The light-spraying, shadow-bending dreamscapes carved out of our noir nightmares made possible by the latest version of the Unreal Engine are the reason why we’re always looking for what’s next in gaming.But not everybody’s going to have the machines that are capable of rendering the really real world that the Unreal Engine, at its max, can create. So in some ways, what’s most exciting is seeing merely good graphics and gaming come to computers that are literally selling by the tens of millions: iOS, Android and Sony’s next console. We’re just now skating into the “new” current generation of portable devices that are capable of exponentially better things than the things we carried around with us just a few years ago: Think multi-core CPUs and graphics processors, like in the iPad 2, Motorola Xoom and Sony NGP.
We’ve had a taste of what’s possible with the Unreal Engine on the iPad 2 with the slightly upgraded version of Infinity Blade. But it’s still hard to grok, abstractly, what these mean for mobile gaming. Like, does the iPad 2 really deliver 9x the graphic performance of the original iPad? Well, says Epic’s Tim Sweeney, who we talked to at length about what’s very next in mobile gaming vis-a-vis the Unreal Engine, “I certainly believe 9x,” even though they haven’t benchmarked the chips. While the iPad 2 isn’t at current-gen console levels of power, it delivers enough shader performance that “you can use the high-detail shaders we did during Gears of War.” (More complex shaders and post-processing effects are going to remain the visual differentiators between high-end mobile devices and consoles for the time being, though we could “see more of that with more time with the iPad 2.”)
But what’s remarkable about mobile gaming is that the performance curve is very different from what we’re used to in console gaming: In consoles, you see “a 10-20x leap in performance every 7-8 years.” So Apple’s performance curve, ramping 9x in a single year, is both “astonishing” and rising at an “alarming rate,” says Sweeney, and “there’s things that we like about that upgrade cycle” versus consoles, where you have “one great hardware ship and then it’s the same for 7-8 years.” Just a couple years ago, the 3D performance in the iPhone 3G wasn’t capable of doing what Epic wanted to accomplish. (The iPhone 3GS was the first.) While it’s hard to directly compare performance cross-platform, for lots of reasons—consider now that the iPhone 4’s A4 CPU is roughly “comparable to a single Xbox 360 core” in Sweeney’s estimation. In the iPad 2, there’s “far far more potential in that platform than we’re exploiting today.” And “iPad 3, 4, 5—we can do what we can on the Xbox 360 and beyond.” Meanwhile, the 3DS is still below Epic’s minimum specs for Unreal Engine 3, which require “relatively high-end DirectX 9-class capabilities.”
The impressive rise in mobile horsepower comes despite a couple of serious limitations. For one, crummy graphics drivers. The OpenGL ES graphics drivers used for mobile devices right now have a “fairly high overhead” and are “not nearly as optimised as we’d like.” How big of a deal is driver performance? Sweeney thinks with optimization, there could be “a factor of 4 driver overhead reduction.” The result is that while they can render objects with lots of pixels, they “can’t render a whole lot of objects.” So the things you kill may look good, but don’t expect a lot of them onscreen at once—hence Infinity Blade’s one-on-one fighting. Driver performance is “a problem all of the hardware platforms and vendors need to take more seriously,” says Sweeney, but Epic’s Mark Rein chimes in that it’s a problem with a solution that’s at least “a generation away—or two or three.” (Despite being dissatisfied with the performance of OpenGL right now, Sweeney is all for the move to universal graphics vs. proprietary graphics APIs like DirectX. The “next step is OpenGL available everywhere,” especially if you consider the future of gaming in “other directions” away from the PC and to a “whole cloud of devices,” even if the “consistent direction” of DirectX vs. the “anarchy” of OpenGL is nice.)
The other major problem for games running on mobile devices like iOS and Android? Memory. While, to my surprise, they’re totally happy with the iPad 2’s 512MB—”it’s as much as the Xbox 360″—they just want the amount they’re given to work to be predictable. “We need X amount of memory available. Sometimes it works, sometimes you have to shut down other apps or reboot your phone.” Right now, “It’s a massive problem,” says Sweeney.
Speaking of Android, you’re probably wondering why there’s no showstopper like Infinity Blade for the platform. Well, wonder no more. Says Sweeney, “When a consumer gets the phone and they wanna play a game that uses our technology, it’s got to be a consistent experience, and we can’t guarantee that [on Android]. That’s what held us off of Android.” The problem with Android is consistency. “If you took the underlying NGP hardware and shipped Android on it, you’d find far far less performance on Android. Let’s say you took an NGP phone and made four versions of it. Each one would give you a different amount of memory and performance based on the crap [the carriers] put on their phone.” Bottom line, for Epic to do the kinds of things they do on iOS, “Google needs to be a little more evil. They need to be far more controlling.” Even so, the main reason Epic has focused on iOS? “It’s really the best place to make money.”
Now, to come back around to the NGP. Yes, it’s got ball-busting, hardcore power. But it’s also largely free from the limitations that plague iOS and Android phones. It doesn’t have the driver overhead. The memory’s predictable. Developers can basically write to the metal, without going through layers of software abstraction. While Epic couldn’t talk technical specifics, knowing what we do know about the NGP hardware, and how it won’t run into the same ceilings as iOS and Android devices, it’s safe to say that it’s going to be the undisputed king of killer mobile gaming, at least when it comes to pure, unrelenting eye candy.
So yeah, be ready to strap on your eyeballs. Wouldn’t want them to get blown away during your morning commute.