25 Years of Mobile Gaming - Powered by Arm

Next week kicks off with Game Developers Conference (GDC), and San Francisco will be bursting with energy and excitement. The gaming industry is full of creativity and it shows by the amazing events that the industry hosts every year.

GDC is a chance for people to see all the fantastic new game technology on display in one place. A lot of the emphasis is put on PC and console gaming at this event, but for Arm the mobile gaming ecosystem is the focus. We have a responsibility to ensure developers can run content smoothly and efficiently on mobile.

The mobile gaming market is now the largest in the world, and is going to grow substantially by 2020 (1). Huge revenues from APAC have propelled the mobile segment forward. Titles like Honor of Kings by Tencent have an impressive active user base in China. 2017 also saw games being the most downloaded type of app in the major app stores.

Newzoo Mobile gaming report 2017

Arm recently launched a multimedia solution aimed at the mainstream mobile. The content smartphones and mobile devices need to process is becoming increasingly complex. Whether they realize it or not, consumers are demanding more from today's mainstream and low-cost devices, and support for a rich, multi-layered user interface and a broad range of the latest applications and technologies is an absolute must, all within a limited silicon budget. What's more, new applications such as machine learning (ML) aren't simply the domain of premium smartphones any more. Users at all levels expect to use apps that utilize ML with ease, and gaming has started to push the boundaries of mainstream mobile, with 3D gaming, mixed realities, and 4K content ever more prevalent. This is a huge step for mobile based games like Honor of Kings, better graphics and a more stable mainstream device brings these games to millions more people.

Arm looks at the future of technology and helps define what mobile devices will look like in three to five years time. However, to look forward, we must first look back. Our main theme at GDC this year is how Arm has helped shape mobile gaming for just over 25 years. So, let us tell you the story.

The first Arm IP in gaming.

Arm was founded in 1990, so gaining a foothold in the mobile devices of that era was a tough task for a small start-up. The company first entered the gaming market in the form of the Panasonic 3DO gaming console. It was a relatively successful console with over 2 million devices sold worldwide, and its best-selling game was Gex, the game with the cool looking gecko. Even with over 1 million copies sold, Gex struggled to make a dent in the iconic games industry flooded by Super Mario Bros and Sonic the Hedgehog. The 3DO had a 32 bit ARM60 processor which ran at 12.5 MHz and performed rather well according to reviews. A successor was planned, but was hampered and eventually cancelled by various technological issues and the rise of some of the most iconic consoles around the same period in the form of the Nintendo 64 and Sony Playstation.

Arm’s low power processors didn’t really feature in consoles after the 3DO. However, Arm’s licensing model and impressive growth as a company over the next few years paved the way for more gaming devices to spring up using Arm IP. Except this time they were handheld.

Panasonic 3DO

Panasonic 3DO 

The rise of the portable, hand held, gaming device.

The Nintendo Game Boy set the standard for handheld gaming in the 1990s. Unfortunately for Arm, it wasn’t their processors powering the first iterations of the Game Boy. However, off the back of huge success with the Game Boy and Game Boy Colour, Nintendo opted for Arm processor designs for the successor to these devices, called Game Boy Advance. At the time, it was one of the most powerful handheld mobile gaming consoles. Released in 2001 it had a ARM7TDMI processor, part of the Arm7 core family. Similar to the 3DO this was a 32-bit RISC processor and it ran at 16.78 MHz. It also included a Zilog chip, which enabled backwards compatibility for the 8-bit Game Boy and Game Boy Colour games.

Game Boy Advance

Nintendo Game Boy Advance

It was three years later when an Arm processor was the brains behind the release of the highest selling handheld gaming device of all time. With just over 154 Million units sold (3), the Nintendo DS had two Arm Processors; the 32 bit ARM946E-S main CPU which had a 67 MHz clock speed for processing gameplay mechanisms and video rendering. It also had a 32 bit ARM7TDMI co-processor; with a 33 MHz clock speed to processes sound output, Wi-Fi support and take on second-processor duties when playing previous generation Game Boy Advance games.

The DS family still lives on today, in the form of the much refined, larger display Nintendo 3DS that has powerful processor internals. The main processor is an ARM11 MPCore based dual-core processor. One processor core is dedicated to games and applications, while the other core is exclusive to the operating system, enabling multitasking and background tasks. These tasks are handled in the background during gameplay or while the system is in sleep mode. The system also contains single-core ARM9 processor, enabling backward compatibility with older Nintendo DS games.

Nintendo DS

The Original Nintendo DS

The GSM era and the Snake addiction

In December 1997 the Nokia 6110 was announced. This was the first GSM phone to use an Arm processor, specifically the ARM7TDMI processor that ran at 16.78 MHz. I think every child in the 1990s remembers stealing their parents GSM phone to play snake. At the time it probably wasn’t even considered a serious game but it showed what a simple, progress led game could do in a mobile device. More importantly it showed the addictive nature and appetite for simple mobile based games. The 6110 paved the way to the iconic expression series phones such as the 3210 and 3310. The monochrome devices moved into colour displays in the early 2000’s and the idea of gaming and phone combined started to become a reality.

Nokia 6110

Nokia 6110

The Nokia N-Gage was released in 2003 featuring a snazzy Arm9 series processor. The ARM920T single-core processor ran at @ 104 MHz and packed quite a punch. The N-Gage attempted to lure gamers away from the Game Boy Advance by combining gaming functionality with a traditional mobile phone. However, with buttons which had to double as a phone keypad and gaming functionality not well-suited for games that could be played on the platform, the ambitious product failed to live to its expectations. Sadly for the iconic looking phone, it was discontinued in 2005 and its features were moved into the series 60 phones by Nokia.

Nokia N-Gage

Nokia N-Gage

Smartphones and the road to high fidelity.

The HTC Dream wouldn’t stand out as one of the most iconic phones ever made. However, it was the first commercially released device to use the Linux-based Android operating system. While the Dream was praised for its solid and robust hardware design, the introduction of the Android operating system was met with criticism for its lack of certain functionality and third-party software in comparison to more established platforms, but was still considered to be innovative due to its open nature, notifications system, and heavy integration with Google's services. In hindsight it is amusing to look back on these criticisms, considering Android is a dominant mobile operating system today.

The Dream had a Qualcomm MSM7201A Chipset which had an ARM11 processor than ran @ 528 MHz and from a gaming perspective was at the mercy of the android market for applications. The HTC dream spawned such smartphones as the HTC desire series and Nexus series.

HTC Dream

HTC Dream

The Samsung Galaxy Series is one of most iconic smartphone series on the market. Samsung has always been a close partner to Arm, and the Exynos chipset is a fine example of that partnership. From the Galaxy Note’s Cortex-A8 based on Armv7 architecture to the newest Galaxy S9 just released with Samsung’s custom Exynos 9810 series M3 CPU paired a quad core Cortex-A55 along with the newest Arm Mali-G72 GPU. Samsung’s role in providing quality hardware for the mobile gaming cannot be underestimated. This series of phones has been a cornerstone of the mobile gaming revolution that ushered in a new concept of portability to games. They have been present from the advent of the simple games first posted on the Android Store to the high fidelity games that are so popular.

The release of the Samsung Galaxy S6 was a highlight for mobile gaming, as it ushered in a new feature to mobile gaming in the form of immersive gameplay using a GearVR headset. Samsung S6 were so popular amongst developers that is still used in many VR demos that are presented today. The powerful Exynos series 7 Octa-core processor that had a mix of Arm Cortex-A57 and Cortex-A53 and was a design which incorporated Arm’s big.LITTLE processing technology. The Exynos 7 chipset for the Samsung Galaxy S6 also included Arm Mali-T760 GPU.

Samsung Galaxy S6

Samsung Galaxy S6

One of the most popular smartphones of recent times is the Samsung Galaxy S8. With minimal bezels, it set a new standard for uninterrupted, immersive experiences on both regular mobile gaming and VR. It also featured Google’s ARCore which accelerated the advent of AR on mobile. Samsung have moved onto custom built CPU’s based on Arm architecture in the form the Exynos M2 9 series (8895) which runs at 2.5 GHz and is paired with 4 Arm Cortex-A53 CPU’s which run at 1.7 GHz. This is a stark contrast to 25 years ago when the 3DO ran at 15MHz. Again, the European Samsung S8 also had a premium Mali-G71 GPU which packed a strong graphical punch for smooth high-fidelity graphics.

Samsung S8

Samsung Galaxy S8

If you read many forums on games, you commonly see people mention that “mobile games are not for gamers. They are for bored people who just happen to be looking at their phones”. The pick up and play games of the mobile world might not be proper gaming, but that is the most fascinating part of technology and it's ability to help evolve how we use everyday devices. The rise of mobile gaming has changed the profile of gamers worldwide. Due to their pick up and play nature, mobile gaming has been propelled to the highest value gaming segment in less than ten years. If you want more facts and figures on this check out the Newzoo high fidelity gaming report.

Working on the next chapter

Mobile is the largest gaming segment and is growing fast. Stopping and looking back, it is interesting to see how far mobile devices have come in the past 25 years. Devices like the 3DO laid the foundations for the newest and most powerful smartphones. As mobile gaming continues to evolve, adapt and grow, Arm is providing the processor technology to power the next generation of devices. From fun 8-bit games to fully immersive virtual reality, we are excited to see how our partners will shape the future of mobile gaming. Will AR titles be the next innovation to change our perception of gaming or will it be an entirely different form factor?

Whatever it is, it’s highly likely to be powered by Arm.

Further reading


Newzoo Global Games Market Report 2017 | Light Version – Download it here
Picture credit - By Evan-Amos - Own work, Public Domain.
Nintendo. April 27, 2016.

  • I'm an avid gamer, playing games since my childhood, from Super mario to Far cry 5, I should tell you that this is very informative article for me.

    Thank you for sharing such information.

    ( played Tony Hawk on N-Gage and broken the keypad, and the phone was my friends' :-P )

  • You may not know just how much involvement Arm had in the Gameboy Advance. The SoC was manufactured by Sharp and Sharp contracted Arm design services for the first prototype. Dave Flynn created the overall system architecture and designed the audio interface and a 'write buffer accelerator', a write buffer with some processing in it. I designed the video controller, DRAM controller and overall top level power and clock management and integration etc. Andrew Burdass designed the ROM interface and also worked on verification with Neil Robinson who was also the project manager. Two engineers from Sharp came over from Japan to assist with verification. Lance Howarth looked after the software, which was mostly outsourced, David Braben and his team at Frontier created most of the demos. The SoC used a Sharp-only ARM7DM on a rather nasty slow process.

    Unfortunately color displays were not sufficiently low power or low cost at the time and the SoC as we designed it didn't see the light of day. However the Sharp team led by Azuma-san who worked with us in Cambridge re-worked the chip for an obscure new Sharp low power LCD, they replaced the DRAM controller with an SRAM controller (a big mistake as bandwidth was way worse due to lack of bursting), and they replaced the CPU with an ARM7TDMI on a 'normal' process. I wasn't aware at the time because I wasn't involved in software but David Braben was not very happy as he did all the demo software for free in the hope of getting business from Nintendo which never materialized.

    The SoC we designed was not in vain as it enabled Sharp to convince Nintendo to use Arm. Note that Arm never had any contact with Nintendo, our contact was strictly with Sharp.

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