In Theory: Will Apple Launch a Home Games Console?
Digital Foundry presents the evidence for a WWDC/E3 reveal
Will Nintendo's Project Cafe be the only new hardware launch we have to look forwards to during the upcoming E3 event? Conceivably, could Apple be next in line to launch a new home console?
The notion of the Cupertino-based superpower launching into direct competition with Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft may seem like a step outside of its comfort zone, but there's little doubt whatsoever that something is afoot: in the last few months, Apple has made a series of calculated moves suggesting it is planning big things for the games market.
To begin with, let's consider two important appointments that the UK arm of Apple has made in the last few weeks. Nintendo UK's head of communications Rob Saunders is set to move across to join the iOS platform holder, while Activision's erstwhile European PR director Nick Grange has also been recruited - both in yet-to-be officially confirmed roles.
To all intents and purposes then, this is a new hardware platform targeted directly at the games industry.
The recruitment of one games industry veteran with a CV like Saunders' should be considered a very serious statement of intent for the games market, but the notion of Grange being involved too suggests that this is much more than a single, high-ranking games exec looking for a new challenge. The appointment of both men looks for all the world like a new, aggressive, exciting approach to the business from Apple.
The next piece of evidence to factor in is the timing of Apple's next major conference. WWDC 2011 takes place between June 6-11 in San Francisco, clashing directly with E3. It's a turn of events that could simply be coincidence of course (last year's WWDC kicked off on June 7) but it also represents an opportunity Apple is unlikely to pass up. The event is tantalisingly described as heralding the future of both OSX and iOS and games are almost certain to be an important aspect of the mix.
These two elements in combination with a much more open approach from Apple to the games press in recent months strongly suggest that something big is happening, but making the jump to a full-blown console launch perhaps seems like a case of speculation gone mad. However, the final factor - the make-up of Apple's most recent hardware design - adds further fuel to the fire.
While most reviews of the iPad 2 conclude that it is little more than an incremental upgrade from the original device, Anand Lal Shimpi and his team over at Anandtech know the score. The latest iteration of the tablet and the make-up of its A5 SoC processor in particular, represent a gigantic leap in performance over both iPad 1 and iPhone 4, and sets new standards in graphical performance compared to just about any other mobile device out there.
A5's jump from a 1GHz ARM Cortex A8 to a dual core A9 configuration is a significant upgrade in its own right, but the GPU upgrade is more important still and is the true differentiating factor between iPad 2 and its competitors, from a hardware perspective at least. The PowerVR SGX535 found in all iOS devices from the iPhone 3GS onwards is gone, replaced by a dual core SGX543 MP2, a piece of tech that manages to outperform every mainstream mobile GPU currently out there.
"Our Series5XT architecture (SGX543/544/554) is a significant mid-life update to the Series5 architecture (SGX520/530/531/535/540) which was driven based on market and customer feedback," Imagination Technologies tells us.
"Key in this feedback was increased interest in compute performance both for GP-GPU via OpenCL but also for higher-quality pixels via more complex shaders as a result we doubled the floating point performance per pipeline in the newer cores while maintaining efficiency via co-issue (dual instruction) capabilities... Most of the other changes are much lower level and focused on improving the efficiency of the design including both improved performance and further reduced bandwidth usage - a specific area of focus has been anti-aliasing and polygon throughput."
With the base architecture has improved significantly, moving to a dual core configuration offers a 2x performance boost on top of that.
"Yes, graphics cores are inherently parallel processors which means that they work on data independently (one pixel does not impact the processing of another pixel)," IMG says, "which means that performance can be scaled near linear compared to CPUs where adding more cores often gives a very low return [where] data does depend on the processing of other data elements."
The proof of the pudding is in the benchmarks where anything from a 3x to 7x performance boost can be seen in like-for-like tests carried out versus the original iPad: not quite the 9x figure mooted by Apple but colossal nonetheless.
Bearing in mind Apple's dominance in the smartphone and tablet markets, a spec revision as drastic as this is extraordinary. Based on its existing business, there is no real need whatsoever for this level of GPU power: there's a strong argument that Apple already "owns" the mobile gaming space via the iTunes App Store. An incremental update to GPU power would have sufficed but the generational leap offered by A5 strongly suggests a much more aggressive approach: to all intents and purposes then, this is a new hardware platform targeted directly at the games industry.
This boost in gaming capabilities has taken the industry by surprise, but prior to the iPad 2 reveal, some developers thought that Apple may have had a trick or two up its sleeve. Last week, Firemint shipped an update to Real Racing 2 HD which enabled 1080p gameplay at 30 frames per second on an HDTV via the iPad 2's optional HDMI output.
"In anticipating the iPad 2 release we were actually working with a matrix of different possibilities for what it might be, as time went by and we heard rumours we would adjust the probabilities in each configuration," Firemint's Rob Murray says.
"We worked on basically two versions for iPad 2, one was built for about 25 per cent to 50 per cent performance increase, the other was the 'hit it out of the park' kind of performance increase. When we saw the keynote we switched gears rapidly to the 'hit it out of the park' version that meant that we were finishing off a new graphics set that we had been working on. Even with our 'hit it out of the park' version we were able to turn on full screen anti-aliasing and many other effects that we didn't think would make it, so Apple surprised us also, but I think we were far more ready for it than other developers."
With a processor as inexpensive to produce and as powerful as A5, Apple has the chance to bring a home console to market that could offer serious value.
Real Racing 2 HD is a great iOS game, but still some way off the standards set by high budget PS3/360 releases - but of course it was developed and sells at a fraction of the price. That said, right now it's early days in terms of making use of the colossal increase in power the A5 chip represents. Firemint's game is scaling up from an existing iOS project and wasn't designed from the ground up for the new hardware.
The same could be said for Epic/Chair's Infinity Blade, but regardless, on iPad 2 it is a phenomenally good-looking game with a superb performance level. While it struggles to sustain anything like 30FPS on iPad 1, it easily exceeds it on iPad 2, adding additional effects and even appears to be super-sampling - running at a much higher native resolution before being scaled down, pretty much the best form of anti-aliasing you can get, if you have the power available. If iPad 2 can run games like this without even breaking a sweat, what can be achieved when developers address the new generation of performance directly?
Even in its current A5 guise, there's little doubt that Apple's mobile architecture is capable of some seriously pretty visuals. But the beauty of the hardware design is that it is eminently scalable. There's nothing theoretical about this, the tech's finalised and ready to roll - the PowerVR SGX543 in the iPad 2 scales all the way up to 16 cores, and IMG tells us that its architecture is suitable for "anything demanding performance: console, computing etc".
Indeed, we already have a mass market example of this scalability in the offing: Sony's NGP SoC combines a quad core ARM Cortex A9 with Power VR SGX543 MP4 - two iPad 2 A5s stuck together if you like. Sony actually describes its NGP GPU as a SGX543 MP4+.
"That's to indicate the work Sony has done to implement the graphics," IMG says. "What they licensed is a SGX543 MP4."
While rumours concerning Nintendo's Project Cafe point towards a traditional PowerPC CPU and AMD GPU pairing, Apple's approach in combining low power ARMs with PowerVR tech has clear advantages: the physical amount of silicon being used is much lower, meaning that the cost to fabricate the chips is cheaper. There are cost savings elsewhere too - for starters, cooling assemblies would be significantly cheaper, if they are actually needed at all.
While the option to scale up the existing architecture is very much a viable approach, it also introduces a number of challenges to Apple, as well as games publishers and developers - issues that perhaps make such an approach unlikely. Having just rolled out an enormously improved architecture, it doesn't really follow that Apple would instantly follow it up with another one, with all the additional R&D and production costs that entails. Far better to get it right the first time and roll it out across multiple devices.
Secondly, a direct challenge to Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo would mean a seismic shift in the nature of the iTunes App Store and it's highly unlikely that the existing ecosystem could sustain the price tags required by home console AAA game budgets. This would make a direct Xbox 360/PS3 competitor an unwise move for Apple. Approaching one Xbox 360 developer on the subject of an iOS home console, the response was simple: "There's no way I can sell my game for 59p".
With a processor as inexpensive to produce and as powerful as A5, Apple has the chance to bring a home console to market that could offer serious value - and it might not even be marketed as a console at all, certainly not in the way that we know it.
Last year, AppleTV was relaunched as a home media hub and while it lacked App Store integration, it still featured a fully functional A4 processor at its core: rampant overkill for the limited functionality on offer, but a perfectly sound business decision by a company already fabricating millions of the chips. The machine currently costs just £101.
An AppleTV revamp featuring App Store and games-playing capabilities makes a lot of sense. While Microsoft and Sony have been eager to position their consoles as games machines with media capabilities, a refreshed AppleTV would be the opposite: a fully realised media hub that just happens to play great games. This approach is nothing new for Apple – after all, the other iOS devices put other functionality first and foremost but have swiftly come into their own as very capable handheld games machines.
Repositioning AppleTV doesn't upset games publishers and it doesn't devalue their core gamer offerings on the traditional HD consoles, but it does introduce a potentially disruptive product that allows the platform holder to extend the reach of its iTunes and App Store offerings still further: a £100 media hub that also plays games that could look as good - or better - than Infinity Blade? That's a hugely tempting proposition, and the system would also have more than enough processing power to cope with game streaming for services like Gaikai and OnLive.
"I heard somebody the other day say AppleTV, which I love, they're going to start putting the App Store on AppleTV with games" - David Jaffe
We're not the only ones to have come to this conclusion. There's a lot of buzz in the games industry about an AppleTV revamp.
"I heard somebody the other day say AppleTV, which I love, they're going to start putting the App Store on AppleTV with games," Eat Sleep Play boss David Jaffe told Eurogamer. "I'm like 'holy shit'. So yeah, it's possible."
Even with this approach, a great many challenges remain for Apple in bringing iOS home - problems it would need to conquer whether it repurposed A5 into a home console or went balls-out with a powered-up/scaled-up PowerVR/ARM combo.
The current AppleTV may well be using the same core architecture as the iPad 1 and iPhone 4, but it lacks onboard storage. It doesn't matter if the platform holder goes for a mechanical hard drive or flash RAM, adding this crucial component is still going to add to the bill of materials required to manufacture this thing, and pushing the price too high brings you uncomfortably close to Wii and Xbox 360 in particular.
Secondly, there's a question of the control mechanism. AppleTV currently ships with a remote, so either the company needs to redesign it to be more games-friendly or else an alternative approach is required, necessitating developers to come up with multiple control schemes for their App Store games.
Existing iOS devices could be utilised as controllers via the Bluetooth connection, and there have been rumours that AirPlay could be extended to cover gaming (h264 HD hardware encoding is built into both A4 and A5 processors) but it would highly unusual for a games machine to ship without any form of controller, reliant on the customer already owning another device in the same family.
Apple also faces other issues too. Similar to Nintendo, its online gaming system is best described as "embryonic" compared to the enormous infrastructure and rich functionality of Xbox LIVE and the PlayStation Network. Game Center really needs a revamp - never mind the feature set, just its pool table stylings alone suggest that Apple as a corporate entity doesn't really quite "get" gaming yet. The firm doesn't need to create a mammoth games-based internal infrastructure, but it does need games people with the right experience to make this crucial next step.
Perhaps it's this realisation that has seen the company bring in people like Rob Saunders and Nick Grange, and perhaps many other games people elsewhere within the company structure that we don't know about yet. It makes sense that the enormous investment that has gone into the new gaming architecture would be backed up by the personnel required to move Apple onto the next level in advancing the iOS platform.
So long as the price is right, the raw potential offered by re-factoring Apple's new A5 processor into a home console is hugely exciting. Nintendo proved conclusively with Wii that it's not the tech specs that ensure success with the mainstream, it's all about defining an irresistible concept. The iTunes App Store knocks these out of the park on a regular basis of course, but there are elements that could well have strong appeal to the core gamer userbase too.
There's been plenty of talk in the past about syncing gameplay between home and mobile consoles, but Apple has the best chance of doing so, since potentially it could have three different devices tied to the same person - iPhone or iPod Touch for on the move gameplay, iPad for general mobile and toilet use (!) and the AppleTV for the living room. Adding WiFi and 3G game-save syncing would be child's play (in fact, maybe Apple could add wireless iTunes syncing at the same time without us having to use a Jailbreak app to get the job done)...
"In the years to come, we want the playing experience for users to be seamless so you don't have to jump between mobile, console and whatever other device you might have," says Firemint's Rob Murray.
"We want it to be invisible and natural. One minute you might be hooked up to your big screen at home, iPad 2 in hand speeding along in Real Racing 2 HD. The next you're disconnected and on the go, playing the same race - and all you had to do was unplug a single cable. We don't want users thinking about connectivity, it should just happen."
With an Apple home console, it could happen. Will the next WWDC deliver?