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Developers plan for iPad 2 graphics boost

The iPad 2 is packing improved graphics performance, and game developers are already at work on making the next crop of games look even better.

Epic Games' Infinity Blade for iOS, running on the Unreal Engine, which will bring new effects for iPad 2 users.
Epic Games' Infinity Blade for iOS, running on the Unreal Engine, which will bring new effects for iPad 2 users. Epic Games

Though the iPad 2 doesn't hit store shelves the end of this week, developers are already planning to give their games and applications a boost with the extra power.

The iPad 2 sports a dual-core processor and graphical performance Apple says is about nine times as powerful as the first-generation iPad. This is likely to have the biggest impact on things like installing and switching between applications, but it will also impact 3D games, where the system will now be able to push a higher number of polygons and pixels around on the screen, as well as allowing 3D game engines to do some new tricks.

A number of developers CNET talked to following last week's iPad 2 announcement, said they were planning to create games and application features specifically for the new hardware, with some holding off on a release until seeing what Apple had in store with its sequel. One of those is Firemint, the makers of hit 2D game Flight Control, as well as the top-selling Real Racing series. The day the new hardware was announcement, the company said that it had been expected a beefed up version of the iPad and had shifted development efforts of its Real Racing sequel just in case.

A shot of Real Racing 2 for the iPhone, which is headed to iPads and will be getting "significantly enhanced" graphics on the iPad 2.
A shot of Real Racing 2 for the iPhone, which is headed to iPads and will be getting "significantly enhanced" graphics on the iPad 2. Firemint

"While we were not aware of the specs for iPad 2 before the keynote [by Apple CEO Steve Jobs], we made some educated guesses about where we thought the hardware might head," the company said in a blog post. "So for many months now we have been developing a much more graphically intensive version of Real Racing 2 HD to take advantage of the anticipated performance improvements."

The result is a game that Firemint says is "significantly enhanced beyond what could work on existing devices." Firemint also said that it's taking advantage of the new gyroscope sensor, which first appeared in the iPhone 4, then later the iPod Touch to further tune the game's steering.

"All these attributes combined with our enhancements to Real Racing 2 HD will create the most precise and intuitive car racing experience on any device. The 1080p HDMI output also opens up some great possibilities," the company said.

Besides Firemint, Venan Arcade--the makers of the Space Miner series--told CNET that it too planned to add some iPad 2-specific filters for extra graphical flourishes in the upcoming sequel to Space Miner: Spare Ore Bust, and anticipated seeing a similar boost in Apple's next iPhone. Another developer, who asked to go unnamed, told us that the newer hardware would enable them to "rethink" the cartography in its GPS application with better 3D effects, as well as a higher degree of accuracy to user orientation with the inclusion of the gyroscope.

Under the hood
But it's not just the developers, it's the tools they're building their games on top of. One of those is Unity, the 3D game engine that powers a number of iOS games, as well as games on Android and consoles.

Speaking to CNET last week, Unity co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Nicholas Francis said his company plans to make changes to the engine to enable it to do new things on the second-generation hardware and that the speed bump was welcomed.

Unity logo

"It's really nice Apple put in a faster GPU because the iPad had a very large screen, but the same GPU as the iPhone 3GS. So the iPad had a lot more pixels to pull, but developers had a lot less horsepower to pull per pixel," he said. "Unity already takes advantage of multiple cores within a system. So we'll need to go in and really fine tune and really optimize it to run fantastic on the iPad."

Francis said that the graphics boost means iOS developers will be able to bring over a handful of additional effects available on PC and console gaming, and that they'll be able to do it with the company's tool.

"Unity's always been really extensible. You use the same shaders on the iPad as you do for the PlayStation 3, so we have to sit down and say 'OK, how do we really do we really tweak it and bend it to make sure all our users have all those resources?'"

Those effects could include shafts of light coming from between tree branches and through windows, as well as real-time shadows, giving games and landscape rendering applications more realism. "Essentially it means that a lot of the stuff that was developed for consoles will now run on the iPad," Francis said.

One of the other big players that's come into Apple's corner within just the past year has been Epic Games, the makers of the Unreal Engine. While Unreal can be found in a large number of PC games, it didn't show up in iOS games in earnest until Epic Citadel, a technology demo of the Unreal Engine for iOS shown off at the unveiling of the iPhone 4. This was later followed up by Infinity Blade, which the company released at the end of last year and has gone on to become one of the top grossing games on the App Store and the primary example game in Apple's iPad 2 marketing materials.

Unreal Engine logo

Like Unity, Unreal is an engine developers use to power their 3D games. In the process of bringing it to the iOS platform, Epic Games had to make a number of concessions in its graphics processing. At the Game Developers Conference around this time last year, a company spokesperson, explaining how Epic had squeezed it down into the iPhone and other mobile devices, said that having an extra processing core on the iPhone would be good, and that "four would be great."

In an e-mail to CNET last week, vice president of Epic Games Mark Rein said that "Unreal Engine 3 is fully capable of taking advantage of the extra power of iPad 2" and that "UE3 developers can already put this extra power to use and make even more amazing apps and games for iPad 2."

A few days earlier, Rein had told blog VentureBeat that new hardware improvements mimic what's gone on in the PC gaming space.

"You can see Unreal Engine 3, what happens as we get more power, you can take a PC and put a much more powerful graphics card in, and turn all the dials up in your game to get more detail, more textures, more shaders--things like that. Clearly those are the kinds of opportunities here," Rein said. "More CPU means potentially more physics and more enemies on the screen, a wider view of an environment. It's just really fantastic."

Left behind
As we've seen with the move from the first batch of iOS hardware to the next, there are the occasional titles that really shine on the newer devices and will only run on them. However, the vast majority of games continue to aim as broad as possible in terms of hardware requirements.

For developers, one solution to ensure that has been to offer toggles that can scale back on the effects, or that detect which generation of the hardware a user is on, and turn certain shaders on or off. Others--though not many--have gone with a segregated approach, and offered titles that went with specific hardware type. (more on that here)

Apple promises iOS iPad updates to be free, but not necessarily feature complete for older devices going forward. CNET

There is a risk, of course, depending on how aggressive Apple gets about phasing out older iOS devices from getting software features, as it began with iOS 3. The iPhone and first-generation iPod Touch were later left out of the update process completely in the move to iOS 4, and now the iPhone 3G faces the same problem with the upcoming 4.3 software update at the end of this week.

Why is this important? Some games and applications begin to take advantage of the APIs and features within these software updates, which has left some with earlier devices unable to run applications that are targeted at newer hardware. Since the iPad continues to be relatively new to this process compared with the iPhone and iPod Touch, as well as having a higher price point, it's unclear how its support cycle will compare.

These concerns may sit heavy with consumers, though ultimately it comes down to Apple and its approach to positioning the iOS brand as something that is all inclusive. At least if it wants to keep knocking competitors like Google for being fragmented. Those more than 350,000 apps are not something the company wants to have users worry about splitting up in their minds into groups of "will run" and "won't run," even though it offers a not-so-subtle push in the direction of a hardware upgrade with apps like the new iMovie, which will only run on the newer iPad.

One thing that shouldn't have first-generation iPad owners too scared about being left behind is that developers rely on the largest audience possible to achieve good sales. There are more than 15 million first-generation iPads in the hands of users and that number is likely to creep up now that the older models have gone on sale.