Core Discrepancy: iOS and the Problem of Hardware Variation

The release of N.O.V.A. 3, Gameloft’s most recent “me too” FPS, casts a pretty big spotlight on one of iOS’s most pervasive but little talked about problems: hardware variation. The game actually looks and runs better on an iPad 2 than an iPad 3, despite the older device’s lower resolution and smaller cache of memory. The culprit? Apple’s design team, who fitted the latest iPad’s with a 2048 by 1536 pixel display but not enough extra RAM or processing power to fill that display with the kind of visual effects that make the game so attractive on the previous-generation device. Depth of field blur, airborne debris, and heat distortion have all been disabled on the latest iPad, in order to maintain a playable frame rate.

N.O.V.A. 3 running on a third generation iPad…

Same level on an iPad 2, with smoke, fire, floating debris, and subtle particle effects.

The perception of iOS gamers as “not like us” in the eyes of the traditional gaming crowd means that you probably haven’t heard much in the way of complaints about this issue, but imagine the outrage that would spread among fans if the HD remakes of God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, or Metal Gear Solid ran worse on a PS3 or Xbox 360 than the original PS2 releases. Sony and Microsoft would be laughed off the face of the Earth for building inadequate hardware. In fact, iOS gamers are complaining about N.O.V.A. 3’s performance on the new iPad, and it’s pretty easy to find the most unhappy customers for those willing to look: just search for the game on the iOS App Store and sort ratings by “most critical.”

As it turns out though, there’s a far bigger issue at play here than some missing graphical effects. Take a look at some of the other “console-style” games released for Apple’s devices – Infinity Blade II, Grand Theft Auto 3, or Minecraft, for example. Even a few seconds perusing reviews yields pages and pages of complaints like these:

What’s going on here, exactly? Take a look again:

As it turns out, GTA 3 doesn’t run so well on a first generation iPad – which is pretty crummy, considering the game came out only a year or so after the original version of the tablet. But it’s not just the oldest hardware that can’t keep up with the latest App Store releases – it’s easy to find similar complaints about every device from the iPhone 3G and first-generation iPod touch to the iPhone 4S and latest iPad. With 8 different devices in the hands of literally hundreds of millions of potential gamers, the problem is clear: App Store developers simply can’t keep up with the ever-increasing variations in hardware found in the devices they’re obligated to support.

PC gamers will quickly point out that they’ve been dealing with this problem for years: if your rig can’t run the latest and greatest software, then you either upgrade or dial back your settings and find a sweet spot you’re happy with. But this solution doesn’t apply to iOS: the kind of person willing to spend $700 on a new PC graphics card every eight months isn’t the same kind of person that relies on an iPhone for their gaming fix. Even hardcore Apple fanatics are finding it harder and harder to justify the financial investment of keeping up with the latest devices year after year. Besides, most iOS games don’t even allow players the ability to tweak their settings to improve performance, because doing so would introduce a very PC-like wrinkle into the “it just works” world of Apple products, and we all know what Apple thinks about the personal computer. Unfortunately, with or without the option to tweak an iOS game’s settings, it’s becoming clear – games on Apples devices don’t always “just work.”

Gameloft recently announced that an upcoming N.O.V.A. 3 update would, in fact, allow owners of the latest generation iPad to choose between the higher resolution of the Retina Display and the enhanced visual effects found on older devices, but the developer might be fighting a battle it’s already lost: the average iPhone or iPod Touch gamer just isn’t all that likely to keep their apps up to date. For most people, it’s just easier to move on to the next five dollar download and forget all about the grief of the previous latest, greatest, and ultimately disappointing iOS game.

The implications of this are deeply troubling for publishers who have struggled for years to control even a percentage of the mindshare Apple has managed to maintain. At what point will players be fed up with devices that don’t play games as advertised? What happens when consumers start associating Apple with compromised experiences, broken promises, and wasted money? And with Apple being seen as the public face of gaming by more and more people, how long will it be before the gaming industry at large suffers irreversible damage to its reputation simply due to its proximity to Apple and the inconsistent experiences it offers?

Don’t get me wrong: there are some truly spectacular gaming experiences to be found on iOS, and for only a fraction of the cost of the latest console and handheld games available on more traditional gaming devices. But until Apple can start guaranteeing consumers the quality of experience the company has always promised, without requiring consumers to sell their organs on a yearly basis, casual and hardcore gamers are better served by the tried-and-true platforms that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo have been delighting us with for decades. Sure, traditional consoles may look a little long in the tooth next to the yearly hardware refresh that Apple fans are used to, and the cost of the average Xbox or PS3 game may be hard to stomach next to an App Store purchase…but at least you know that the $60 game you just bought is going to work exactly as advertised, no matter what device you’re playing it on.


Editor’s Note: This piece also appears on 1UP’s Handheld Blog. Thanks, Jeremy!

About The Author

Michael Burns is the Founder and Executive Editor of Invisible Gamer. Between custodianship of this site and contributing work for sites like IGN and 1UP, he spends entirely too much time thinking about video games – especially old ones. A migrant to New York City from northern California, Michael can often be found under a tree in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, thinking "big thoughts" and generally just loving life. Find him elsewhere on the web at the links below.