towards addressing some of these problems. It has the power to run decently complex games and a much nicer control surface than what we've had to use previously.
What's more interesting is that despite the iPhone essentially being a PDA with a music and telecoms focus, it has a cool and desirability that no handheld or PDA has previously had.
Developers also love it so despite it appearing to be a familiar proposition, it's actually a fresh start for the mobile platform as a whole.
Support is already huge in the developer community and it's carving its own market, largely by its own rules. I think iPhone is going to merge the handheld and mobile space in a way we've never seen before.
TechRadar: Moving on to the old DS vs. PSP debate-- what are the highs and lows of developing for each platform?
Charles Chapman: The highs for the DS are quite clear. It came with new features and functionality, such as the two displays and the touchscreen, and DS owners crave new experiences and new ways to play existing games, across both the gamer and casual demographics.
The other great thing about DS is that the development risk is low enough for publishers to take chances on new ways of gaming and new product types we'd never previously expected to be successful.
The lows are that with the lower budgets, the market is flooded with poorer quality offerings that dilute the overall quality of the DS catalogue.
It's also a bit of a shame that the hardware isn't a bit more powerful – something closer to the Gamecube, rather than N64, would be nice!
Dave Hawkins: The PSP offers you current-gen capability in the palm of your hand and along with that fantastic screen, is a marvellous bit of technology.
It's got great multimedia functionality as well, what with its photo browsing and MP4 video functionality and its connectivity, especially as it becomes more unified with PS3.
Lows are quite significant, though. UMD is a failed storage medium with bottlenecks and power demands that we could really do without.
The fact it offers a current-gen console experience also has a downside, as the PSP offers nothing more – it's like having a mobile PS2, but with worse controls, meaning there's nothing you can experience on the platform that you can't get with a home console.
TechRadar: What are your thoughts, ideas and suggestions for games that employ integration with home consoles - PS3/PSP, DS/Wii, 360/ Zune and so on? Any general or specific plans to make games which are cross-platform in this type of way?
Dave Hawkins: One of the most obvious ideas is contiguous play at home and 'on the road', as well as media sharing. Being able to pick up where you left off, both in terms of games and media, is a pretty cool feature.
Charles Chapman: There's also the idea of being able to manage aspects of a home-based game on a handheld, such as tweaking RPG characters, setting up a car for a racing sim, designing liveries and so on.
There are also some great possibilities for the handheld as a private screen and the TV as a global overview – I can think of loads of games that could work around that central concept, along the lines of the Gamecube Pac Man.
TechRadar: How do you think each particular handheld might be improved in their next iterations? What would you change in their developer kits in future?
Charles Chapman: The DS needs more raw power, improved graphics and some kind of flash storage embedded in the unit.
The PSP could do with a unique control method or maybe even twin analogue sticks, as we're used to on the home Sony machines. It also would be massively improved by having a decent amount of embedded flash storage.
Dumping the UMD drive would be a good idea too.
iPhone could do with a more conventional control method - single touchscreens mean your hand will inevitably get in the way of the display, which is annoying and compromises what you can show in order to have decent functionality.
Dave Hawkins: In general, next-gen handhelds will need to build on current successes, increase ease of connectivity and continue to differentiate themselves from home machines, whilst remaining complimentary to them.
Downloadable games are a clear 'must-have', though this service needs to be available through street retailers as well as online services.
It would also be great to ramp up the graphics, sound and processing power, though battery life is always going to be an overriding concern and should never be compromised.
One thing I'd love to see is an alternate display method – fold-out screens, projection or even goggles.
TechRadar: Can you give us some specific details regarding the unique online sharing components and some of the other control /online elements for the much-awaited SKATE IT on DS?
Dave Hawkins: Not right now, you'll have to wait for more details on that one! It will be worth the wait though.
TechRadar: What about more general plans for the future ?
Dave Hawkins: At Exient, we're looking to move into iPhone development and apply our handheld expertise to the most exciting platform to arrive for ages. We're also looking to move away from our traditional work and develop our own IP internally, along with a move into 360/PS3 development.