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Developers hail iPhone 3G S gaming capabilities

Loving the OpenGL ES 2.0, not minding the fragmentation
Product: iPhone 3GS | Publisher: Apple | Format: iPhone
iPhone 3GS iPhone, thumbnail 1
Games developers have welcomed Apple's new iPhone 3G S handset, saying it'll offer even more potential for rich gaming in the coming months, and could even outdo PSP graphically.

Over on PocketGamer.biz we've been canvassing the views of a bunch of iPhone developers and publishers on the 3G S, and two themes stand out.

First: they love the fact that it supports OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics. Second: they accept that this may mean developing two different versions of their games – one for regular iPhones and one for the 3G S – but don't mind.

Open up

Mobile developers have been itching to get their teeth into OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics for some time now, yet the technology hasn't quite made it into truly popular handsets.

It's for that reason that Nigel Little of Distinctive Developments says, "I'm very happy that we'll have a mainstream OpenGL ES 2.0 device. Graphics will take a big leap forward both in quality and framerate."

How much of a leap forward? "Based off of what we've seen today, this definitely puts them far away from the competing platforms, which is incredible," says Kyu Lee of Gamevil USA.

But others go even further than comparing iPhone 3G S to other mobile handsets. "The OpenGL 2.0 support will push the iPhone beyond PSP," says Michael Schade of Fishlabs, although he points out that this brings its own challenges for developers.

"As graphic assets need to be designed from scratch to benefit from 2.0 shaders it will be very hard to monetize the extra effort in the early days," he says. "It's definitely not worth it for $0.99 apps."

Paul Farley of Tag Games agrees on the graphical quality assessment, although he has some caveats. "The improved processor speed and 3D graphics capability will allow the iPhone 3G S to genuinely offer console like gaming experiences on the move," he says.

"Yet the question remains whether this is really what the mobile games consumer wants given the popularity of casual 2D games on the existing device!"

That said, many of those developers who've been working on 3D titles have already laid the groundwork for upscaling them to OpenGL ES 2.0 versions. Such as a certain racing game from Firemint...

"We have been working with OpenGL ES 2 reference hardware for a while and have a working prototype of Real Racing running on it, but until now we haven't had a viable platform to publish on," says Firemint's Rob Murray. Watch this space.

Fragmentation issues?

One interesting challenge for developers will be how to take advantage of the more powerful iPhone 3G S hardware while still supporting existing iPhones (as, we assume, Apple will insist they do).

Does this introduce an element of fragmentation – making different versions of games – that's so far been blissfully missing from the iPhone sector? Partly, but nobody seems that fussed.

"It is possible to do some really interesting lighting and rendering effects with the shaders that will be available, but some of these effects may impact the asset processing pipeline and make it difficult to deliver one reference build that targets both OpenGL 1.0 and 2.0 optimally," says Murray.

So how to approach this? "I expect that the bigger developers will start to make two separate versions, especially if you want to take advantage of OpenGL ES 2.0," says Distinctive's Little.

What kind of differences might we see? It's early days, but Bart Decrem of Tapulous (Tap Tap Revenge) outlines one possible scenario for his firm's flagship game.

"It is possible that we will offer a slightly different experience for users on the more powerful class of devices. For example, we may offer slightly simpler themes for users coming in with slower devices."

Is this something to worry about? Not according to Decrem. "To be fair, we already do some of that today," he says.

"Tap Tap Revenge themes come with built-in throttling where, if framerates drop, we strip away certain visual effects to ensure optimum performance. We may do that in a more systematic manner as the 3G S comes online."

However, Fishlabs' Schade says the two-tier iPhone ecosystem isn't a big problem, particularly as the 3G S sits alongside the second-generation iPod touch in terms of speed.

"It makes more sense now to have a setting for extra high graphics to run on iPod touch 2 and iPhone 3G S, even if that means more dev efforts and testing," he says.

"It creates some fragmentation but we can still support all devices with just one SKU that detects automatically what device it's running on, and switches to the best graphics automatically."

"Having two devices to build for is a piece of cake when you consider Tag are used to building mobile games for upwards of 2000 devices in Europe alone," says Tag Games' Farley, and he's backed up by Chillingo's Chris Byatte.

"Agreed that it isnt ideal to now have two different phones to code for. However, it is something that I am sure developers will learn to cater for – after all, two is a better number than thousands, which is the current state of the mobile industry!"

Other reactions

One issue picked up by several developers was the knock-on effect of the iPhone 3G S going on sale – the fact that the iPhone 3G will still be sold, but for $99.

"If a user can purchase an iPhone for $99, this will increase iPhone sales, which will lead to a bigger iPhone application audience," says Joony Koo of Com2uS.

He's backed up by Digital Chocolate's Trip Hawkins. "High-end devices and networks for those that can afford it, and a trickle down benefit if existing devices and networks get to lower price points sooner," he says.

Meanwhile, Little says he'd have liked to see Apple announce a few changes to the way the App Store works, at the same time as unveiling the iPhone 3G S.

"I would have liked to see changes to iTunes to ensure the cream rises to the top," he says. "Changes would help more developers invest more in their games, but without these changes then developers will continue to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks."

But intriguingly, the iPhone 3G S' compass is sparking some interest from game developers for its potential uses.

"If it is sensitive and responsive enough then we would have a whole new axis of rotational input to our games," says Firemint's Murray. "That could be a significant boon to game controls."

Overall, it's clear that games developers are enthusiastic about the potential of the new iPhone, not to mention their previously-expressed excitement around the iPhone 3.0 software that will accompany it.

And that's perhaps the important point, here. Whizzy graphical hardware is all well and good, but as important – if not more so – to the evolution of iPhone gaming will be all the new APIs that are being made available to developers through the 3.0 software.

It'll be interesting to see how Apple's rivals (the likes of Sony, Nintendo and Nokia) respond to this double whammy of hardware and software in the coming months. Whichever camp you fall into – if any – it's an exciting time for handheld gaming.

Reviewer photo
Stuart Dredge 9 June 2009
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