Mobile ray-tracing’s chicken and egg problem

Imagination Technologies’ chief marketing officer David Harold discusses the the promise of ray-tracing for mobile games and why it may only be a couple of years away

Mobile ray-tracing’s chicken and egg problem

Traditionally, the most successful mobile games have long been built with specific player habits in mind: quick gameplay sessions you can snack on on the go, easy and quick to download, and able run on most mobile devices.

While those tenets remain true, mobile has increasingly become a market offering a wider variety of game experiences over the last decade. Fortnite, PUBG Mobile and Call of Duty: Mobile showed it was possible to bring leading, triple-A console and PC games to mobile. And miHoYo’s Genshin Impact, as well as its recent release, Honkai Star Rail, have further shown that expansive 3D open-world experiences can also be powered by mobile hardware.

Devices have become powerful enough to empower both triple-A quality experiences built from the ground up for mobile and cross-platform titles, an increasing trend in the industry. Before long, mobile games might even integrate ray-tracing, too - the rendering technique that enables developers to simulate lighting more realistically.

But what comes first?

David Harold, chief marketing officer at Imagination Technologies, which builds GPUs, CPUs and other tech for smart devices that power these experiences, says some of the excitement around ray-tracing is that “everybody wants the next feature”. He admits that the technology is “extremely demanding”, but it’s “starting to come through” on mobile.

But it faces a chicken and egg problem.

“It takes real estate on the chip in the phone to put ray-tracing in, which costs money for the chip maker and the device manufacturer,” explains Harold. “And they don't want to do that unless there's content, and games developers quite reasonably don't want to create a bunch of content that's reliant on ray-tracing if there's not a particularly high volume of phones with ray-tracing capabilities.

“So, that whole thing has slowed things down, but the ecosystem is starting to develop.”

As well as building the capabilities that enable ray-tracing into the hardware, one avenue that could make the tech possible on mobile is cloud gaming. By putting the grueling GPU work off the device and onto a high-powered server, intensive rendering can take place in the cloud, opening up high-quality gaming to both high and low-end devices.

“You have a huge number of gamers, particularly in developing markets like China or India, for example, who are playing Android games,” says Harold. “Perhaps the correct way to deliver the best quality to those very affordable phones is to say, ‘well, actually, the rendering is in the cloud’. If you have access to 5G, it’s fast enough to connect up, and you have a board in the cloud.”

“Maybe your mid-range phone could have access to great gaming graphics some of the time by getting it from the cloud. I think it makes a lot of sense for developers that a lot of mobile content maybe does not need high-end graphics, or it doesn't need ray-tracing or whatever else. But for those few titles that you want to play those triple-A graphically intensive games, we’ll go off to the cloud to play those.”

Mainstream mobile ray-tracing

Of course, while ray-tracing technology can add to the graphical fidelity of a game to make its visuals pop, it’s not just about creating realism. Harold notes that sometimes players want realism in games, and other times they don’t.

“But I do think it allows you to create images in a new way and to take away a lot of drudgery from things. Some poor artist has to think long and hard about all these shadows and reflections and whatever else - let's just make it all procedural, and people can focus on the more creative side of game art. I'm quite excited about that.”

Harold believes that ray-tracing will become “fairly mainstream” over the next couple of years. To that end, Imagination Technologies unveiled IMG DXT in January, its new GPU with ray-tracing features, aiming to bring the tech to the mass market by having it scalable between low and high-end devices. It’s building the technology, now it is just a small matter of convincing smartphone manufacturers of its viability and cost-effectiveness. The chicken and egg problem still exists, but Imagination wants to solve it.

“A very affordable phone could still have some ray-tracing capability,” says Harold. “I think that's a big step because volume in the market definitely matters to bring developers in. They can then see the opportunity for having ray-tracing features in their games.”

Mobile Groove - Founder, Analyst & Content Strategist