Apple gave game developers a lot of presents on Monday during the keynote speech at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco.
If anything, game makers should be pleased that Apple cares enough about them to constantly tweak its platforms, so that it’s both easier to find games on the App Store and Apple’s software is better and better at running both high-end and casual games. On the other hand, Apple is playing catch-up on the App Store front, compared to the Google Play store.
Tim Sweeney, chief executive of Epic Games, and lead platform engineer Josh Adams went up on stage (see 99:32) to show off Unreal Engine 4 running on iOS 8, the new version of Apple’s mobile operating system. The Unreal “Zen Garden” demo showed a beautiful Japanese garden with lots of koi, butterflies, and cherry blossoms — all moving like individual objects. Sweeney said the demo had 5,000 cherry blossoms floating on the screen.
The demo took advantage of a new low-level rendering applications programming interface, Metal, which gets rid of the somewhat bloated OpenGL ES API, which has been around for a long time and has become inefficient at running 3D software. Instead, game developers can use game engines from Unity, Epic Games, and Crytek to create games that can be 10 times more efficient in rendering via Metal.
“It replaces OpenGL ES, which is an ancient relic of the Silicon Graphics era,” Sweeney said. “The great thing is that developers writing to a game engine are writing at a high level anyway. The game engine will do the work of translating it to the low-level code.”
Sweeney said that the inefficiency of OpenGL ES has been “the bane of our existence” because it creates overhead on mobile platforms, “where we can least afford it.”
Epic’s demo will be available free for developers after iOS 8 comes out.
On top of Metal, Apple announced numerous changes to the App Store that will mimic the advantages of the Android Google Play store in promoting new games to users.
“The unveil of ‘Metal’ and the resulting performance gains are great for developers like us that are really trying to push the limits of what can be done on mobile hardware,” said Alex Seropian, cofounder of Industrial Toys and maker of the upcoming Midnight Star shooter game on iOS.
Seropian noted that smaller developers can also avail themselves of tech features like the Swift programming language and iCloud hosting of apps. However, he added, that “will come with the obvious non-portable ties to the Apple ecosystem. Great move by Apple to help solidify their dominance on mobile.”
Kyu Lee, head of Gamevil USA, the U.S. arm of a South Korean mobile game publisher, said that Metal was interesting because it will help drive up the production values of mobile games.
A spokesman for Unity said, “We’re extremely excited about Metal and the potential new power it enables for mobile developers. It’s been great to work with Apple and we’re excited to share more details about the benefits developers will see shortly.”
And in a statement, Crytek said, “Apple continues to blur the lines between mobile and console gaming. Apple’s Metal technology in iOS 8 will allow us to deliver a new level of graphics performance and encourage a new class of games.”
The Metal API will benefit other companies aside from game makers.
“As you can imagine, we push the hardware a lot at Smule given we are doing OpenGL graphics in addition to extensive audio processing,” said Jeff Smith, chief executive of Smule, the maker of music-related apps. “With Metal, we can do more.”
Kevin Krewell, an analyst at market research firm Tirias Research, said in an interview that Metal is similar to the Mantle API from Advanced Micro Devices. If you write your code for Metal, you can theoretically do a lot more to take advantage of the available 3D hardware in a given Apple device.
“If you’re a game developer, you have a lot of choices, but it’s harder to leverage your designs across a lot of different platforms,” said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64.
But Krewell pointed out that the game engine makers have the staff to create the code that will allow a game that is written for Apple’s platforms to still run on other platforms such as game consoles or Windows PCs.
With more than 1.2 million active apps in the App Store, it’s harder than ever to find stuff. Apple is introducing new features to the store such as app bundles, app previews (promo videos), and “explore,” which lets you tap the screen to search for new apps you might like.
Apple is also adding “related searches,” which suggest apps similar to ones you have searched for. Apple is also adding a new “editor’s choice” category to the App Store so you can find things that Apple recommends to you in different categories.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook said Apple is relaunching TestFlight, a beta-testing service that allows developers to try out versions of their apps with real users.
Of course, Apple didn’t show off any new hardware for gamers.
“Nobody expected an iPhone, and the idea that Apple would do an iWatch was heavily discounted,” said Krewell.
“This is not a hardware crowd,” said Brookwood. “It would have been strange.”