SAN FRANCISCO — Apple likely made some creators of high-end video games happy today.
At its Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple announced a new platform technology for game developers, dubbed Metal, which it claims can improve rendering performance for 3D graphics by tenfold.
The technology gets rid of some of the middleware that sits between hardware and game software. It enables developers to write their game programs directly “to the metal,” so to speak, making it easier for developers to write software that directly accesses the 3D graphics hardware in an iOS device.
What developers get out of this is a less software overhead that stands between a game and an iPhone’s or iPad’s hardware. It also improves nongraphics use of graphics chips to dramatically improve the speed of applications such as video.
The Metal technology is designed for Apple’s A7 processor, which has built-in 3D graphics. Tim Sweeney, the chief executive of Epic Games, went onstage to show a demo. The Zen Garden demo, which will be free to developers when iOS 8 launches, showed some incredible scenes, such as a koi pond with hundreds of fish, a cherry tree with 5,000 blossoms, and a garden with tons of butterflies.
Electronic Arts has been able to port its Frostbite 3D game engine, the same it uses for the Battlefield first-person shooters on consoles and the PC, to iOS thanks to Metal. The company showed a video that showed the online multiplayer shooter Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare working on an iPad, with 1.3 million triangles on the screen at once.
Besides Epic, Apple also showed Metal working with game engines from Crytek and Unity Technologies.
Metal is a low-level rendering applications programming interface, providing the minimum layer of software needed to allow software to run on different graphics chips.
Apple also announced SpriteKit, a development platform for casual game makers, to improve the quality and ease of development of casual games.
Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies, said in an interview with GamesBeat, “What they’re really doing is writing directly to the A7 chip, and doing it in a way that streamlines the 2D and 3D elements.”
Patrick Moorhead, analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said in an interview that Metal will require developers to write special code for Apple devices. But that won’t be difficult for the developers because the game engine makers will do the necessary work that will allow that code to run on other platforms.
Moorhead said that OpenGL ES, which is a relic of the Silicon Graphics era of 3D graphics and is still used today. He said Metal could disrupt both OpenGL and Microsoft’s DirectX API. A game developer could write a game using a game engine, but could write to the hardware, rather than to the older APIs.
“OpenGL’s strength is its weakness,” Moorhead said. “It runs on everything from workstations down to smartphones. But that leads to some code bloat.”
Tim Sweeney, chief executive of Unreal game engine maker Epic Games, said in an interview that was accurate. He said it replaces OpenGL ES.
“It’s literally an order of magnitude improvement,” Sweeney said. “There’s a huge amount of overhead that OpenGL adds to the graphics pipeline.”
We’ll have more from Sweeney in a later story.