WWDC 2020 has concluded, and that means it’s time to glean some insights from all the documentation, sessions, and other materials that Apple released. We’re going to do this on a few topics in the coming weeks, but to start, we’re looking at the new initiatives and features Apple has announced for game developers on the iOS, iPadOS, tvOS, and macOS platforms.
We’re starting here in part because this was a red-letter week for gaming on Apple platforms (and also because some of Apple’s gaming centric-sessions were among the first scheduled during the week). Some enormous changes are coming, and playing games on Apple devices is going to look markedly different going forward.
The first change we’ll go over is a doozy: the transition of the Mac from a PC-centric gaming platform to a mobile-centric one.
iOS and iPadOS games on macOS
In a hugely consequential change for the Mac platform, Macs running Apple Silicon will be able to run iOS and iPadOS games. Developers will be able to choose whether their iOS or iPadOS games are listed on the Mac App Store, but if they choose that, the games will run natively, with minimal additional work required.
This is a seismic shift for gaming on the Mac, and it may represent Apple giving up on a strategy that has never really worked that well in the 15 years since Macs moved to Intel CPUs. Mac games have generally been ports of Windows games. Not all games get ported, and those that do often don’t perform well.
The poor performance hasn’t been because of any one problem. It’s a combination of Apple’s emphasis with its video drivers, the comparative weakness of the mobile GPUs used in Apple’s Macs versus PC gaming GPUs up until very recently, bad OpenGL support in Macs, a reliance on DirectX-specific technologies and frameworks in modern games, and a lack of widespread expertise in Apple’s proprietary Metal graphics API among PC game developers, among other things.
Plus, porting triple-A games is extremely expensive, and the market for them on Macs has always been relatively small. It’s been hard for a lot of developers to justify the cost and effort. It seems like Apple has decided that trying and failing to win with that strategy is no longer worth it, so the Mac’s center of gaming gravity is moving from Windows PCs to the iPhone.
From Apple’s perspective, this seems like an all-around win. The iPhone app store dwarfs PC gaming by many metrics, the nature of the Apple Silicon shift means Apple will usually be able to ask for more of a cut of revenue from developers who make the games than they would in the old ecosystem, and the effort and expense required to make an iPhone game work well on an Apple Silicon-equipped Mac pales in comparison to that required to port a triple-A, DirectX game in Windows to Metal in macOS.
We still have a number of questions about this, though. How will Apple handle games listed on the Mac App Store that have suboptimal interfaces for the mouse and keyboard? Do developers opt their iPhone apps in to the Mac App Store, or opt out of it? We’ll have to wait until this fall to see the answers for many of these, it seems.
But whatever the case, this is a foundational change to the Mac’s relationship to gaming—a total defection from one gaming ecosystem and culture to another.
Greatly expanded input options
In 2018 we talked to game developers about what Apple needed to do with the Apple TV, and the number one thing we heard was “introduce better controller support.” To that end, Apple announced last year that its various platforms would be able to work wirelessly with both Sony’s DualShock 4 controller of PlayStation 4 fame and Microsoft’s Xbox One controller.
That implementation worked seamlessly for players, and it was pretty no-frills for developers to boot. Now Apple is expanding on this feature in some significant ways—and not just on tvOS. First off, two new controllers are being supported: Microsoft’s pricey, high-end Xbox One Elite Series 2 controller and Microsoft’s accessibility-oriented Xbox Adaptive Controller.
Supported controllers are getting support for all kinds of special functionality. Games can now access the gyroscope, accelerometer, touchpad, and lightbar in the DualShock 4, as well as the rear paddle buttons on the Xbox Elite controller. All supported controllers will get support for haptics (aka rumble), and games will be able to read and report a controller’s battery charge state.
Further, Apple will offer a new settings panel in iOS 14 that will allow complete users to remap controls for their controllers—either globally or on a per-app basis—provided developers have flagged their games or apps as supporting controllers in the App Store.
Apple is also adding to GCController with GCKeyboard and GCMouse for iPads. That means iPads running the new version of iPadOS will fully support mouse and keyboard for game input. Apple gave developers guidelines about when mouse/keyboard behavior should use GCKeyboard/GCMouse, and when it should use UIKit as is standard for most apps.
Usually, UIKit is preferred to make the game play nicely with multitasking and other iPad features. But if developers want a full-screen, focused experience with direct keyboard and mouse character controller—as in a first-person shooter, for example—that will be possible.
Game Center overhaul
Apple introduced Game Center… well, let’s just say quite a while back. It’s received some modest updates over the years, but it’s never been anything transformational. Developers I’ve spoken with say that it’s not as robust as it needs to be, and it feels like a barely supported afterthought.
Game Center allows for leaderboards, achievements, and some social features that span multiple games in the App Store. Now, Apple is redesigning the experience.
There’s a new dashboard for viewing achievements, leaderboards, and friends that will be accessible as an overlay on existing games. Apple gave developers guidelines on how to include a new standardized button of sorts to access Game Center across their apps.
Players and developers will also gain access to timed leaderboards. Game Center already supported leaderboards, but they presented lifetime numbers. Now developers can create leaderboards that represent a specific period of time—for example, weekly, daily, or in the seasonal model that has become popular for many games-as-a-service today.
Game Center handles queuing up and matchmaking for various forms of multiplayer, from real-time to turn-based, including joining games with your Game Center friends in them more easily, in a new interface.
These changes are all rolling out to iOS, macOS, tvOS, and iPadOS this fall.
The grab bag of other changes
Those are the big ticket items, but there are a few other smaller things from this week worth mentioning, too:
- Apple is opening up the U1 ultra-wideband chip to developers, and this could be used to make new kinds of AR apps. Apple also introduced ARKit 4, with new features to make more powerful AR apps that are tied to Apple Maps locations or that make better use of the iPad Pro’s LiDAR sensor (which will probably make it to future flagship iPhones, too).
- As we wrote before, the Boot Camp tool used by many to run Windows games natively on Macs will be deprecated on Apple silicon Macs, but it will continue to be supported at least through Big Sur on Intel Macs.
- There are reports that Rosetta, the revived tool that will now help x86_64 Mac apps run on Apple silicon Macs, will not be much help for virtualizing Windows apps on those same new Macs. This is another example of the divorce between PC games and the Mac, as the Mac cozies up with iPhone games instead.
- Apple has established the A12 chip, found in the iPhone XS and later, as the baseline for some modern, performance-oriented games. Apple is offering special ways for developers to flag their games as requiring the A12 or later, specifically.
- Apple outlined its plans for ReplayKit, which could be used for streaming games from its platforms to live streaming services
- Beyond a Steel Sky, the many-years-later sequel to the classic PC adventure game Beneath a Steel Sky, arrived on Apple Arcade today.