GUEST BLOG: The history (and future) of mobile games, as seen through Arm’s architecture


Mobile games have gone from minor industry niche to the largest industry sector in the course of three decades. But how has the hardware that runs such games evolved over that period of time? And what does the future hold for mobile games as it continues to grow?

Alex Mercer from Arm provides his explanation on how the company has shaped the tech that’s grown a global industry, how Arm sees the sector today and where he thinks the space could go next.

Mobile is the largest segment of the gaming industry today and poised to grow significantly by 2021. The boom in the Asia-Pacific region and rise of mobile eSports and multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games, such as Honor of Kings are catering to millions of players and propelling mobile gaming further and further. Similarly, the “Fortnite effect” is seeing console games increasingly moving to mobile devices by offering cross-platform play – reaching a far broader audience. All of this means that the future of mobile gaming has never been brighter.

 But you probably already know this.

Source: Newzoo 2018 Global Games Market Report – October update

What you may not know is that the current state of play for mobile gaming has largely been shaped by Arm- a company founded by a dozen engineers working from a converted barn in Cambridge, UK, over a quarter of a century ago. Since then, we have had an active role developing key technologies that have helped get the industry to where it is today. From the early GSM era phones to handheld consoles to the smartphone revolution and the oncoming shift to augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR), Arm has often been the mobile game industry’s architecture of choice.

Where Arm’s role in games began...

Our gaming story began in 1993 with the Panasonic 3DO console containing an ARM60 processor; a relatively successful console that sold over 2 million devices worldwide and became Time magazine's "1993 Product of the Year." While it failed to attain an iconic status, the 3DO did help to usher in the next 32-bit 3D generation of consoles.

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                                                                             Panasonic 3DO

Arm’s low power processors didn’t really feature in any console after the 3DO. However, its licensing model and impressive growth over the next few years paved the way for more devices to spring up using Arm IP – except this time they were handheld.

Snake and the GSM era

Announced in 1997, the Nokia 6110 was the first handset to introduce Snake – a game that for many was the first mobile game they ever played - and paved the way for the millions of games you will now find on the various app stores. It was also the first Arm-powered GSM phone, featuring an ARM7TDMI processor. This led to the iconic series of Nokia phones including the 3210 and 3310. 

In the early 00s, phones left behind the dull monochrome screens and shifted to colour displays. The Arm-based Nokia 9210 Communicator One was one of the world’s first fully coloured screen mobile phone, starting the idea that phones and entertainment could be combined into one device.

Following the 9210, the Nokia N-Gage was one of the first attempts to lure people away from traditional game handsets by combining game playing functionality with a traditional mobile phone. Released in 2003 and containing an Arm9 series processor, it managed to attain an impressive catalog of titles, including Rayman 3, Call of Duty, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, andSplinter Cell: Chaos Theory.

However, the ambitious product failed to live up to its big expectations due to it not being well-suited to the games that the device offered. Despite this, the pioneering phone did go on to become a memorable landmark in the games industry. It also played an important role in the funding a number of nascent start-up studios by Nokia, especially in Finland where Sumea (Ilkka Paananen’s pre-Supercell company) and Rovio were supported by the Finnish handset manufacturer to make games for the platform in the mid 00s.

Games in the palm of your hand

The Nintendo Game Boy is undoubtedly an icon of the 90s, with this being closely followed by the Game Boy Colour. Both set the standard for handheld gaming and led to Nintendo planning their successors as we approached the Millennium. One of these handheld devices was the Game Boy Advance – released in 2001 – which had an ARM7TDMI processor. 


 Game Boy Advance

It became one of the most powerful handheld games consoles of the time, featuring a larger screen, better resolution and the debut of the “shoulder” buttons that are now prevalent across devices.

Three years later, Nintendo released the first non-Game Boy branded handheld. Featuring two Arm processors, it went on to sell over 154 million units between 2004 and 2013, becoming the best-selling handheld of all time. The DS family still lives on today in the more refined form of the 3DS that still allows backwards compatibility with the DS games through an ARM9 processor.

Released in 2017 and taking the world by storm, the Nintendo Switch was like no other - a hybrid console-handheld offering handheld portability allowing users to play games anywhere with the ability of turning into a home console. Featuring Arm’s big.LITTLE technology and Cortex processors, it went on to become the fastest selling console in US history and continues to captivate the attention of millions of players with its impressive line-up of titles.

Smartphones and the rise of high-fidelity mobile games

As mentioned earlier, the advent of mobile changed the games landscape and it is now larger than ever. Over the past 40 years about 1.5 billion video game consoles have been sold. However, in just the last 10 years alone, more than 2.2 billion people have used their smartphones to play games. 

Android is without a doubt the most popular mobile operating system in the world today for play. It was introduced to the world in the form of the HTC Dream in 2008. Featuring an ARM11 processor, it was praised for robust hardware and innovative new OS that paved the way for modern smartphones capable of running complex games. The HTC Dream later spawned smartphone iterations such as the HTC Desire and Nexus series that further set the foundation for today’s modern Android experience.

While there are far too many Android smartphones containing Arm IP to name in this article, the Samsung Galaxy S Series is one of most iconic on the market. This series of phones has long been a cornerstone of the mobile gaming revolution that heralded a new concept of portability to games. They have been present from the advent of the simple games first posted on the Android Stores to the now ever popular high-fidelity games.

The 2019 Samsung S10 for example is one of the most popular smartphones of recent times and features the Arm-based Exynos 9820 which runs at 2.73 GHz - this is a stark contrast to 26 years ago when the Panasonic 3DO ran at 15MHz! Today, some of the most popular Android smartphones are Arm-powered and continue to be the favourite games platform of players worldwide.

Lastly, the 5G rollout, which begins this year, promises to deliver faster speeds, far lower latency – to <1ms – and more ubiquitous connectivity for devices.

Poised to go mainstream by 2021, 5G is likely to drastically improve the playing experience and lead to even more growth in the future. We’ve already seen developers explore new avenues with mobile eSports, competitive play and cross-platform play with games likes PUBG and Fortnite, but 5G will open up further possibilities for developers to create radical new connected experiences for the ever-growing mobile audience. 

The proliferation of realities

Mobile is not the only games frontier that has changed drastically in the past decade. AR and VR games have both made great strides since their inception.

VR on mobile was ushered in with the release of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and GearVR in 2015. With the powerful Exynos series 7 processor, it allowed extraordinary untethered immersive gameplay by simply sliding the phone into the headset. 

In 2016, Pokémon Go became a global sensation and contributed to the popularisation of mobile AR technology. Following AR’s growing popularity, the 2017 Samsung S8 featured Google’s ARCore which further accelerated the advent of AR on mobile. It’s minimal bezels and premium Mali-G71 GPU (European version) also set a new standard for uninterrupted high-fidelity experiences.

This year sees VR going mainstream with more affordable all-in-one devices coming to the market, such as the Oculus Quest. High-end VR experiences traditionally require expensive PCs, external sensors and are fraught with dangling cables. This Arm-powered headset brings pick-up-and-play convenience while delivering exceptional wire-free play and immersion through its six degrees of freedom-tracking sensors. 


 Oculus Quest

Debuted in 2016, the Hololens captured the attention of developers worldwide for its potential and was the platform was a plethora of new AR/MR gaming experiences and demos.

The second iteration released this year, now Arm-powered, the Hololens 2 exemplifies the endless possibilities for mixed reality games and sets the stage for the future of gameexperiences.

Looking over the horizon

From the early 8-bit games to high-fidelity games and now the advent of machine learning, cloud play, 5G and fully immersive AR/VR - mobile games continues to be a changing landscape that will bring unimagined new experiences to billions of players. Whatever those experiences look like, we believe that Arm will be at the core of them.

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