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iPhone 5: Game developers react Exclusive

iPhone 5: Game developers react
September 13, 2012 | By Eric Caoili

How are iOS developers reacting to the iPhone 5? How will the new smartphone affect the industry as a whole? Gamasutra spoke to studios both small and big to learn their thoughts about the next iPhone.

For many, Apple's press event yesterday delivered welcome refinements for the iPhone 5 (e.g. a new A6 chip promising two times faster performance across the board) but few major surprises. Its most obvious addition to the iPhone line is the 4-inch screen -- a half-inch bigger than any previous iPhone's display.

And other than bringing a couple studios up on stage to demonstrate what they could accomplish with the new iPhone and iPod Touch's improved specs, Apple didn't devote much time to showing what game makers can accomplish on its new hardware.

As a result, David Kalina, co-owner of Waking Mars developer Tiger Style, tells Gamasutra he was "underwhelmed" by the event and announcements. However, he expects he'll enjoy owning an iPhone 5 after it releases next week.

Simogo's Simon Flesser (Beat Sneak Bandit) is unimpressed by the iPhone 5, too, and says he's worried the iOS platform is becoming more and more like Android and PC with every new generation. He also questions the need for annual refreshes of mobile devices.

"I have personally lost a lot of interest in devices that do not offer something that feels truly fresh with new and exciting ways of interaction, like the first iPhone, the DS, or the Wii," says Flesser.

Though the indies that Gamasutra talked to seemed uninspired by the iPhone 5's unveiling, bigger mobile social game developers like CrowdStar, Gree, FreshPlanet, and Wooga were all quick to express excitement over the announcement.

Wooga's CEO Jens Begemann (Diamond Dash) and Gree's studio operations SVP Anil Dharni (Zombie Jombie) both believe the taller screen and faster chip will enable developers to create more immersive experiences, as well as more graphically-impressive games. (EA's head of mobile and social games Nick Earl expressed a similar sentiment.)

Begermann added that Wooga is eager to take advantage of the deep Facebook integration promised with the upcoming release of the iOS 6 operating system, which Apple has just revealed it is shipping next week.

CrowdStar CEO Peter Relan (Top Girl) also praises the briefly-mentioned "time-shifting multiplayer" support that will be included with iOS 6's Game Center update -- the feature allows users to record a gameplay session, and have their friends or others compete against that session data later.

How will iPhone 5 impact developers and the industry?

While existing games should appear fine on the iPhone 5's bigger screen -- just letterboxed due to the extra space -- developers are likely rushing to update their titles to accommodate the wider display, and have them ready for the smartphone's launch on September 21.

Tiger Style's Kalina expects the iPhone 5's higher resolution (1136 x 640) and 16:9 aspect ratio will push more iOS developers toward becoming resolution-agnostic when designing their games. It's an approach his studio has always kept in mind, so he doesn't think updating Tiger Style's games for the new phone will take too much effort.

Simogo doesn't believe that updating assets and adjusting its games for the new aspect ratio will have a great impact on its operations either. As for the extra horsepower of the iPhone 5, the studio isn't sure that it can do much with it, at least not if it wants users with older iPhones to enjoy its games.

"We do not want our games to feel inferior on last year's device, so even though we theoretically could do even greater stuff graphically, we are still 'hindered' by older devices, so to speak," Simogo's Flesser explains.

FreshPlanet CEO Mathieu Nouzareth (SongPop) agrees and says it will be some time before some developers will want to push the iPhone 5's capabilities: "[In the] short term, the user base is too small to rely solely on this, so we have to rely on the smallest common denominator."

Gree's Dharni, though, is excited by the prospects of producing a game that takes advantage of the iPhone 5's improved specs. "We are now facing the reality of console-quality gaming being playable on all kinds of mobile devices -- which is really exciting for both developers and players," he says.

And on a general level, CrowdStar and Wooga say they're most looking forward to the iPhone 5 continuing to do what Apple's smartphones have done for years: selling like gangbusters, creating a bigger mobile gaming audience, and attracting plenty of new consumers who wouldn't be playing games otherwise.

Rising costs for iOS developers

The release of the next Apple smartphone less than a year after the iPhone 4S underscores just how short the mobile hardware cycle is compared to the traditional five-to-six-year cycles for home consoles.

With these condensed hardware generations, there's a potential danger that some developers might not be able to keep up with the rapidly increasing costs of creating assets and making games for the latest platform, as they try to compete with others doing the same.

Wooga's Begemann, however, argues that this is where developers of free-to-play games that are regularly updated have an advantage, especially since companies typically allocate around 20 percent of their budget to pre-launch development, and 80 percent to post-launch work.

"These games that are services constantly have costs, but also constantly generate revenue," says Begemann. "As we continue to invest in our games, it's great to see that improved hardware allows us to get more out of our games and bring richer, more immersive games to this new audience."

But Randy Lee, global business development head at CrowdStar, doesn't think that smaller or indie developers are at a disadvantage, as the markets they're trying to reach don't necessarily require the most visually impressive or even complex games.

Lee adds, "There will be the developers pushing the limits of graphics to create more immersive experiences. There will also be developers who are more casual and broad-based. Just look in the top charts, there are always a variety of games that target different users."

Tiger Style's Kalina says it would be foolish for independent developers to engage in an arms race to stay ahead of the device power curve. Instead of trying to target every new hardware release, he says game makers need to focus on creating experiences that appeal to the widest range of people possible.

"If smaller devs have to spend more money to keep up, it's only because the quantity and the quality of the competition keeps rising, which is a side effect of Apple having the healthiest and most diverse marketplace," comments Kalina.

And even if some developers have to contend with bigger budgets, FreshPlanet's Nouzareth reminds mobile studios, "[Rising costs are] inevitable in the long run, but costs on mobile devices are still relatively low compared to console."

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