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Will iPhone 4 leave some gamers in the dust?

Will the enhanced features of the iPhone 4 cause Apple's gaming market to begin segmenting?

We'll hopefully see a high-resolution version of this at launch on the iPhone 4. Apple

With the impressive specs on the just-announced iPhone 4, a gamer like myself can't help but--excitedly!--imagine what the system will be capable of from a game graphics standpoint.

This sort of iPhone game anticipation might sound familiar. But in case you missed the announcement of the latest smartphone earlier this week, let's look at some of the enhanced features of the iPhone 4 and how they could affect games going forward. The three immediately significant game-centric advances:

  • The A4 processor (the same used in the iPad)
  • Its 960x640 resolution and IPS (In-Plane Switching) screen
  • The Gyroscope, which coupled with the accelerometer, gives the iPhone 4 full-motion, six-axis control

The A4 processor
Although the iPhone 4 and iPad share the same A4 processor, it hasn't been confirmed yet whether they share the same clock speeds. The A4 in the iPad runs at 1GHz, versus a significantly slower 600MHz in the iPhone 3GS and 412MHz in the 2G and 3G. The PowerVR SGX535 (found in 3GS and iPad), which handles the graphics, runs at 150MHz on the 3GS and 250MHz in the iPad. The PowerVR MBX-Lite, which powers the graphics in the 2G and 3G, is thought to run at about 60MHz.

Assuming the iPhone 4's A4 shares the same specs as the iPad's, we could begin to see developers take advantage of the extra horsepower by building game characters and environments with more polygons, and/or simply displaying more characters onscreen in general, as well as more realistic lighting effects. Higher-resolution textures should also be possible--at least higher than what's capable on the 2G and 3G, given their CPU's 128MB memory, compared with the 256MB in the 3GS and iPhone 4.

Also, with the 3GS' and iPhone 4's support for the open-source graphics library OpenGL ES 2.0, we should see game engines pushed even further, with much more impressive effects and more realistic looking characters and environments than what's currently possible. We could see games that far exceed what's been capable on the iPhone or any handheld device so far.

It will take awhile before we see games that truly take advantage of the iPhone 4. Apple

iPhone 4's new screen
Yeah, I know, Apple calls it the "Retina display," but I'm not interested in meaningless marketing monikers. That doesn't mean the iPhone 4's screen isn't hype-worthy, however. The display is capable of displaying games at a resolution of 960x640; four times the pixel density of previous versions of the iPhone, which run at 320x480. At that resolution, iPhone 4 games would have unprecedented clarity, the likes of which have never been seen on a device this size. That may sound a bit hyperbolic, but 614,400 pixels on such a relatively small screen is nothing to sneeze at.

This feature will not only benefit 3D games, but especially 2D games, as 2D artists will be able pack tons of detail into each asset and could make for some truly beautiful-looking, traditional side-scrollers.

The IPS panel used in the iPhone 4 has me just as excited as its high resolution. All previous versions of the iPhone have used a Twisted Nematic (TN) panel. TN panels are cheap to manufacture, but have bad viewing angles (the colors shift when the screen is not viewed straight on) and largely inaccurate color reproduction, even when viewing straight on. An IPS panel addresses both of these deficiencies with wide viewing angles and much more accurate colors. Look for a full evaluation of the iPhone 4's screen after release similar to my roundup of five popular smartphones.

The Gyroscope
When pondering this blog last week, I thought I would focus strictly on the graphics side of things. Of course, Apple always has a few surprises up its sleeve, this time the Gyroscope, which will be available only in the iPhone 4. Coupled with the already included accelerometer, it will turn your iPhone 4 into a full motion controller, able to detect nearly any form of movement.

I'll leave it to game designers to decide the best way to use this feature, but it's rife with possibilities, especially considering you won't have trouble viewing the screen from multiple angles given the IPS panel. With motion gaming potentially about to take off with the PlayStation Move and Natal this year, Apple seems poised to make sure its premiere gaming platform isn't left behind.

But will developers even be given the chance to take full advantage of the iPhone 4's capabilities? So far, developers who have wanted to take advantage of the 3GS' increased speed and OpenGL ES 2.0 support have had two choices: develop two versions of their games or include special graphical features that could by switched on or off on 3GS phones.

We need more iPhone 4 gaming info, stat! Apple

Will other developers continue to code to the least common denominator (2G and 3G) or will we begin to see "iPhone 4 Version" when searching for new games on the App Store? Developers have three choices as far as I can see.

  1. Create multiple versions of games, with each taking advantage of any new features the platform offers. This is probably the most cost-prohibitive approach, but you'll have games that look great on the latest iteration of the platform while still offering something to users who aren't interested in upgrading just yet.
  2. Code to 2G and 3G iPhone specs, guaranteeing the widest possible audience, but possibly not reaching the full potential on graphics and gameplay.
  3. Create one version of each game, written to take full advantage of the iPhone 4's capabilities. This will most likely mean great graphics, but you probably won't see 99 cent versions of this game and you may actually begin seeing games well over $10.

With the delta between the first and current-generation iPhone being so huge now, developers have some difficult decisions to make going forward. Concentrate on one or two iPhone platforms or support them all? There's risk in either direction they choose. Hopefully we'll get more information on what developers are planning next week at E3 and up to the iPhone 4's launch on June 24.