There's a good reason why a significant portion of Apple's iPhone announcement last week was dedicated to showing off the flagship iOS game series Infinity Blade. That's because with iOS 7 -- rolling out to the public Wednesday -- and the new A7 chip's 64-bit architecture, Apple is signaling to the world that it's dead set on remaining the preeminent mobile-gaming ecosystem.
iOS has long been the leader in that space thanks to its robust platform and the ease with which developers of all sizes -- from single-app makers to triple-A studios with sprawling mobile suites -- can monetize games. Game apps have heavily populated the most downloaded and highest grossing charts since the advent of the App Store and have launched entire studios to stardom, from Rovio with Angry Birds to King with Candy Crush.
Maintaining this edge means delivering not only full-blown Bluetooth controller support -- initially announced at this year's WWDC as part of Apple's MFi (made for iOS) accessory certification -- but urging developers to round out new hardware with top-notch apps that take advantage of the A7. Both strategies are well under way, and Apple is in a strong position to keep the mobile-gaming crown as it brings them to fruition this fall.
Apple has long had its sights set on making handheld gaming devices less appealing, a battle mobile apps have been winning. Apple's success against traditional gaming has always hinged on whether or not it can convince iPhone owners that devices like the PlayStation Vita, Nintendo 3DS, and Nvidia Shield cannot keep up with the pace of iOS game development and its impending hardware offerings.
Or, at the very least, that those devices are not worth the money. After all, why cast out large chunks of change on a Nintendo or Sony-owned gaming ecosystem, Apple logic goes, when one exists on your smartphone that's steadily catching up to the gaming juggernauts?
While 64-bit smartphone chips will be flooding the market come next year -- as well as updated and cheaper portable gaming devices -- Apple is gunning to be there first, with developers at its side and a line of impressive controllers to boot. If it succeeds, it will be a battle already won.
Optimizing for the A7 has already begun
When iOS 7 goes public, game developers will already be deep in the process of optimizing their apps. It makes sense too when you note that iOS adoption is typically quick and widespread. (One month after iOS 6's release last September, more than 60 percent of users had installed the update.)
"The updated versions of Dungeon Hunter 4 and Playmobil Pirates have cleared Apple approval and are up on the iTunes store," said Thomas Price, a representative for mobile game developer Gameloft. The studio also has a dozen more apps waiting for Apple approval, with initial updates focusing at first on capability and further iOS and hardware optimizations rolling out on a title by title basis.
More are on the way from a number of high-profile developers. At Electronic Arts, developers are taking advantage of the OpenGS ES 3.0 interface, a cross-platform API -- currently supported only by the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, updated Nexus 7, and Sony Xperia Z -- widely used for smartphone graphics rendering.
With the iPhone 5S, Apple joins that batch with the added benefit of being the only one of those smartphones to push a 64-bit processor.
"OpenGL ES 3.0 delivers stunning visual experiences, which will be immediately apparent on EA's graphically rich 3D titles such as Real Racing 3 and Madden NFL 25, as well as FIFA 14 by EA SPORTS and Heroes of Dragon Age, which will launch this fall," said Bernard Kim, SVP of Mobile Publishing at EA.
Developer Kabam, makers of the popular Facebook-integrated Kingdoms of Camelot series, is also prepping a number of updates for iOS 7.
"Kabam will release new game content for its most popular titles, including The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-earth, Fast & Furious 6: The Game, and Dragons of Atlantis: Heirs of the Dragon," said a company representative, though no timeline or specifics on the updates were made available. More notably however is Kabam's plan to utilize iOS 7's unique parallax effect -- a pseudo-3D motion most recognizable in Apple's new wallpapers -- in its upcoming Heroes of Camelot title.
Leading the charge is Infinity Blade 3, which hits the App Store in tandem with iOS 7. Users won't be able to access the graphical capabilities baked into the game that optimize for the A7 chip until they get their hands on an iPhone 5S (sales start September 20). Still, the graphical marketing push from both developer Epic Games and Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller last Tuesday shows that the iPhone maker wants the best and most aggressive mobile gaming advancements to take center stage on iOS.
iPhone controller on horizon, but questions remain
While new titles and app updates will be rolling out en masse following iOS 7's release, don't expect official controller announcements until right before the holiday season. Most models are in development right now, with expected unveilings estimated for late October and early November.
PowerA, makers of the Moga line of portable and console-style Android controllers, has iPhone controller announcements in the pipeline, though company representatives won't say exactly when we'll see our first iOS 7-optimized handheld or what it will look like.
It's unclear whether the company's current portable offering -- an Xbox-style controller with a flip-out holster to fasten in your smartphone -- will simply be ported over to iOS, or if we'll see an entirely new Moga design. PowerA also offers a pro model in which the device mirrors the smartphone screen to a television through proprietary software. That's an unlikely option with Apple given that a mirroring function conflict directly with the Apple TV's AirPlay.
It's also worth noting that the idea of controller support, despite piquing the interest of hardware makers and game developers alike, is a bit of a turnaround for Apple, who built its smartphone reputation with the launch of the original iPhone on a touchscreen that forgoes the need for physical buttons. But the company sees the value in competing with handhelds not just in experience with low-cost, easy-access apps, but in functionality. An A7 chip means near-console level performance capacity, making an add-on controller a no-brainer, especially if its of third-party make and Apple can test the waters by casually urging developers to add support.
Perhaps the most anticipated iOS controller is in the works at Logitech. The company made headlines in June when leaked images of early handset prototypes hit the Web and the hardware manufacturer confirmed its plans. Early concepts show a diverging design from PowerA wherein the iPhone is fitted inside a controller, turning the device into something akin to a PlayStation Vita.
"We'll support Apple's new MFi game controller framework, and plan to deliver a compelling gaming experience to iOS gamers this fall," said a Logitech representative, though the company declined to elaborate further, as has been the case with many hardware manufacturers since WWDC.
But while the iPhone announcement and A7 unveiling have done little to tip the controller manufacturers into spilling more secrets -- let alone try and speed up the delivery of the hardware -- Apple is still sitting pretty at the forefront of the mobile gaming industry thanks to the marketing bump of the A7's capabilities. It will only further its lead in the coming months with more and more iOS 7-optimized apps and the influx of new 5C and 5S devices running its latest software.
Integral to Apple's lead is the developer-held mindset that iOS marks the cutting edge playground for the newest advancements in mobile gaming. It lets them optimize for the small subset of users who can enjoy the latest and greatest graphics and functionality while the widest audience -- those with the current iPhone 5 and 4S -- gain last year's touted advancements in trickle-down fashion. The "rinse and repeat" annual iPhone strategy will continue to drive the iOS ecosystem's role on this front.
"Important to gamers and game developers like Kabam, which has had four games among the top 25 grossing apps on the Apple App Store, the new interface provides a better game-playing experience," Kabam's CEO Kevin Chou said on September 10 as Apple unveiled the iPhone 5S. "And the new controller puts Apple at the forefront of bridging the ever-shrinking gap between consoles and iOS devices."
Kabam may be bias toward Apple's success, given its tied to the success of its own apps, but the point is still valid: The gap is shrinking, and iOS is up front by a wide margin.
Update at 9:07 a.m. PT: Added additional details and clarified aspects of the 'Optimizing for the A7' section.