Core gaming: why iPhone 6 has Apple aiming for console quality

But will a shift to 3D games alienate smaller studios?

That Apple’s iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus handsets broke pre-order records, shifting upwards of four million units within 24 hours, was met with barely a shrug; it would have been more newsworthy had records not fallen. Meanwhile, UK consumers managed to not only bring Apple’s website to a halt, but those of other major mobile phone providers once pre-orders opened. There will, as there is every year, be long queues on launch day.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said the new handsets would represent “the biggest advancement in the history of iPhone”, a bold claim that isn’t without some truth. Notably, the ‘vanilla’ 6 will have a 4.7-inch display of 1334x750 pixels, while the larger boasts a 5.5-inch screen, running in full HD resolution – i.e. 1080p. They’re expensive, but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone when it comes to Apple products. Plenty will be prepared to upgrade their phone contract – particularly when dealing with a device capable of myriad tasks besides making calls (as Apple’s ads are especially keen to point out).

Developer Vicarious Visions tellingly describes the iPad version of Skylanders: Trap Team as “a full HD console experience.”

That includes playing games, of course, and it was noticeable that games featured more prominently in Apple’s conference than they have in the past. While Apple provided a strong ecosystem, the App Store was never really designed for games to flourish, rather films and music. While Apple has capitalised on the rise of iOS gaming, it’s more by happy accident than design that the App Store quickly became a home for a lot of smaller studios, some of whom aren’t so small any more.

The new devices are powered by a new A8 chip, which boats 20 per cent faster graphics than its predecessor. The new operating system also has a new graphics API known as Metal, designed to allow developers efficient access to the full computational power of the hardware.

Vainglory, from developer Super Evil Megacorp, is said to feature 1.3 million polygons on screen running at a smooth 60 frames per second.

This was promptly demonstrated in footage of forthcoming title Vainglory, from developer Super Evil Megacorp, which is said to feature 1.3 million polygons on screen running at a smooth 60 frames per second. Described as an “unapologetically core” game, it’s a three-on-three multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game in the vein of DOTA 2 or League of Legends. Beyond its evident technical prowess, showing off Vainglory is a significant move for Apple because it’s a very obvious sign that it’s keener than ever to push iOS as a platform for more than just casual time-wasters.

Four years previously, Epic Games revealed tech demo Epic Citadel, designed to showcase Unreal Engine 3 running on iOS hardware. This time, the company’s founder, Tim Sweeney, unveiled a visually impressive demonstration of Unreal Engine 4 on iOS called Zen Garden. It says much for the speed at which smartphone tech has improved in the intervening years that UE4 has been designed to be scalable to mobile platforms, not to mention the fact that it’s available on iOS so soon after its full release.

Apple’s Phil Schiller went on to confirm support from a wide range of publishers and developers, with a slide displaying 23 company logos. Again, tellingly, many of them were big names in the enthusiast space: Electronic Arts, Disney, CD Projekt Red, Square Enix and Rebellion, among others. With mentions of ‘console-quality’ visuals during the Vainglory presentation, the message is clear: Apple sees itself as a serious competitor to the likes of Sony and Microsoft.

As with its previous tech demo Epic Citadel, Epic Games will make Zen Garden available on the App Store for free once iOS 8 has been officially released.

Indeed, this ties into earlier claims from developers that Apple was starting to take iOS more seriously as a platform for games. Stoic Studio, developer of PC strategy RPG The Banner Saga, was specifically advised by Apple on the price point for the game’s forthcoming iPad port. “Apple is frustrated about the mentality that's gone rampant in mobile app markets, where people don't want to pay anything,” said the studio’s co-founder John Watson to games website Polygon, suggesting that there was a market for high-end games with strong production values that Apple was particularly keen to push.

In other words, while many know the App Store for the likes of Candy Crush Saga and Flappy Bird, it seems Apple wants to see more games with premium price points, like XCOM and Dragon Quest VIII. The audience may be significantly smaller, but these games should still turn a healthy profit. Already, we’ve seen Telltale’s The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us adopt an episodic pricing model – in keeping with the games’ structure – but it’s been copied by Ubisoft, whose WWI drama Valiant Hearts: The Great War hit the App Store with later chapters available as in-app purchases.

With mentions of ‘console-quality’ visuals during the Vainglory presentation, the message is clear: Apple sees itself as a serious competitor to the likes of Sony and Microsoft.

Meanwhile, Activision is trying something bold with the next edition of its popular toy-game hybrid Skylanders. Trap Team will launch on iOS in a bundle that comes with a bespoke controller, allowing its young audience to play the full game on a device more and more children are using as their main – in some cases only - piece of gaming hardware. Nintendo especially will be eyeing this development with no little concern.

There are, however, some problems with the new hardware, particularly from a developer’s standpoint. Some have suggested that the larger form factor of the iPhone 6 Plus may force some studios to redesign their games, as its size means that some game types – particularly those designed to be played with a single digit – cannot be played comfortably. It could, in fact, all but lead to the end of games made specifically for portrait mode, and it’s worth remembering that some of the App Store’s biggest successes have come in that format.

It also means more work for small teams, who now have to design their games for a wider variety of different resolutions. This problem was highlighted by Simon Flesser of popular Swedish studio Simogo, the team responsible for Year Walk and DEVICE 6, two of the App Store’s most critically-acclaimed games. “More resolutions won't make games better,” he tweeted. “It will take longer to make them, though.”

Flesser also suggested that the studio’s forthcoming release, The Sailor’s Dream, may have to be delayed until 2015 to accommodate the new devices. “[It’s] also super frustrating that new users will play blurry messes of our previous games before we can get a chance to update,” he added.

It’s understandable that Apple should want to make a more aggressive play for the core market. But its next challenge is to find a happy medium for everyone, to work with smaller developers as well as larger ones to maintain the variety that iOS has become known for. What’s certain is that this move is indicative of a company that is no longer prepared to merely host games on its service, but that finally wants to play a more active role. If it manages to strike the right balance between accessibility and console quality, Apple could soon become the games industry’s biggest player.