Since the iPhone launched in 2007, I've yet to see a 3D game come close to matching the graphics of the best the Sony PSP has to offer, but according to at least one developer, this may be changing.
In an interview with Pocket Gamer, Michael Schade, CEO of Fishlabs, an iPhone and mobile games developer, said the iPhone 3G S's support for OpenGL ES 2.0 will push the machine's 3D graphics capabilities beyond that of the PSP.
While current iPhones only support Open GL ES 1.1, OpenGL ES 2.0 has several capabilities not included in the older version. Most notably, shader support, which allows developers to use more customized--and usually prettier graphics effects.
Schade says that the biggest hurdle will be getting iPhone developers to actually implement these custom effects.
"As graphic assets need to be designed from scratch to benefit from 2.0 shaders, it will be very hard to monetize the extra effort in the early days," he says. "It's definitely not worth it for 99-cent apps."
Id Software's John Carmack, creator of Doom and Quake, agrees with Schade in that the potential for the iPhone to be a more powerful gaming platform is there, but he also points out, because of "software inefficiencies," we may not see that potential realized just yet.
While Carmack sees Open GL ES 2.0 support on the iPhone as a good thing, he made the point that he would not be taking advantage of it and instead will stick with 1.1 for Doom Resurrection, launching next week. The reasoning? He wants Doom to reach the widest audience possible, which for now, is the current-generation iPhone.
Schade may have a solution, though. He says that although it will cost more development and testing time, it may be a good idea to implement a feature that allows games to detect which version of the iPhone you have and then upgrade the graphics accordingly. Similar to the way games work with different levels of video cards on the PC.
The 3G S is rumored to have a CPU that's "up to 2x faster" than the current 412MHz ARM 11 in the iPhone 3G. If developers are willing to create a brand-new, from-the-ground-up graphics engine using the new processor, then we eventually may see something truly impressive.
Fishlabs's own Galaxy on Fire is probably the most impressive 3D iPhone game I've seen, and yet, it has a long way to go to match the graphical complexity seen in PSP games like Crisis Core: FF7 and God of War: Chains of Olympus.
Some PSP developers are obviously willing to put in the time and care to make their games look outstanding, but, I've only seen little evidence that iPhone game developers are willing to do the same.
Also, consider that making games look outstanding takes time and money and that new PSP games cost $40 and each game sold goes a long way toward recouping development costs. Longer, at least than a $5-$12 game on the App Store would.
I think that many (including some developers) view iPhone games as nothing more than mere 15 minutes distractions while you're waiting to do something else.
How far we see the iPhone 3G S's graphics pushed may depend on how developers think most iPhone users play their games. With the "graphical tour de force," Doom Resurrection launching next week, we may start to get some insight of what's to come.