Metal, meet Apple TV: Why iOS 8 seems destined for console gaming
Console-quality games on iOS could be closer than ever, which means a TV-connected device makes even more sense.
"Apple's Metal technology in iOS 8 introduces a whole new level of performance that is unmatched in mobile today. With the ability to maximize game performance on the A7, we can deliver a console-level experience on an iPhone or iPad." -EA's prepared statement regarding Metal at WWDC.
Watching Apple's WWDC keynote, I knew right away what I was seeing before Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of Software Engineering, even said it: EA and Popcap's Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, a console shooter made for current and next-gen consoles, was running -- or, at least part of it was -- on an iPad.
iPhones and iPads already play pretty impressive games and boast shockingly good graphics. But Metal is a new developer tool that aims to push even more performance out of the current A7 processor. Graphics demonstrations at Apple's event involved thousands of blowing flower petals and other console-style gymnastics. The graphics capabilities mean running game engines intended for PCs and consoles: EA's Frostbite Engine, for instance, is what makes Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare tick; Frostbite also powers Battlefield 4 and upcoming games like Dragon Age III: Inquisition.
But, to what end? Console-level gaming hits a wall on iPhones and iPads, and that's mainly due to screen size and input. There are iOS game controllers that are currently changing the landscape of iOS gaming to a far more console-like level, but the games that tap into these controllers are hard to find.
It's the Apple TV that needs something like Metal most of all. I've dreamed of an Apple TV-connected game console before, but now that device feels inevitable, and overdue. A new Apple TV has been rumored for ages but hasn't emerged yet. Amazon already showed it can be done with the Fire TV, which plays tablet-style games quite capably with a controller. But Apple could be after far more: the actual mainstream console game market.
Is it outlandish to think of a beefed-up Apple TV becoming a gaming superpower? The next-gen console landscape is still in transition: the PS4 and Xbox One are selling systems but are expensive and still have too few must-have games, while Nintendo's Wii U has completely run aground from the rest of the third-party publishing landscape. I felt this way last year, and I feel it even more now.
EA, CryTek, Epic, and Unity are all already working with Metal to improve iOS gaming, according to Federighi. Now, imagine: with E3 just around the corner, and mobile already carving out a dominant part of the gaming profit landscape, why wouldn't publishers want to push console games to an iOS-based, TV-connected platform -- especially if it means these games will work on iPhones and iPads, too?
iOS game controllers have always felt like a first step toward a gaming-ready Apple TV. At this point, MFi -- short for "Made for iPhone" -- game controllers exist but feel like a hobby: only a few accessories, and a long but hard-to-find iOS game controller-ready catalog. All it would take is an MFi controller and an app-ready Apple TV to open up living-room iOS gaming. But as far as how good these games could get, well, Metal might be a window into the depth of Apple's aspirations.
Metal is designed for A7 processors -- the powerful 64-bit mobile chip that powers the 2013 iPhone 5S, iPad Air, and iPad Mini with Retina Display. Of course, A8 processors -- all but certain to debut in the fall inside Apple's inevitable new iPhones and iPads -- should be even more capable, especially where 3D graphics and gaming are concerned.
The current Apple TV box debuted in 2012 and runs on a 32-bit A5, the 2011 chip that debuted in the iPhone 4s. Whether the long-rumored next-gen Apple TV box runs the A7, the A8, or something in between -- the A7X? -- the fact that it's a 64-bit chip would give it the gaming chops it needs to deliver the sort of impressive performance that Apple teased at its WWDC keynote yesterday. Add Metal-enabled games to the mix -- which Federighi claimed could deliver up to a "10x improvement" in some areas of graphics performance, and that console-level bar might be a lot of more achievable.
Metal is too good, in a lot of ways, for smaller screens alone. Its true destiny feels like a larger screen -- and by that I mean a 60-inch TV, not just a 10-inch iPad. If it meant I could buy an inexpensive device and play affordable games that look nearly as good as what I could get on a console, I'd love to play.
I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one.