Will Apple’s iPhone 5 Revolutionize Mobile Gaming with ‘Console Quality’ Graphics? Not Likely

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You have to hand it to Apple — the company knows how to move mobiles. In just five years, it’s sold over 244 million iPhones, and according to ComScore, iPhone users accounted for 12.4% of all U.S. mobile subscribers last February — more impressive than it sounds because you’re talking about one platform, not a bunch of unrelated models.

When it comes to mobile gaming, you could argue the writing’s on the wall: Last November, mobile analytics firm Flurry released data depicting the growth of iOS and Android gaming over the past few years. In 2009, iOS and Android had a respectable 19% of the U.S. mobile market — small, you could say, but mighty. In 2011, however, iOS and Android grew to capture 58% of the market. Contrast that with Nintendo’s DS (36%) and the PSP (6%). No, it’s not game over for Sony and Nintendo, as I’ve argued in some detail here, but it is compelling evidence that a sea change is underway.

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Enter the iPhone 5, Apple’s latest pocket-sized dynamo, a smartphone ostensibly bristling with horsepower. Apple made some bold claims during its press event — the boldest yet — about the iPhone 5′s gaming prowess, calling it a “console quality” handheld. In a world where readers pore over the meaning behind every vowel and consonant in Cupertino’s public statements, and where the company surely knows what it’s inviting when it uses a phrase like that, we’re talking a shot fired across the bow of the entire games industry.

Or is it? On paper, the iPhone 5 sounds impressive in the oomph department. It employs Apple’s new A6 chip — newer even than the Retina iPad’s A5X chip. The A5X has to drive graphics around a 2048-by-1536 pixel, 9.7-inch screen, where the more powerful A6 only has to do so with 1136-by-640 pixels on a 4-inch screen. That’s a lot of pixels per inch: By comparison, the PS Vita’s slightly larger 5-inch screen is 960-by-544, while the 3.53-inch top screen on Nintendo’s 3DS clocks in at just 800-by-240 (and in auto-stereoscopic mode, that drops to 400-by-240 pixels per eye).

We’ve yet to see A6 benchmarks, of course, but Apple claims the new processor is “up to twice as fast” as the A5. If you consider the iPhone 4S (which uses the A5) to be on par with something like a high-res original Xbox (think Dead Space and Infinity Blade), that might put the iPhone 5 somewhere in crunching distance of the Xbox 360 … or not. Benchmarks or no, we’ll have to see what sort of games developers can actually turn out to know for sure.

Apple did dedicate several minutes to a racing game on the iPhone 5 – impressive, if a little odd for a company that’s usually treated gaming as something to be tolerated more than celebrated. But the high water mark during the demo turned out to be an underwhelming (from the standpoint of a console gamer) nod to the phone’s ability to render traffic in the race car’s rear-view mirrors — a feat consoles have been pulling off effortlessly for at least a decade. (It always seems to be racing games with Apple at these iEvents. Why? Because they’re prosaic enough, gameplay-wise, not to offend non-gamers?)

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But then no one’s ever really complained about the iPhone’s ability to crunch pixels, much less its need to offer “console quality” visuals. Nor has anyone questioned its appeal to a demographic we often refer to as “casual gamers,” meaning kids, teens or adults who’ll play stuff like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope and Bejeweled from time to time but couldn’t care less that there’s a new Halo or Call of Duty title in the pipeline for set-top systems later this year. And why should they? The market stats above seem to indicate Apple’s doing just fine creating a gaming environment that appeals to casual players.

However, I’m not convinced the company understands what “console quality” means, or that the iPhone 5 is the phone to seal that particular deal. The iPhone 5, for all its apparent wonders, is still going to be a poor input device for console-style games. Grand Theft Auto III is fun to dink around with on the iPhone or iPad, but worlds apart from the experience you’ll have playing it on a console with a gamepad. Have you tried Command & Conquer Red Alert or Dead Space on the iPhone? How does it feel playing with your thumbs obscuring half the screen? Trying to maneuver on a flat, button-less surface, mangling the sort of pinpoint movement and camera control accuracy that’s almost an afterthought using thumbsticks? Imagine trying to do something like Halo or Call of Duty multiplayer on an iPhone or iPad without fundamentally altering the way those games play.

Not that it’d be impossible to offer a Vita-like experience on an iPhone, given the proper peripherals, say a wireless gamepad or a wrap-around, snap-in control interface like the iControlPad or iCade Mobile. But for those add-ons to enjoy broad enough support to convince developers to create and publishers to publish the kinds of games we’re seeing on dedicated gaming handhelds like the 3DS and Vita, much less set-top consoles, they need Apple’s imprimatur (that, or an Apple-branded peripheral — hey, we can dream, right?).

Apple’s never exactly been in touch, much less bosom pals, with the core gaming crowd. The closest it came was probably Bungie’s Marathon series for Mac back in the mid-1990s, before that developer was snapped up by Microsoft and went on to create one of the most popular video game franchises in history. Since then, well, you can say plenty of nice things about Trine 2, Trine and Where’s Waldo? — the top three paid games on the Mac App Store as I’m writing this — but I don’t see that stuff prompting gamers to trade in their controllers to tap or tilt their way to gameplay nirvana.

I have nothing against smartphones and tablets as game devices. I’ve championed them repeatedly here.  But as console replacements for core gamers? Only two ways that’s happening: The market shifts so radically that core gaming all but vanishes — with core gaming outpacing all other market segments in revenue, that doesn’t seem likely — or Apple finally addresses its iDevice input quandary and gives us more than a glass screen to tap on.

Let’s hope it’s the latter, and soon.

PHOTOS: Scenes from Apple’s iPhone 5 Announcement