Stripped-down no more: How mobile delivers the full gaming experience

Mobile gaming is one of the industry’s fastest-growing sectors, and it keeps getting bigger. It generated $93.2 billion in 2021, comprising more than half of the gaming market. With mobile gaming on the rise, big publishers are taking notice. Players like Take-Two and Xbox Game Studios have recently made major mobile gaming acquisitions, betting on continued growth.

A significant driver of this growth is that technology is catching up with ambition. LTE had the speed for gaming, but mobile players could run into latency issues that made massively multiplayer games somewhat frustrating and unresponsive. The same was true for cloud gaming, which allows players to enjoy console or PC games by streaming them. Cloud gaming requires the network to do the heavy lifting–normally the job of the console–which makes network latency critical in order to ensure low input lag and responsive controls.

5G networks from providers like AT&T aim to solve that challenge, giving mobile gamers access to optimized connections that let them enjoy games to their fullest. Specifically, AT&T is opening mobile gaming to new audiences by uniquely including subscriptions from Google Stadia and Nvidia GeForce NOW, and by optimizing its 5G and Fiber networks for gaming on the go, making sure latency is low and frame rate performance is consistent.

How 5G improves mobile gaming

While mobile gaming experiences are now coming into their own with the power of 5G networks, it hasn’t always been that way.

A big blocker for mobile gaming used to be hardware – but no longer. Early Android and iOS phones didn’t have the processing power and energy efficiency to deliver AAA gaming experiences. Those times have long passed, and nearly all mobile devices on sale today can power high-fidelity titles.

5G is also solving what has up to now been a big issue with mobile gaming: connectivity. Cellular networks of the past just couldn’t handle the demands of mobile multiplayer. Multiplayer games like Fortnite, PUBG Mobile, NBA 2K, and Call of Duty: Mobile all require split-second precision, which has typically chained players to Wi-Fi. With 5G, though, users get a cellular connection that’s quick, reliable, and optimized for low latency. So when you click, reactions are near real-time, even when you’re playing your friend in Atlanta while sitting on the beach near LA.

5G also makes cloud gaming on the go possible, and with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate over 100 console and PC titles can be streamed straight to a mobile device. From massive hits like Halo: Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 to the latest indie darlings like Tunic, these games once reserved for playing at home can now be wherever the player wants. For some games–like the classic platformer Banjo-Kazooie–the mobile device is all the player needs thanks to a full suite of touch controls.

NVIDIA GeForce NOW works similarly, letting subscribers stream a constantly updated list of games by tapping into a remote, high-end PC in the cloud. It, too, includes touch controls, and any PC game with XInput support is compatible with the virtual controller. (AT&T is also offering priority membership to GeForce now for six months to those who have signed up with AT&T 5G.)

NVIDIA also partnered with Fortnite developer Epic Games for a closed Beta of new, mobile-style touch controls for the massively popular battle royale Fortnight, bringing the popular game back to Android and iOS devices through the GeForce NOW service. Nvidia is also working with AT&T to continually improve the cloud gaming experience on 5G.

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Console vendors and game streaming sites are getting in on the action, too, letting players access their games-in-progress from browsers and mobile devices. Examples include PS Remote Play for PS4 and PS5 owners, where the player can connect to their console from anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection or by using mobile data, and Steam Link for fans of the popular gaming platform.

These services point the way to how publishers and developers can partner with 5G network providers like AT&T to target mobile gamers with high-fidelity experiences using hardware based in the cloud.

A world of possibilities

The line between mobile gaming and PC and console gaming is beginning to blur. Designing for 5G can allow mobile studios to attract new players, and create innovative gameplay. We saw a hint of what’s possible when studios tie network connectivity to a core function of a game: Pokemon Go’s Adventure Sync lets players register steps without having to be logged into the game, giving them rewards as soon as they boot the game up again. This is only one example, and honestly it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Offloading advanced compute functions and rendering to the cloud could allow for smarter AI agents, deeper augmented-reality experiences or more complex gameplay in the future. For example, compatible devices could scan an entire room and create an on-screen play arena on the fly. Or imagine an AR shooter game that allows players across the country to team up against enemies in the virtual world all with near zero latency. Additionally, cloud processing enables lower-spec devices to run games they would not be able to otherwise, which could open the field to new swaths of players in new and underserved markets.

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Ironically, we could also see the revival of old ideas. When the PS Vita launched in 2011, there was a version available with 3G connectivity. While it was innovative, connectivity then wasn’t up to supporting smooth experiences. With the improvements 5G brings, we might see a resurgence of handheld gaming devices with cellular connectivity. The recently released portable Valve Steam Deck lets players access their Steam accounts to play thousands of games on the go, but it’s only Wi-Fi compatible at the moment. If a 5G version ever emerged, the potential could be off the charts.

Mobile gaming shouldn’t be pigeonholed anymore

When the words “mobile gaming” are spoken, the conversation tends to shift toward one of two things: simple puzzle games with crushed confections, or sophisticated game mechanics designed to extract money from people’s pockets. This reputation is earned, admittedly, but the mobile gaming scene of today is far different than it was when that reputation emerged, with a genre of games delivering fuller, richer experiences that hold their weight against the top console and PC games of the times.

Developers are beginning to realize this, revealing more and more games for mobile devices. Square Enix, for example, created an entire battle royale themed around the all-time classic Final Fantasy VII’s recent remake, while Blizzard Entertainment is building a new Diablo experience from the ground up for phones and tablets. The network problems of yesterday are being solved with 5G, and as they are, mobile gaming can fully blossom into the medium it was always intended to be. AAA console gaming experiences on mobile devices used to be laughable. Now they’re inevitable.

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