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The iPhone 5: what this means for gaming on iOS devices

The iPhone 5: what this means for gaming on iOS devices

The iPhone is a consumer electronics device, a media machine, and a video game console. Some people even use it to make phone calls. We talked about why the new iPad is likely to be one of the best-selling gaming consoles of the year, but today Apple unveiled the iPhone 5, and it gives us some interesting ideas about where gaming will be on iOS devices in the next few years. We’re going to leave the punditry aside and focus on what this means for games.

The game has not been changed

Like it or not, Apple has become a powerful force in gaming, and new iPhone and iPad hardware are more or less the launch of new gaming devices for a number of developers and millions of gamers. Once you look at the hardware through that lens, you can start to think about what each iteration of the platform means for iOS gaming. The iPhone and iPad are connected in ways you don’t see in other companies; they are two very different platforms for content, but they work together to form a kind of holistic ecosystem for software. What happens in one line affects everything. That being said, there isn’t much here that is going to rock the boat.

There are no major surprises with the screen, as the pixel density is the same as the retina display on the iPhone 4S with some added height. The new phone’s display runs at a resolution of 1,136 by 640, up from the 960 by 640 display of the 4S. Older applications and games will be letterboxed to work on the new screen, while developers who were given advanced warning will have updated their apps in time for launch. If you’re wondering what iOS developers are doing right now, scrambling to take advantage of the extra screen real estate is a good bet. Being compatible with the new displays on hardware launch days and getting one of the coveted “featured” slots on iTunes during a hardware launch means extra sales.

While the iPad 3 is running Apple’s proprietary A5X chip for CPU and graphics, the new iPhone is running the just-announced A6 chip, which is estimated to be twice as powerful as the A5 in the iPhone 4S. That’s a whole lot of letters and numbers, but it means that applications will launch faster, games won’t spend as much time loading, and graphics will be improved on games that are coded to take advantage of the new chip. It’s also likely the next generation iPad will include the A6, or some variation thereof.

A neat side-effect of iPhone retina displays it that iPhone games look much better when blown up to iPad sizes. Games stretched to fit the iPad screen used to look like blocky messes, but retina-enabled games look fine when expanded. I’ve been playing the iPhone version of Fieldrunners 2 on my iPad 3 with no major complaints.

The iPod Touch model shown at Apple’s event will be upgraded with the A5 chip, which means that Apple has greatly improved the average processing power of its gaming devices; developers can now aim higher if they want to create a game with “console quality” graphics that will also work on a number of devices. Expect support for older models to drop off now that the hardware lines have taken a step up.

The amount of RAM may be the wild card here. Some sites are reporting the phone will include 1GB of RAM, double the 512MB of the iPhone 4S. Apple has been historically stingy when it comes to RAM. The iPad 3 comes with 1GB of RAM, and bringing the phones up to that minimum would certainly go a long way to letting developers take full advantage of the new processing power. Apple knows the power of uniformity, and game developers are going to try to create games that can run on the maximum numbers of devices. The higher the average power across the entire line of iPhones and iPads, and the more guts that are shared between them, the better for game developers who are looking to increase graphical fidelity.

The iPhone 5 is an incremental update over past hardware, and we’ll have to see what developers are going to be able to do with the new A6 architecture and possibly expanded RAM. The iPad line now has a clear upgrade path, and we may have to wait until someone has a unit to tear open to check out the amount of RAM. The battery life, which Apple claims to be a small improvement over the 4S, is a major missed opportunity. The iPhone’s battery has always felt weak, and you can run through it in a matter of hours if you’re playing graphically intensive games. Still, the iPhone 5 is both thinner and 20 percent lighter than the iPhone 4S. The engineers at Apple are good, but no one can magic a more powerful battery into a design that’s so tiny. That “beautiful” design is going to be lost when everyone adds an external battery pack, however.

The price? 16GB for $199, 32GB for $299, and $399 for 64GB, and those prices include a two year contract. Everyone will be busy updating their games for the longer screen, and the extra power provided by the A6 will likely excite developers such as Epic, whose games push the boundaries of what’s possible on iOS devices. The new hardware is interesting for games, and I can’t wait to see what people can do, but there’s no game changer here.