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Apple stakes its claim to AAA gaming on mobile with iPhone 15 Pro series

Apple revealed the upcoming iPhone 15 Pro series, powered by a redesigned GPU, with exclusive ports of AAA console and PC games. This insight explores its importance, and why meaningful gains for publishers are far from guaranteed.

James McWhirter

September 14, 2023

7 Min Read

Apple revealed at its annual September event that the upcoming iPhone 15 Pro series, powered by a redesigned graphics processing unit (GPU), will feature exclusive ports of triple-A (AAA) console and PC games. This insight explores its importance, and why meaningful gains for triple-A game publishers are far from guaranteed.

Apple offers answers to the questions raised by Qualcomm’s AAA mobile games strategy

Apple’s newly revealed iPhone 15 Pro is powered by the A17 Pro hardware platform, which brings with it a newly redesigned graphics architecture capable of hardware-accelerated ray tracing and MetalFX-powered image reconstruction utilized in triple-A Mac games.

These capabilities are being used by Apple in a bid to woo publishers to bring native ports of their premium triple-A console and PC games to iOS, with the company announcing upcoming ports of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Mirage, Capcom’s Resident Evil Village and Resident Evil 4 Remake, and Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding.

The timing is important: At Gamescom 2023 in August, Qualcomm revealed its vision for high-end portable gaming powered by its G Series silicon. Its top end “G3” tier, aimed at OEMs’ bespoke handheld gaming devices, is capable of a similar graphical feature set with hardware accelerated ray tracing and image reconstruction.

As we wrote in August 2023, Qualcomm faces a significant challenge beyond declining demand for dedicated Android-powered gaming smartphones. It will need to secure strong support from leading game engines Unity and Unreal to ensure developers can enrich their games with high-end features as easily as possible. It also needs to convince publishers of leading triple-A titles to bring true cross-platform support to Android, a platform it does not control, in a mobile games market where live service titles dominate, mandating the need to target lowest common denominator devices.

What is interesting is how Apple appears to offer answers to both questions. It has achieved a degree of developer and publisher buy-in, having convinced Ubisoft, Capcom and Kojima Productions to release AAA games that have previously never been considered for mobile. On the other hand, it has also persuaded Unity – the dominant game engine on mobile – to support ray tracing, as MiHoYo’s Honkai Star Rail will feature the technology on iPhone 15 Pro.

One key driver of this is Apple’s position as a hardware vendor that also owns the software and distribution platform. Note how the Resident Evil and Death Stranding games coming to iPhone 15 Pro are already available or coming to the Mac – this is no coincidence.

In June, we examined how Apple’s new Game Porting Toolkit enables developers to quickly test and translate console and PC games to native Mac versions that utilize Apple-specific technologies like its Metal3 graphics API. Now that Apple has transitioned to a common architecture across Mac, iPhone and iPad, developers have multiple routes to market – ports that begin on Mac with Game Porting Toolkit can be brought to iPhone Pro and future iPad Pro models with less effort.

Qualcomm, on the other hand, does not control the fragmented ecosystem of Android devices that its G series silicon will power. Its ability to convince publishers to bring their triple-A console and PC titles to G series-powered Android devices depends on whether partner OEM devices accumulate a large enough active installed base to make it worth their while.

Apple does not have this problem; In fact, its iPhone Pro series sells in the tens of millions of units annually. Omdia estimates that Pro models accounted for almost two-thirds (65%), or just under 90 million units, of global iPhone 14 sales in the nine months following its September 2022 launch (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Pro models command almost two-thirds of iPhone 14 series sales

iPhone14.png

Long-term, Qualcomm does not need to worry, as the support from publisher and engine makers such as Unity will eventually also benefit Android. As an system-on-chip (SoC) vendor, Qualcomm is in a prime position to gain from this – its G series silicon has laid down the groundwork for it to bring advanced graphics features like hardware-accelerated ray tracing to Android gaming.

Apple gets a value-add for its devices, but meaningful gains for game publishers is far from guaranteed

While Apple has attracted early software support from significant publishers, some of the challenges we’ve seen with streaming PC and console games on smaller mobile displays persist, limiting their potential appeal.

Text and user interface elements designed for large TVs will appear tiny and illegible on iPhones without significant developer effort (that is unlikely to materialize) – this will be less of an issue on larger-screened Mac and iPad devices. The ballooning game file sizes requiring more storage than ever before and the games’ impact on the device battery life are significant considerations, as well as the requirement for a Bluetooth gaming controller for optimal experience.

There are also concerns around market viability for those PC and console-native publishers bringing their blockbuster titles to Apple devices. These games typically command a premium upfront price, which Apple’s audience is not accustomed to paying for, but can likely afford. Meanwhile, publishers, fearing the devaluation of their premium titles, will be reluctant to offer their games for free or at a greatly reduced price.

Publishers bringing their native triple-A PC and console titles to iOS would stand to benefit from marketing support from Apple, who should communicate to its users why these ports are unique and worthy of the upfront cost. This is because these games will serve as a value-add to its prestigious Pro lineup of iPhones.

Still, the appeal of Apple’s platforms for game developers is clear: Omdia’s App Ecosystems Forecast Report: 2022-2027 reveals that despite iOS smartphones and tablets accounting for just over a fifth of the global installed base, consumer spend on game apps in the iOS App Store continues to outweigh Android’s Google Play by a factor of 5.3. This is due to the higher affluence of iOS users and iPhone’s higher-than-average market penetration in key mobile gaming markets such as the United States and Japan.

Ports of triple-A games won’t necessarily need to sell in high numbers to be sustainable. Having reduced the amount of effort required to port from PC and console to Mac, Apple hopes publishers will bring their PC and console games to its ecosystem of compatible iPhone, iPad, and Mac devices. If publishers find an audience on at least one of these platforms, it may well be worthwhile.

Appendix

Further reading

“Gamescom 2023: World's biggest games expo proves the value of physical events” (August 2023)

Mobile Games Report – 1H23 (August 2023)

App Ecosystems Forecast Report: 2022-27 (March 2023)

“Apple’s Game Porting Toolkit marks a turning point for gaming on Mac” (June 2023)

Smartphone Model Market Tracker – 2Q23 Database (August 2023)

Author

James McWhirter, Senior Analyst, Games

George Jijiashvili, Senior Principal Analyst, Games

[email protected]

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