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3.0 and 3GS: Apple's Two-Pronged Offensive

Pocket Gamer | 27 Jun 2009 13:00
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Every week when the time comes to write this column, the Pocket Gamer team goes through the same thought process: 1. What's Apple doing? 2. No, mustn't write about Apple every week: there are other platforms. 3. There's... 4. What about... 5. It's no good - we'll have to write about Apple again.

It's not by design. There are plenty of other companies doing interesting things in what businessmen like to call the 'mobile space,' but since WWDC Apple has kept itself firmly in the spotlight, consigning everybody else to the relative gloom outside it.

Last Wednesday (17th June) Apple released its long awaited 3.0 update for the iPhone and iPod touch, and on Friday (19th June) the latest handset - the 3GS - went on sale. Each event deserves a column to itself, although neither is getting one since they both occurred in the same week.

Though it would be neater to start with the 3.0 update, the much more prominent 3GS launch actually meant less to us gamers and so it makes sense to get it out of the way first.

If it can be summed up in a phrase, it's this: the 'S' stands for speed. The processor runs at 600MHz compared to the 3G's 412, 256MB of RAM compared to the 3G's 128, and a PowerVR SGX graphics chip.

But that's just a series of numbers and letters. What it means for developers is that new reserves of power are available, with some claiming that the 3GS can push beyond even the mighty PSP. For gamers, meanwhile, it means not only that bigger and more visually impressive games are on the way, but also that the games they already own now run much faster.

I Love Katamari, for instance, which was criticised upon release for slowdown issues, now runs perfectly, while already functional games like The Sims 3 are now much smoother.

The 3GS also brings with it a few technical additions, including a digital compass, and this more than all the extra grunt raises the possibility of a problem that has beset mobile developers coming to haunt the App Store: fragmentation. Rather than creating games for a single device, developers will presumably now have to think about several, making calculations about the profitability of each.

Soon, iPhone and iPod touch owners will be frozen out by games available only on the new models. To a certain extent, of course, it was ever thus in the video games market, though Apple's brisk hardware update cycle will ensure that Apple gamers are left behind far more frequently than their Sony and Nintendo counterparts.

It's not all about hardware, though. Despite the prominence of the 3GS, Apple's 3.0 update - which started downloading onto iPhones and iPod touches at around 6pm GMT on Wednesday - was unarguably a more significant event for gamers and developers.

There are several reasons why it's a big deal, amongst them in-game chat, P2P gaming via Bluetooth, push notification, in-app purchases, rumble API, and parental controls.

It's remarkable, if you think about it. By simply downloading a 250MB update (which, controversially, you have to pay 5.99/$9.99 for if you own an iPod touch, hence only 1 percent have done so) you can suddenly own a device that differs significantly from the one you owned before the download began; one that not only lets you receive messages from other players and verbally taunt your opponents during games, but which actually vibrates in your hand.

Even the new parental controls are to the benefit of liberal-minded gamers who previously objected to Apple's overly censorial approval policy. Up till now, anything that emitted too strong a whiff of adult content was locked out, but now that users can exert control over the content on their handsets Apple is apparently relaxing, as is evidenced by a recent update to the Hottest Girls app that adds full nudity.

For developers and publishers, 3.0 is even better news. Not only is it possible to make better games, but it's possible to charge for extra content rather than having to supply it for free in the form of updates. Since its release, Flight Control has grown from one level to three, while dozens of extra levels have been added to Rolando, and neither Firemint nor ngmoco has seen a penny for their efforts. All that is about to change.

It's not all high fives and handshakes, though. Every game needs to be updated to ensure it runs properly with 3.0, which is a more or less arduous technical undertaking for developers. iPod touch 1G owners have reported crashing and slowdown, while across the range of Apple devices the update is said to be taking a toll on battery life. Download it, but with caution.

And with that, surely we've said everything we need to say about Apple and the iPhone. Tune in next week for 3. There's... 4. What about... 5. It's no good - we'll have to write about Apple again.

Pocket Gamer is Europe's leading source of news, opinion and reviews on mobile and handheld gaming.

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