I got together with Mark Rein last week and he showed me an Unreal Engine 3 tech demo running on a 3rd generation iPod Touch. The same Unreal Engine 3 that powers Gears of War 2, running on an iPod Touch. The engine also works on the iPhone 3GS, and Mark tells me that we’ll see it on another mobile platform at CES (hmm...).

The demo is both playable and has a flythrough. It’s using a modified Unreal Tournament level previously shown off at GDC. A virtual thumbstick on the left side of the screen controls your movement, while tracking your thumb in the lower right corner of the screen controls the camera. Just tap the screen to shoot. Mark said this is a tech test bed and they’re experimenting with several different control schemes including ones with tilt.

In practice, the controls work well. This is just a demo so there was no score or point to the game, I just got to run around and kill a single respawning enemy. And it was fun.

As you can see from the video the frame rate was smooth. There are more visuals to be added, as well as some polishing, but the demo looked very good for an iPhone game.

It requires OpenGL ES 2.0, so the iPhone 2G and 3G won’t work, nor will the older iPod Touch models. It doesn’t really matter though, this is just a starting point.

Epic isn’t announcing any sort of iPhone engine licenses nor are they entering the iPhone game market. Porting UE3 to the iPhone is simply one of many projects being worked on inside a newer, more svelte and innovative Epic Games (wait till you see what’s next...).

Today the iPhone, Tomorrow the World

Mark said they planned to make this available to licensees at some point in the near future. That’s great for end users because it means that any Unreal Engine licensee can now start playing around with making iPhone games based on the same technology. Unfortunately the recently announced, free to the public, Unreal Development Kit (UDK) is Windows only - the iPhone version isn’t included. I’d guess that at some point Epic will change that, it just makes too much sense. Doing so would enable a whole new class of iPhone game development using an extremely polished engine.

It’s all about taking the portable market seriously. While I wouldn’t expect to see any Epic branded iPhone games anytime soon, eventually it wouldn’t be too far fetched to see a full port of Gears of War to something as small as an iPhone. NAND Flash capacities to support multiple 9GB games will be there in another few years, as will GPU horsepower.

Remember that the SoC in the iPhone 3GS is only built on 65nm technology, Intel is about to release its first 32nm chips. You could cram four times as many transistors into the same space at 32nm, roughly 9 times as many at 22nm. Remember that graphics performance scales very well with additional transistors. At what point does the smartphone become more powerful than an Xbox 360? Sometime in the next 3 - 5 years for sure.

And it’s not just about iPhone support. Mark told me that as soon as CES we’ll see Unreal Engine 3 on another mobile platform entirely. More announcements will happen throughout 2010. This isn’t a platform specific thing, it’s about bringing Unreal Engine 3 to the entire portable market.

Final Words

For the end user, Epic just improved the chances of getting better looking games on the iPhone and potentially other portable devices.

For Epic, expanding UE3 into the portable market makes a lot of sense - it will eventually increase the base of paying UE licensees as well as help move the entire portable gaming industry forward. It’s not all altruistic though, by releasing iPhone and other portable versions of UE3 it helps secure Epic’s position as a supplier of game engines, regardless of platform.

For an existing Unreal Engine licensee you now have the ability to compete in the growing iPhone market thanks to Epic, how nice. Once the phone gets powerful enough I expect it’ll be used for more than just playing simple games.

As personal computing moves to more platforms and takes new forms, what we need are technologies that unify development across all devices. There’s no reason that a game you’re writing for an iPhone shouldn’t be built on the same foundation as something you’re writing for a high end console. The difference should be in the game, not in the engine.

This latest move by Epic does validate whatever Apple has been quietly doing all along. From the investments in Imagination Technologies to hiring two previous AMD Graphics CTOs, Apple is clearly interested in gaming (which is funny given the poor state of gaming on the Mac).

Historically Apple likes to enter markets when it believes that it can do something better or at least different. We saw that with the iPhone. The question is, how does Apple plan on providing a different take on gaming?

The remaining hurdles are significant, but not unsurmountable. Playing anything other than a point and touch game on the iPhone can be frustrating. Epic doesn’t address that, but someone else surely will when the time is right.

Engine houses like Epic enable game developers to focus on building the game they want to build, not the underlying technology. With UE3 on the iPhone, we will eventually see more and hopefully better games on future versions of the platform. Not to mention whatever other mobile platforms Epic plans on porting UE3 to as well.

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  • JimmiG - Saturday, December 26, 2009 - link

    Well duh, obviously it isn't. But it's a 3D game. Same as Doom II and Crysis being different games, but a good indication of how far technology has progressed. My point was just that today's smart phones produce more realistic graphics than a full tower from ten years ago. No need to try to be a smart@ss.
  • spaceholder - Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - link

    At what point does the smartphone become more powerful than an Xbox 360? Sometime in the next 3 - 5 years for sure.

    Really? Really Anand?

    Maybe, maybe in 5 years smart phones will have the power of an xbox's original.
  • Mike1111 - Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - link

    Are you kidding me? The iPhone 3GS and 3rd gen iPod touch are already as powerful in the graphics department as the original Xbox (in relation to their display size/resolution of course!). You don't see it so far because right now game developers can't afford to ignore the original iPhone hardware because of it's big market share. But an engine/game designed from the ground up exclusively for the 3GS hardware with a comparable budget to a AAA original Xbox game would definitely look just as good.

    But yes, in REALITY 3GS games will probably never look as good as original Xbox games, but that's not because of hardware capabilities but because of backwards compatibility issues and way smaller budgets. Plus you got a rapidly changing platform with new and more powerful hardware probably every two years, so there's no real incentive for developers to get the last bit out of the hardware over the years as they do for consoles in the long run. And consumers upgrade after 3 years at the latest to a newer model anyway, nobody keeps a smartphone around as long as console.

    So unless some AAA game developer studio like Epic invests 10 million dollars and 3 years developing a game exclusively for the iPhone 3GS you can't do a practical real life comparison, just a theoretical based on the used hardware.

    Regarding the next 3-5 years:
    Most likely Apple will upgrade the SoC in the iPhone every two years. A 2-year cycle makes perfect sense to me and matches Apple's previous strategy, one year internal hardware/SoC upgrade, the other year new design and secondary components (camera, display etc) upgrade.
    Dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 SoC's in 45nm are expected in late 2010 (from TI etc.), Apple could use something comparable plus a SGX543 dual-core in their mid 2011 iPhone (probably in 40nm or maybe even 32nm). Mid 2013 a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 and a SGX543 multi-core or SGX6xx sounds reasonably (22nm or smaller since Global Foundries will be pushing the envelope for ARM hardware). That's pretty powerful hardware (and probably only has to deal with a WVGA display, not HD like the Xbox 360) and 3.5 years in the future, 4.5 years if Apple takes its time, 5 years if Apple takes its time and changes its release schedule. So Anand's 3-5 years sound right on the money for me, at least regarding the hardware capabilities.
  • Jovec - Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - link

    Input/Output > processing power.

  • spaceholder - Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - link

    What makes you so sure that the graphics power will be so easily scaled to x-box 360 levels? Ignoring the fact that the iphone couldn't push the resolutions an xbox could.

    35-nm is one of the last real free doublings in efficiency as it will take a lot of time and money to get things on a smaller process and the power savings wont be as marked. After things are on 35nm phone manufacturers will likely begin stagnating in terms of GPU abilities because there wont be a demand for anything beyond this level of gaming. People wont demand the latest and greatest graphics from phones, they'll just want fast time wasters and cool pseudo flash type crap that they buy now.

    You're also forgetting that this engine is stripped down. There is no way it supports the laundry list of things taken for granted by modern platforms like PC's and the latest gen of consoles. To say smart phones will have anything approaching an xbox 360's power in 3-5 years... come on. It might look *damn good* but wont be outputting 720/1080.

    Yes it isn't fair to hold phones with resolutions of xxx/xxx with the xxxx/xxxx boxes - but think of it this way. A $50 video card can play the same game a $600 one can. At severely reduces resolutions. Would you say $50 cards have the same power as the $600 card? Of course not. That would be retarded.
  • Mike1111 - Wednesday, December 23, 2009 - link

    22nm for SoCs is pretty reasonable in the next 5 years. Just look at the Global Foundries articles and roadmaps here on Anandtech. And since CPU and GPU are on the same die they will both profit from 22nm. And the specs for the SGX543 multi-core GPU give us a pretty good view of what's possible in the next 2 years within a very small power envelope, and you can be sure that in 5 years the successor to the current generation will have a better performance.

    Regarding the engine: Yes it's stripped down (right now), but that wasn't the point. In 3-5 years no one will use this specific version of the engine, but some improved successor since it would have to run on a different hardware platform (multi-core etc.). Plus you would have to strip down the Unreal Engine 3 for the original Xbox too.

    And you can't compare resolutions like that between a smartphone and a console. Smartphones have one specific resolution to work with and nothing else. If it looks good in your hands then that's it. There's no reason to discuss how it would look like on a 65" Full HD screen or with a built-in 1080p display, since it's not even an option and clearly not the intended use-case.
  • spaceholder - Wednesday, December 23, 2009 - link

    the transition from 35 to 22 will not net nearly the power savings as the 55-35. Just because the next generation will have better performance doesnt mean it will increase it by orders of magnitude like smart phones have done in the last 5 years.

    Yes it is fair to compare resolutions since its an apples to oranges comparison anyways. Car metaphor: Just because cheap economy cars top speeds have increased 40% in the last 20 years while race cars in motor-sport X have remained the same does not mean an economy car will EVER have the power of a racing machine.

    Of course phones wont have 1080p displays and wouldn't benefit from them if they could. That's kinda my point. Apples to oranges. And if you DID hook that theoretical-5-year-from-now apple up to a 1080p display, the orange lit x-box 360 would kick its mother fucking ass. Just before it red ringed.
  • slang - Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - link

    Zune? Android? I don't think so!
    Seems people already forgot about the upcoming Apple tablet which is supposed to lauch in Q1 2010.
  • phatboye - Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - link

    Epic claimed that they wouldn't port the U3 engine to the Nintendo Wii simply because the Wii was not powerful enough but somehow they were able to port the engine to the iPhone which clearly shows that if they wanted to do it, the U3 engine could be ported to the Wii.
  • TerraBubble - Tuesday, December 29, 2009 - link

    They probably COULD port the engine to the Wii, but the graphics would nothing like as good as on the Xbox 360/PS3/PCs. From what I've played on the Wii, it and the iPhone 3GS have about the same graphics proccessing power, except the Wii uses TVs, not 3/4" smartphone screens. Therefore, porting it to Wii would be a really pointless invesment for them considering how grainy the textures would look displayed on a TV by a Wii, it would have to be atleast as good as Xbox 360 graphics.

    Plus the Wii isn't very popular for shooters compared to the 360 & PS3, so it wouldn't be worth it if they didn't get many people buying the game. (Most companies don't really care most about the customers like they say in the ads, they just care about TEH MONIES)

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