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Tech Focus: Firemint on iPad 2 development

Digital Foundry talks with the makers of Real Racing on the challenges and opportunities of high-end iOS development

It's safe to say that Apple's new tablet - and the A5 processor that powers it - is something of a game-changer for the mobile games community. Combining a dual core ARM Cortex A9 CPU with a PowerVR SGX543 MP2, the new tablet offers an enormous leap in processing power over its predecessor, with Apple itself claiming up to 9x GPU performance.

Firemint's Real Racing games pushed technological barriers on older iOS devices, and the team is well-placed to comment on the new frontier iPad 2 represents, with its forthcoming Real Racing 2 update set to benefit from enhancements including dual-screen gameplay, and Full HD 1080p support via the new tablet's HDMI dongle.

In this exclusive interview with Digital Foundry, Firemint's Rob Murray discusses the business and technological challenges of working in the mobile gaming space, going into depth on the process of bringing new game Real Racing 2 to the iPad and iPad 2.

Digital FoundryWith RAGE and Unreal Engine on iOS, there's a real sense that mobile is pushing technological - and perhaps budgetary - barriers. You're no strangers to this with Real Racing and its sequel. From a business and development standpoint, what are the challenges here?
Rob Murray

With Real Racing 2, we wanted to make a high-quality racing game. Substantial amounts of content, polished gameplay, cutting-edge graphics and compelling online multiplayer were a must. Any one of these elements would be a daunting task, but to truly build a game without compromises demanded significant investment, 30 in-house developers at peak and a number of external ones worked on Real Racing 2 - a large number for a mobile game.

So, yes, we were very concerned about the level of investment required, not just in terms of money but in terms of time. We built the game despite our concerns and considering the quality of the final product, and the success we've seen in terms of sales, we think we got it all right.

Digital FoundryDo you feel that mobile is a market where smaller developers can better compete with the larger publishers?
Rob Murray

The presence of larger companies in the mobile market hasn't dramatically altered the difficulty of getting involved for smaller developers. Mobile, particularly iOS, is a great platform to create and publish something new and original, but the challenge of creating that great product in the first place remains the same.

What has changed are expectations - as users are exposed to what can be accomplished on these platforms, the demand for more content and deeper experiences has grown enormously.

Digital FoundryWith the success of your iOS titles is there any appetite in the company to take on more ambitious projects - perhaps for the home consoles - or is mobile your home?
Rob Murray

Making a great game always comes first at Firemint - a priority that isn't necessarily dependent on any one platform. Flight Control was a mega-hit on iPhone, but we have also released versions of the game on iPad, PlayStation 3, PC and Mac via Steam, Mac App Store, Intel App Up and DSiWare. So we do work on multiple projects but we are focused on projects designed for digital distribution, so I wouldn't expect that you would see much work from us in a retail store.

Agent Squeek, our third new IP, is coming out on both iPad and iPhone this year. We consider Agent Squeek to be a very ambitious project, but more in a design sense than in the technology. It is an accessible sort of game that looks deceptively simple, but it is very big in terms of development and iteration with over 22 months of work on it so far.

Cross-platform technologies are great and it's truly awesome to have Epic investing into iOS and to have top quality developers like Chair working in the space.

Digital FoundryThe arrival of heavyweights into the iOS space - like Epic with Unreal Engine 3 - presents interesting options. UE3 is a cross-platform engine, and conceivably developers could launch on iOS, NGP, Xbox Live and PSN. Does this have an attraction from a business and tech standpoint?
Rob Murray

Cross-platform technologies are great and it's truly awesome to have Epic investing into iOS and to have top quality developers like Chair working in the space. Middleware is an attractive proposition for a lot of developers, so I can see how this is great for the ecosystem. However we have our own heavily optimised engine that has matured within the studio over many years and effectively encodes much of our learning and our culture and allows us to be flexible and different. While technology is not the main game for us, Mint3D is still the best possible engine for our particular circumstances.

Digital FoundryFrom the developer's perspective, what are the advantages and disadvantages of the yearly refresh model Apple uses for its hardware?
Rob Murray

It's great when you can be confident the hardware you're developing for is being updated and refreshed on a regular basis. Having such great support behind the platform allows us to build on our games and tech; to let them mature in a way that's only possible with time and iteration. New hardware brings new users who may not have played our game before, so it is a new opportunity to sell also.

Naturally, each new device comes with upgraded specifications, but Apple has done an admirable job of keeping things relatively consistent. The only difficult thing is when to keep the old hardware running smoothly while also pushing the limits on the new hardware. We think that we have done remarkably well in this regard and if you get Real Racing 2 or Real Racing 2 HD on any device it should run smoothly and look as awesome as possible on your particular device. We have had a hiccup or two along this path, but we have been very fast to get on top of any issues on older devices with updates, to make sure that everyone is having an awesome experience.

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Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.