Everyone likes to have friends, but when it comes to technology making your product play well with the others has an additional financial advantage. Programmes such as Epic’s Unreal Technology Partners have ensured companies can plug into larger technology frameworks, providing a relatively seamless option for customers and another sales channel for the smaller tools and middleware companies too.
London-based studio Ideaworks3D is now bringing that approach to the mobile sector via its Airplay development and deployment solution with its Airplay Partners Program.
“There’s a perfect storm brewing in native smartphone development,” reckons CTO Tim Closs. “Performance at the upper end of the device spectrum, increased publisher development budgets on those platforms, and high user expectations of quality levels – driven primarily by iPhone – means that mobile middleware can now play a key role in serving the ecosystem.”
Airplay enables studios to create native games and applications for platforms such Symbian, BREW, Windows Mobile, Linux, and iPhone using a single binary. It does this by implementing platform-specific execution environments, as well as a scalable graphics pipeline.
“We have publishers using Airplay to deploy a single game to iPhone, multiple smartphone platforms such as Series 60, Windows Mobile, N-Gage, and netbooks. The single binary approach has great value across the smartphone platforms, as it means the quality assurance cost and duration is vastly reduced,” Closs says.
The partners program, which launches with NaturalMotion’s morpheme 2.0, will extend the choice for mobile developers by providing a wider range of technology that also fulfil the cross-platform approach.
“The idea was kicked off at the end of 2008 when an independent Japanese developer, which is building a game for N-Gage using Airplay, needed to use some console/DS middleware within the title,” Closs reveals. “The middleware provider ported its offering to Airplay without any input from us. It made us realise there was the appetite for this.”
As for the NaturalMotion deal, Closs says the technical work was relatively straightforward.
“In the case of morpheme, Ideaworks3D undertook the integration work, which took about two weeks. However, in another case, the middleware provider did all the work and it took them less than a week. One of the great things about Airplay is that it provides great support for all C/C++ standards and common open source libraries, which means porting middleware, applications or game engines from PC is usually very easy.”
Of course, one of the key restrictions in this market is the power of the target devices themselves. New smartphones such as Toshiba’s recently unveiled TG01 may now be offering 1GHz processors, but the bulk of the market isn’t so well endowed.
“Airplay’s base specification has always been ARM9 chips rated above 150MHz, so we are looking at solutions which can augment the native gaming experience on these and higher-powered platforms,” Closs explains.
“The partnerships make most sense when the middleware offering contains a high degree of value in the offline tools, and any associated runtime is sufficiently light and optimised for mobile. It will vary between solutions; for example, some might require hardware floating point, some might require hardware graphics acceleration. We will make it clear to developers which platforms are appropriately supported for each partner offering.”
Another contrast from the console space is product budgets and the consequential impact on licensing fees. Ideaworks3D will work with providers to understand the market.
“Budgets are much smaller than console development but they can be not far off handheld development,” he points out. “Ultimately we leave the business model up to the provider; they have to find a model which works for mobile developers but also sits happily with their existing models.”
The firm hopes to have around half a dozen companies officially signed up to the program by the summer of 2009 and reckons it would make sense for a further four to offer their technology.