Two Things About Games & iPhone 5
This post by Rohan originally appeared on Kotaku…
It’s T plus a fortnight-odd now, and we’ve had time to put the iPhone 5 through its paces – both as a gaming platform for our enjoyment, and as something to build our own games on. Can anything be said that wasn’t said on launch day by the myriad of developers putting in their two cents? Well, two things popped into my head…
I was always going to buy an iPhone 5. Not because I’m some frothing-at-the-mouth Apple fanboy with a turtleneck and a shrine to Steve Jobs mind you (The turtleneck IS the shrine to Steve Jobs – Leigh) – but because I’m a mobile developer, and a game nut.
Being an indie developer at a fledgling company, without the benefit of a well-staffed QA department or team, my house resembles a “Museum of Modern Mobile History”. Between old devices of mine and hand-me-downs from people answering the call for debug devices, I have almost every iOS device Apple have released, two android devices, one laughable Symbian phone and a few other obscure bits of tablet hardware.
But the iPhone 5 was something special – something I knew I was going to have to buy if I wanted us to be able to make a good show of being up to date with our current project, a mobile title designed to take advantage of the ultra-high res devices the average mobile gamer carries in his or her pocket these days. The first thing made the iPhone 5 special wasn’t so much the A6 chip (a chip so fast it can belt out 1080p 3D graphics to your TV which look better than almost any Xbox 360 title I’ve seen) or the myriad of smaller features which Apple advertises – it was the screen.
Shifting to a 16:9 screen is a massive move, and it’s something which will have a fairly significant effect on game developers – especially smaller indies. Thing is, I don’t think it will affect people gaming on iPhones so much… but will affect the growing number of people playing mobile games on Android phones.
Depending on which stats you believe, Android makes up either the majority of mobile devices on the planet, or the overwhelming majority of mobile devices on the planet. Despite this, a number of fairly commonly known issues have stopped Android’s market sharing manifesting in it being the mobile gaming juggernaut that it might otherwise be.
So why does Apple having a screen which is the same size in one direction and the same DPI, but with one direction a bit longer, make a difference to gamers? Specifically, why Android gamers?
Well, when you’re working on seriously limited resources (not the working-in-garage-while-living-with-your-grandma type of limited, but limited nonetheless) you have to make a lot of hard calls when it comes to where your energy goes. Sure you could make your game work on iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Phone, Android and GumbleCorp’s new WuzzPhone 4000 running its own custom build of BeOS or something. However, if you’re the astute sort of who looks at stats each year, you’ve probably decided to cut your losses and, even in this more modern age of cross-platform frameworks and engines, hit just the one or two most cost-effective platforms.
And up the top, that’s iOS. Apple, whether you love them or hate them, have cultivated a culture of people who love buying a veritable crap-ton of new apps and games, and all on a device which, until recently, only had two aspect ratios to worry about – 3:2 for the phones and 4:3 for the tablet.
One of the many reasons some game developers pick iOS is that when you’re not trying to make your user interface scale to a dozen random aspect ratios and resolutions, you can get your UI team (or, y’know, *you*, if you’re very small) to focus on making very nice looking art, and know you won’t have to duplicate it a dozen times for each different aspect ratio and screen size.
This is a bigger deal than you’d think, too. Our team have hotly debated the pros and cons of dynamically-scalable interfaces that’ll work fine on everything from the iPhone 3GS to the Samsung Galaxy Note… versus simply using custom-sized art built for specific phones. Until now, the latter seemed like a no-brainer.
The iPhone 5 is a special device. It’s special because it’s forcing us those of us had been trying to keep our interface art device-specific to increase the required output and support an aspect ratio which already seems to be the norm amongst non-iOS devices.
In short: it’s making the question as to whether we port to non-Apple platforms a little less simple to answer.
The QA problem (that is, the immense cost of doing good-quality quality assurance on even just the most common several-dozen Android phones) will likely always be there in some form or other, but by forcing developers a little further out of the “iPhone is like a standardised game console” argument, Apple are actually making it just a little bit more plausible that more mid-scale indie games will hit Windows Phone, Android or Blackberry too.
For the first few days I was developing on the iPhone 5, this seemed to be the only big deal about the device. Whatever other pros and cons the thing has, the only thing which directly affected me as a game developer was the screen.
However, after several days, as more reviews poured out and – more importantly – sales figures, something else occurred.
There is a second reason why the iPhone 5 is a ‘special’ device for mobile gaming, and it not only has nothing directly to do with the A6 chip, the screen or the RAM… it has nothing directly to do with the hardware at all.
It’s this: Apple have already sold, on opening weekend alone, over 5 million of these devices – and I’d be willing to bet that a pretty good number of these folks probably gave their older iPhones (whether it be a 3GS, 4 or 4S) to their boyfriends, girlfriends, family-members or money-strapped friends. And more than likely most of these people pretty quickly took to the App store to find apps and games for their new toys.
These days, most mobile games (except the bleeding-edge stuff like Real Racing) Just Work on most handsets that aren’t absurdly old. Even our game (for now, at least) builds and plays fine on the 3-year-old iPhone 3GS.
My point is: it’s not the specs that matter about the iPhone 5. It’s the influx of people buying them and the fallout of more hand-me-down and “it’s cheap enough for me” older iOS devices staying in circulation. THAT’S what matters.
iPhones are consoles. The more people that buy them, the more viable the platform and more games we’ll see for it, and we already see a ton.
The platform expanding is good, and for gamers generally it’s probably a net positive that a side-effect of this platform is a slightly increased number of games which work nicely on a variety of screen sizes (and therefore, non-iOS devices).
Meaning, in general, more games.
Which makes me excited – and, if you have a smartphone or tablet of any sort – it should excite you, too.