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Gaming On-The-Go: What The 2015 WWDC Apple Announcements Spell For Indie Developers

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Gaming On-The-Go is a weekly series that explores the mobile gaming industry, as well as uncovering the current trends, with hands-on guides for the latest smartphone and tablet games.

During the keynote speech at Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco on Monday, Apple revealed lots of updates to its operating systems that we are all looking forward to.

As an iPhone user, I couldn't be more excited for iOS 9, which has everything from updates to new features for built-in apps and more — including the redesigned Notes, the all-new News, and detailed transit information in Maps.

And while the talk of the event focused on big announcements like Apple's Music streaming service, Swift going open source, OS X El Capitan and watchOS 2, Apple also had some news to excite both those who play games and those who create them.

IOS 9 features lots of new developer APIs, including GameplayKit and Model I/O – which will help developers build better games – and ReplayKit for recording while gaming.

Gameplay Kit will not help in the rendering and animation process, but will rather assist developers in designing the architecture of their games with little effort. It will eliminate the need to create complex algorithms so they can instead focus on other features like randomized gameplay.

This is where Metal comes in.

Apple announced that Metal is coming to Mac — which will "pave the way for new levels of realism and detail in games and other apps."

What is Metal?

At last year's WWDC, Apple's head of software Craig Federighi unveiled Metal with the release iOS 8 — its developer tool to replace the industry-standard 3D API OpenGL.

Metal is a core graphics technology that provides a faster and more efficient rendering performance. This time around, we learned that the built-in apps in iOS 9 use Metal, so they will provide "smoother animation" and faster scrolling.

In terms of gaming, Metal delivers richer graphics and faster performance. Among the names in games that use Metal to enhance their apps are 2K, Unity, Blizzard, Feral, Unreal Engine, Aspyr, The Foundry, Campo Santo and AutoDesk.

Using Metal, developers could tap into the platform to get the most out of Apple's A7 mobile chip found in the latest Apple devices like – at the time – the iPhone 5S. The combination of Metal and A7 greatly increases performance and graphics, which Federighi said would "enable game providers for the first time to bring console-class 3D games to mobile devices."

Does Metal Benefit Indie Developers?

Metal is a more optimized graphics layer for rending and GPU programming. It's also exclusive to Apple's newer devices equipped with A7 processors — unlike OpenGL, which can be used across platforms. That means indie developers will have an audience limited to iOS users with newer iPhones, and their games won't work across platforms.

In terms of saving processing time when creating a game, however, this only makes sense. Metal gets its name as a result of coding done closer to the metal — the CPU or actual hardware. When using Metal, developers directly give commands to GPU — and the improvements are huge because the CPU isn't strained. This also cleared up battery life so users can play games longer without having to charge their phones.

Take, for example, the free-to-play (with in-app purchases) game World Zombination from the indie developers at Proletariat Inc. Boasting 3.5 million downloads, the app was named Editors' Choice in the App Store, in addition to being crowned the best tablet game. Co-founder and CEO Seth Sivak credits the success to Proletariat's integration with Metal, which has allowed the company to push the boundaries of what it could do with the game.

From a tech standpoint, Prolerariat was able to double the game's framerate using Metal from 30 frames a second to 60.

"We can also do a lot of post-processing effects like shaders to make the game look cool... we do some blurring around the edges," Sivak said.

"That's the technical stuff we can handle, but what it really does is give us cooperative head room in terms of the number of drop calls we can do to be able to do more calculations on the physics side — and to be able to add more interesting particle effects and things like that," he continued.

"The only downside is because you are pushing that many more frames, that means more pixels, so it's not light on the battery."

At least iOS 9 will increase battery life.

Unlike OpenGL, Metal is a highly efficient graphics API, which makes it more similar to developing for console. That's an appealing factor for the developers at Super Evil Mega Corp., who received an Apple design award for the multiplayer online battle arena game, Vainglory (which was featured by Apple during its September 2014 keynote).

"We are a core game company, so we have focused on delivering the kind of experiences you would expect to have on a PC or console on your touch screen device," said COO Kristian Segerstrale.

"What Metal is really good at is enabling us to squeeze the maximum performance from the device hardware, giving more crisper controls, more beautiful effects, more things moving on the screen — basically higher quality settings, if you like, on the device, resulting in a more beautiful experience."

But just because Metal is loaded with benefits for developers, that doesn't mean it should be the only platform —especially considering non-Apple gamers.

"You probably should think twice about purely only coding on Metal if you're a game developer that wants to ultimately develop or distribute the game on multiple platforms," Segerstrale said.

The Success Of The App Store

Apple celebrated its App Store success by revealing that is has paid out over $30 billion to developers, making it the most profitable app marketplace with over 100 billion apps downloaded.

The App Store lets developers have complete control of their titles. To feature an app in the App Store, developers set up an account that costs $99 per year. Apple announced that developer accounts for iOS and Mac apps are now combined, making the process more seamless.

Beyond the fact that developers have complete control of their apps – and the audience to whom they can distribute their games – by creating their accounts, developers also get access to all of Apple's APIs. Plus, there is no cost for putting up apps.

But Should Indie Developers Feature Apps On The App Store?

What sets the App Store apart from other markets like Google's Play Store is the Editor's Choice selections, picked independently by real gamers. The apps are chosen based on their own opinions and are not influenced by advertising. Apple also expanded its editorial picks to subcategories and specific genres, rather than highlighting the top-grossing or most downloaded apps based off of algorithms.

"Apple is the clear market leader," Segerstrale said. While the Android marketplace has grown very quickly, its ecosystem (and editorial policy) is still maturing. The App Store, by contrast, has a more established reputation among gamers.

"They've done a lot of work establishing credibility with the consumers," Segerstrale said. "The things that they feature is great – their editorial policy, their reviews – you cannot built reputation with a consumer over night, and what Apple has done great in terms of hardware in particular, but also in the case of the iTunes service experience, has been one where the consumers have always been delighted."

He continued: "The editorial policy has matured, the overall policy of how the Store is managed, and the policies around the app review process — all of those things have taken some time to mature, but they are now in a place where I think the consumer has an enormous amount of trust."

But developers don't live and die by the charts. Many apps – even those from indie developers – often reach the top on their own. Developers in the App Store are pushed to make good products — whether they have a startup company or already in the big leagues.

"Apple has been good about trying to find new titles to service to their users, and they don't really care who it comes from. If you make a good game, they will do what they can to tell their users about that, and that's really great," Sivak said.

"People can't necessarily buy their way into the App Store. And Apple has been active in trying to find diverse, interesting games, making sure their users have cool stuff."

Bottom Line

With updates to iOS and OS, both gamers and developers will have a higher quality experience. Tools like Metal will make it easier for developers to code and create unique games, whereas ReplayKit will further enhance gamer engagement — which is also beneficial to indie developers.

"The thing we are most excited about, coming from part of the announcements, has been the Replaykit — and this idea of being able to help the consumers create videos out of the game experience and share them with friends," Segerstrale said. "That's the kind of functionality that is quite complicated and costly to write on your own."

Given its success, should developers only look to the App Store when publishing games? Absolutely not. Not only will they be missing out on other non-Apple users, some gamers like core games that thrive off the platform, the processing power and the screen size differences.

"In some ways, the fact that you have these devices fragmentation on the Android side is arguably a good thing for core games, because core games have always depended on some devices being faster, and optimized for game-playing, opposed to others," Segerstrale said.

In the iOS vs Android debate, running a game on iOS is much easier for developers, because compared with Android alternatives, Apple has limited devices — which helps them know their game works and works well.

Getting published in the App Store allows developers to reach tens of thousands of people at no cost. If you have a good product, Apple will feature you.

"Apple has shown that they are willing to go after more experimental things that maybe their whole audience won't like, and that's okay," Sivak said.

Plus, Apple has that great editorial policy. "Apple has been very thoughtful throughout in terms of just a level of someway insider advise on how to build and how to succeed over time," Segerstrale added.

From speaking with these developers, Apple provides a reliable marketplace with a trusted consumer base, along with the tools to help you succeed. Don't worry about competing against the big fish out there, indie developers. Just dive right in.

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