Gaming is ushering in a new era for niche smartphones

The first version of Asus’ ROG Phone was priced at  ₹69,999 whereas the ROG Phone II sells at a starting price of  ₹37,999, a considerable decrease in less than a year.

Ivan Mehta typically uses his television or iPad to watch movies and videos, a laptop when he has to work, and a console when he wants to play games. When he’s on the move, though, he uses a single device—his smartphone, for all these activities.

A six-inch full high definition display, fast processor and access to a plethora of apps allows him to use his smartphone on the move. But lately, he has been considering buying a different phone for playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) when he’s mobile.

Delhi-based Mehta is thinking about a gaming smartphone—a new smartphone variant that many vendors have been pushing lately. Gaming smartphones sport special features that are meant to enhance the quality of gaming and include graphics that can almost rival those in consoles.

When they were first introduced in 2015, gaming smartphones seemed to be a marketing gimmick. However, more companies are jumping on-board, and smartphone chipset makers too appear interested in this space. Qualcomm, for instance, sells a chip called the Snapdragon 730G, where the ‘G’ stands for Gaming. It’s part of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Elite Gaming series chipsets for phones.

According to Kedar Kondap, vice president of product management, at Qualcomm, the company’s Elite Gaming series is not just about faster processing. Instead, Qualcomm tries to optimize the overall gameplay experience. Kondap explained that jank reduction is important for professional gaming. Janks are errors in processing that lead to interface issues in games and an overall sub-par experience. Qualcomm tries to reduce janks in various games on its gaming chipsets. The features that gaming smartphones bring aren’t necessarily suited to gaming only. For example, displays with higher refresh rates (perhaps the most common feature among these devices) could also be useful for watching sports, and they also make user interfaces feel smoother. Kondap believes “between latencies, applications and 5G, there may be more niche categories of smartphones coming up”.

While Qualcomm and MediaTek are examples of mobile chipset manufacturers turning their heads towards smartphone gaming, a notable entrant recently is Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), known for its Radeon graphics cards on full-scale gaming PCs. AMD recently licensed its new RDNA architecture to Samsung for use in its mobile chipsets.

Over the past two years, most gaming smartphones launched have usually been more expensive than even flagship devices on the market. However, in 2019, companies seem to have made prices more comparable. For instance, the first version of Asus’ ROG Phone was priced at 69,999 whereas the ROG Phone II sells at a starting price of 37,999, a considerable decrease in less than a year.

Similarly, the Xiaomi-backed company, Black Shark sells its gaming smartphone, the Black Shark 2 at 29,999, while ex-ZTE company, Nubia sells the Red Magic at around 35,000.

According to Black Shark, in 2018, the global gaming market stood at $125.4 billion and mobile gaming accounted for 35% of this market. A study published by Newzoo this June pegs the revenue from the global mobile gaming market at $152.1 billion by end of the year, so it’s not surprising that smartphone makers are trying to cater to this market.

However, the features and hardware in these devices can be put to use for many other things, like augmented reality and virtual reality. Sasa Marinkovic, global gaming marketing director at AMD, concludes that, “phones are going to continue to evolve and become more and more powerful.”