Opinion Piece: Is Nvidia's departure from Android a disaster or a blessing?

Discussion in 'Off Topic' started by IntoxicatedPuma, May 22, 2018.

  1. IntoxicatedPuma

    IntoxicatedPuma Customizer of Titles
    Thread Starter Site Staff Moderator Silver Supporter

    It's not directly related to SFF as it's not PC based, but I think many here can recognize that phones are in some ways the ultimate SFF PC. I wanted to share my thoughts on something I have been thinking about lately:

    I wanted to bring up the topic because it is heavily related to the Nintendo Switch (which I have been heavily involved with over the last 1.5 years) and I wanted to share my thoughts and see what others think.

    When I first joined my current company in 2014, I told several of my managers that we should expect an ARM powered console to break into the market by 2016. In order to describe such a device to those who were not familiar with chip architectures, I had to describe it as a “phone” – which immediately got the idea dismissed. Most of what I heard was:

    “It’s not powerful enough” or “Nobody wants to play free-to-play on console”

    In other words, people were stuck in the current mindset and couldn’t see that things can change, or that ARM didn’t have to be limited to low quality games on phones.

    Fast forward to 2016, and Nintendo announces the Switch. It wasn’t quite what I had expected in 2014, but it was definitely what the industry needed to wake up. I think the most shocking thing was that Nvidia had more or less pulled out of the Android ecosystem by this time, with only a few SOC’s being offered on Android devices (Pixel C and Shield TV). It seemed to me that Nvidia was throwing its chips and energy into Nintendo’s basket where they could have more influence or at least had a common focus and goal.

    For me it was a little bittersweet. I was happy to see an ARM console succeed but sad to see that the Switch had no LTE support, no microphone input, and a little sad to see a lack of camera. In otherwords, it could not be used as a phone or tablet, and as a result it was going to be an additional device to carry around not a replacement for others. I am not a Nintendo fan so while I can understand that many could have easily seen this coming, I did not and was a bit disappointed.

    In some ways, I feel this was a tragic setback for the Android ecosystem. The Shield devices were very unique, and served several purposes:

    · Increase awareness for high quality games on ARM

    · Encourage Android to create software features for gaming

    Nvidia’s departure from Android in both software and hardware both destroyed the leading force, but it may have also opened room for others to take over. In 2015 Acer announced the Predator gaming phone and tablet. It was perhaps a bit premature as the phone never saw release and the tablet was nearly as scarce. Interest in the device must have spurred other companies to follow suit, because in 2017 Razer announced their entry into the smartphone market with the gaming oriented Razer Phone. Shortly after, we now have the release of the Nubia Red Magic and Xiaomi Blackshark gaming phones. In addition, Motorola has the GamePad MOD for the Moto Z series of phones, available since 2016.

    It is clear that gaming phones are starting to take hold, and Asus is rumored to be launching an ROG branded phone later this year. In addition, controllers are starting to become prevalent as seen on the Blackshark and Moto GamePad MOD. With phone makers desperate to differentiate their products, it’s only a matter of time before other companies jump on the bandwagon. In the next year, I think it is likely that we will see not only more phone makers join in, but more gaming oriented features such as controllers, haptic feedback, larger batteries, high refresh rate screens. I would also be willing to take a wager that Qualcomm will announce gaming oriented SOC’s in the next year with higher GPU frequencies that can take advantage of larger/thicker size and better cooling.

    With the hardware starting to take off, the software remains somewhat of an unknown. Nvidia pushed heavily in this segment trying to encourage game companies to port their products to Android. The results were lackluster, however I can tell you that at least some companies did try in this area (either with Nvidia or on other ARM based consoles), but in the end the sales of those hardware devices was not enough to justify the production costs for the games.

    With Nintendo Switch succeeding, it presents an interesting situation. The Tegra X1 in the Switch is not a particularly powerful chip. Sure, on paper it looks impressive, but in an undocked mode you are looking at 307mhz on the GPU (the Shield TV is 3x more powerful) and for the CPU, 1000mhz on only 3 A57 cores can be used for the games. This is pretty lackluster compared to the Snapdragon 835 and 845. This means that we are now at a point where mid-range phones are at least powerful enough in theory to run games made for Nintendo Switch. Due to the similar architecture, companies can benefit by releasing games on both: split the R&D costs needed to convert games to run on ARM between both Android gaming phones and the Switch. We have already seen a lot of games converted to run on Android, whether it’s old GTA titles, World of Warships Blitz, or more recently PubG and Fortnite Mobile. Many companies are also porting older titles for Nintendo Switch, such as Doom and Skyrim. It’s clear that game companies see a market here and that market will continue to evolve.

    It will be interesting to see what Google’s response to this is. Consoles are dedicated devices and as a result have many advantages, such as in-game streaming, dedicated hardware controls, and comprehensive online support (ok maybe not on Switch), as a result they can standardize the games which run on them which in turn streamlines and optimizes them. However, phones have the advantage of rapid innovation. Adding some standardization to Android gaming phones could provide some of the benefits of consoles.

    To summarize, I think that while Android still needs a lot of work to become appealing to game developers for high quality games, it is now the bottleneck and will probably be receiving the most attention in coming years. I think that a list of what needs to be done can be easily identified:

    1. Online API’s – expand Google Play Games to have friends list, invite system, streaming etc.. Perhaps 3rd parties could get involved? Steam on Android, or Ubisoft Club? The risk here is fragmentation, each company running off on their own.

    2. Standardized control layouts – similar to what you get from consoles. This will depend alot on what happens with #1.

    3. Change in attitude from Gamers and Game Developers – get away from the Free-To-Play mindset and start recognizing that you can get a console experience from a phone. #1 and #2 will probably help alot as it reduces the work of developers.

    4. Dedicated game-store – help customers recognize what games are designed with these new features in mind and are standardized. Nvidia did this, I hope someone else can pick up on this.

    5. (nice to have) Hardware improvements – docks like what the Switch has would be great, being able to plug your phone into a TV and use as Android TV with a Bluetooth controller. Some devices such as the Wonder Phone are already working on this.

    I think that Nvidia and Nintendo’s partnership has been in some ways a real blessing. Nvidia wasn’t getting much headway on Android and now that they have gone to Nintendo, they have shown what is possible using phone hardware. It was also a elephant in the room considering its gaming chops, and I think in some ways it could have deterred other companies from getting involved. However in other ways, it was also a driving force which had the capacity to push the market without customer demand. It's absence means that the focus now much more dependent on what the customers say and want, which is not always good (i'm looking at you, phones with 8GB RAM). However, if android software can rapidly advance in the gaming area, it could force Nintendo to update its hardware and software features to keep competitive and attractive for 3rd party developers. In either case, I think a new golden era of mobile gaming devices is upon us.
  2. VegetableStu

    VegetableStu SFF Guru

    who knows, maybe the true console killer is right in your hands o_o

    then again not till someone does a PSN/xbox live -like multiplayer ecosystem within the phone itself
    loader963 likes this.
  3. GuilleAcoustic

    GuilleAcoustic Chief Procrastination Officer
    Moderator LOSIAS

    Free app is the plague of Android. I happily pay a few Euros for an app that I find useful.

    Way too many useless, uninteresting, ads infested apps. I don't even talk about casino algorithms based games like candy crush....... If you lost your daily tries (because the level was unfinishable from the start) then go buy lifes or watch an ad or beg on FB, if you're good/lucky and won 10 games in a row then you have to way 24h cause ya know Yar ruining their business ...... So ...... Cellphone games

    And then you have the pay2win where you can literally pay to pass a level or more (candy crush again), pay for random lootbox (clash royal) ... All for the sake of the dick waving contest when you'll share your faked scores on social network.

    No wonder editors have a bad opinion of smartphone games and by association ... ARM
    VegetableStu likes this.
  4. Choidebu

    Choidebu King of Cable Management

    The issue with gaming is always piracy.
    That's why a walled garden approach is always preferred by the 'suppliers'.

    Sad to say, the open nature of android ecosystem is its downfall in this case. This is why free to play is the norm there.
    VegetableStu and IntoxicatedPuma like this.
  5. IntoxicatedPuma

    IntoxicatedPuma Customizer of Titles
    Thread Starter Site Staff Moderator Silver Supporter

    Yeah lack of DRM is a huge problem on Android, and it's why I'm hoping something can be done about it. I don't know enough about how it works to tell if Google would be able to change things without destroying the performance of games though. Some kind of closed garden would help alot, just not to the extent that Nintendo does.
    VegetableStu likes this.
  6. GuilleAcoustic

    GuilleAcoustic Chief Procrastination Officer
    Moderator LOSIAS

    Just like they have Google play for paid books, movies and music .... They could add a Steam like store for paid games, that wouldn't use APK.
    VegetableStu and IntoxicatedPuma like this.
  7. EdZ

    EdZ Virtual Realist
    Gold Supporter

    I'd dispute the core premise that "Nvidia has departed from Android". Nvidia have been consistently one of the fastest (if not the fastest) company outside of the Pixel/Nexus lines in keeping their devices updated to the latest Android version, with some of the longest support lifetimes (admittedly due to the Shield tablet being almost unchanged for 4 years). Codeworks is still actively updated. The Shield TV is the top Android TV device, and the closest thing to an 'Android console' already with a standardised controller, hardware platform, and subsidised games (though subsidised by Nvidia rather than Google). I expect the only reason the Shield Tablet/Portable 2 was canned was a non-compete with Nintendo for the Switch.

    If the concern is gaming on ARM rather than Android specifically, the Drive series is near the forefront of development when it comes to rolling out new GPU architectures, albeit aimed at much higher margin markets than home gaming.

    As for DRM: APK already has support for signing, the problem is the exact same as with any other DRM: it's a mathematical impossibility. You cannot hand the end user the encrypted data, the key, and the program to decrypt it, and expect to control when they can run that program via magic and wishful thinking. It can work for a limited time with a completely obfuscated platform, but even that fails sooner or later (e.g. every console in history).
    VegetableStu likes this.
  8. jØrd

    jØrd SCSI for life
    Moderator Gold Supporter Supporter of Efficiency LOSIAS Digital Seppuku

    Does it need to last all that much beyond the projected life span of the console though really. Once you stop releasing patches for the device its basically no different to any other piece of abandonware. Then again it took 20+ years to break the DRM on the Sega Saturn for all the good it did that console XD
    Soul_Est and VegetableStu like this.
  9. IntoxicatedPuma

    IntoxicatedPuma Customizer of Titles
    Thread Starter Site Staff Moderator Silver Supporter

    Yeah for me that's what is really needed, an App Store/Ecosystem with standardized controls, some types of protections for the software, and also online integration. Basically what the console makers are doing but using phone hardware. I will be very happy when I only need to carry my phone around and can interact with different interfaces using it..

    I agree with what you have said, but the details you have provided seem to validate the claim that Nvidia has abandoned Android though right?
    • Shield Tablet not updated in 4 years
    • Shield TV not getting a replacement due to the Switch
    • Focus on business products rather than consumer products
    Soul_Est and VegetableStu like this.
  10. EdZ

    EdZ Virtual Realist
    Gold Supporter

    There is already a standard controller framework, online integration through Play Games, and DRM is just as effective as elsewhere (i.e. isn't).
    An 'expandable phone' has failed multiple times with ARM-based multi-OS (e.g. Atrix 4G, Android + Linux dual boot, with both laptop and desktop docks) and single OS (e.g. Ubuntu Touch devices) devices. I can't see it happening at all without x86 to allow Windows as the host OS, and with Broxton dead that's not going to happen any time soon. Microsoft had a chance with Windows 10 mobile, but blew it.
    My point was that with the Shield tablet/TV, they are actively releasing android updates. It has not been abandoned as even newer devices from other vendors have. The Shield even showed in in Google's keynote on upcoming Android P features, so it's not even just that they're quick and reliable at pushing out AOSP, they're actively developing Android at the leading edge.
    The hardware itself remains competitive (or still surpasses in the case of the Shield TV) other hardware available, so there appears to be as little impetus to update it as there is with their consumer GPUs. The Shield TV was only updated last year, though with the same Tegra chip (seeing as it still sits way out on top of the performance charts for Android TV boxes anyway).