ARM bets big on the future of gaming

ARM's Mali graphics technology drives one of the fastest smartphones on the market today, but the company isn't going to stop there. We chat to Ian Smythe and Simon Hickman to find out what the future will bring for the world of gaming.

"If you look over the last 15 years, we've gone from really noddy 2D games like the stuff you used to see on your telly back when I was a kid playing Pong on these little Atari machines, and now you can take a platform like the Galaxy S II and you can play some really complicated mobile games on it," enthused Ian Smythe, the director of marketing for ARM's Media Processing Division and the man tasked with getting Mali into the hands of the company's licensees.

"We're working with the likes of Gameloft, EA, Unity... We're trying to help these guys understand how best to optimise their content for running on Mali so they can give the consumer the best experience possible," explained Simon Hickman, ARM's ecosystem partner manager and a man for whom gaming is a passion. "We're not just working with the game developers, we're also working with the people that provide the technology behind the games. Unity are one of the leading game engine providers today - especially in the mobile space. I think they have 150,000 developers using their engine per month."

Mali is ARM's custom-built graphics processing technology, designed to be paired with one of the company's Cortex line of system processors to provide a one-stop solution for creating a high-performance mobile device. While some of the company's licensees - including Qualcomm and Nvidia, who have their own Adreno and Tegra graphics technology respectively - have been reluctant to adopt it, Samsung's flagship Galaxy S II smartphone is features a quad-core Mali-400 implementation at its heart.

"To offer a gaming experience that's PC-like, we're going to have to put significantly more compute power into the machines," admitted Smythe. That's not to say the current generation of products is incapable, however. "I've just been upstairs watching some of our demos that we're preparing which, I'm afraid, you can't see right now [Bah! Ed.], but they'll be out in the fall, and we were looking at it and saying 'that's kind of PS2-plus,' in terms of the complexity that we can get out of the platforms that we've got today."

Although aiming for a graphical complexity somewhere above a games console that launched eleven years ago might not sound like much to boast about, the relative scale of the devices has to be taken into consideration. "You're talking about a mobile where you've got a power envelope which is 'guys, can we do all that in a watt, please?' We're not accepting blocky images, we don't accept poor animation," Smythe exclaimed. "What that means, in terms of quality: do you know what? That means more maths per pixel. Essentially, everything we do that changes what we put on the screen means we have to do more maths. At a very simple level, it's more maths.

"If you're looking at the visual experience that we can deliver on a mobile, in terms of the capabilities of the devices that are on the market today, increasingly it is visually outstanding - but we need to do more maths, because we have an increasing screen resolution and we have increasing content complexity, and we have to do it all in pretty low power. So, if we look at where we were a few years ago, if you take the benchmarks of a VGA display and typical low-res content - all of a sudden, by the time you get to a 4K screen and some of the complexity of tesselated stuff you see in DX11 today, you're talking about a 500x increase in performance."

"We're still maintaining that 1W power envelope within your mobile device, yet being expected to deliver 500 times the performance," Hickman added. That's a major undertaking, but one which the next generation of Mali processors will work towards.

"The way I portray it is that typical mobile phone devices today have less than a gigaflop of technology," explained Smythe. "A quad-core Mali-400 brings 10 or so gigaflops of technology, depending on the frequency you're operating at, right? And then the next generation will be in the hundreds of gigaflops of technology with the Mali-T600 series. You're talking a hundred-plus in that family - I think in the T604 we've got 68 now, and that's the first core in the Midgard architecture.

"So, if you look at the power we're pushing up now in terms of gigaflops, and you do that comparison in terms of where a desktop PC card, you can see that they're in the teraflop range, and we're in the hundreds of gigaflops range, so we've still got this gap. I think, though, that what you can do in a mobile platform is going to change significantly - let's make the mobile platform not a handset, but a portable battery-powered device, so tablets, notebooks, these kind of things - it's going to change significantly."

Those next-generation chips, based on the new Midgard architecture and due to début in the Mali-T604 early next year, will change the face of portable gaming, and potentially create a world where the distinctions between console, PC, and hand-held gaming start to blur.

"EA has just been pitching recently about how they envision that you buy your content once, but you can play it across multiple devices," Hickman explained. "So, whether that be on the big screen through the console right the way down to the mobile experience. Obviously, the game would be in a slightly different form, but they're trying to give a similar user experience or to get that brand across multiple devices.

"So, for example, they have their American Football series Madden - they want to put that across all devices, various different styles on each one, but once you buy it for one you play it on them all, and then they bring you downloadable content on top of that - which is where they get their value."

With mobile devices increasingly breaking away from the bounds of a low-resolution display - "I have a device in my hand at the moment that can output 1080p - it's a phone, but it can output 1080p, which I think is slightly mad, but apparently I'm one of the few that think like that," Smythe joked - the idea that a hand-held device could replace a mains-tethered games console doesn't seem as ridiculous as it might have done a few years ago.

"Rather than being a smartphone, it's becoming a media player, content player, device that you carry with you wherever you go," Hickman concluded. "We showed an in-house demo at GDC this year running 1080p stereoscopic content sitting at 60fps, from the same chipset that's inside the Samsung Galaxy S II. So, you're already seeing near-console quality visuals and gameplay coming down to a mobile device."