I’ve been messing around with an iPhone XS Max for a few weeks and it really is a premium device. Despite my issues with modern iPhones (pointless removals of buttons and jacks, no more smaller options) they truly do feel like what you’d hope a thousand dollar phone would feel like. And it’s not just aesthetics. The continued speed and slickness of iOS along with increasingly powerful chips are getting us to the point where these are the only computers we need, mobile or otherwise.
But to me it also feels like all this power in phones is becoming increasingly superfluous to most users. How many non-professionals need the A12 Bionic chip for heavy duty mobile video editing? 5G gets here when the carriers say it gets here, not the phone manufacturers. My photographer girlfriend appreciates the impressive camera on the XS Max along with Animoji shenanigans, but nearly any phone could easily display the static art of her gaming guilty pleasure Choices.
So that’s why I was fascinated by the chance to go to a recent Apple briefing (where I picked up this loaner phone) to see how the tech giant is bragging about how video games specifically can benefit from their new devices. But while the games are cool, I’m not sure that more power is the solution to all of their problems.
t bears repeating though, the new iPhones are powerful. Using Apple’s most recent Metal API developers are able to create some stunning looking games for the high-res display. Like with any other gaming platform, I saw a racing game to see the tech in action, the blisteringly fast Asphalt 9. And since Fortnite is available on every current platform imaginable, seeing its 60 FPS performance on iPhone (superior to the Nintendo Switch albeit with worse touch controls) was even more impressive. I already shared my thoughts on the upcoming The Elder Scrolls: Blades but that was another showpiece.
I also saw a game that takes advantage of different new iPhone powers. Angry Birds has been a mega-hit on the App Store for about as long as the decade-old service has been around. They even got two movies out of this thing. So at this point Rovio can be a little more experimental. That’s why it’s cool to see them partner with Resolution Games for Angry Birds: Isle of Pigs, an augmented reality game and the first traditional 3D mobile Angry Birds game available now for preload.
With Apple’s ARKit API, Isle of Pigs plops down a 3D version of a classic Angry Birds pig block fortress on whatever flat surface you choose. Your phone then becomes your first-person slingshot and you physically walk around to find the perfect angle for your shot. Like any time a 2D franchise leaps to 3D, this extra axis dramatically expands your creative options. You can get closer or further away, shoot from above or below, and even use AR to get cheesy with the size of the target itself. It’s fun and the way the AR makes use of real ambient lighting gives the game a tactile, virtual toy box feel, just without the cleanup.
Angry Birds and Elder Scrolls were the only unreleased games I played, but Apple also wanted to show off a recent critical iOS darling, the bittersweet romance adventure Florence. And that is a great game. But playing it again made me sad, and not just because the story is all about folks falling in and then out of love. No, I was sad because a premium game like Florence, the gaming equivalent of a boutique indie arthouse film, seems like it’s becoming increasingly rare on iOS regardless of the iPhone’s console-caliber horsepower.
The App Store is the largest video game store in the world in terms of revenue, and yet the vast majority of that revenue comes from games that are initially free but then try to get money from you later. Every other game I’ve mentioned so far besides Florence follows that free-to-play, in-app purchase-laden model. Apple can hire all sorts of former games journalists to recommend cool premium games in the redesigned App Store interface. Current games journalists like me can continue to beg for folks to please pay for mobile games. But ultimately the audience and publishers have decided that this inherently exploitative model is the future, and that’s a shame for game design and players alike.