On Graphics: An Open Letter to iPad Devs

Check. Check. Is this thing on? Hello everyone. If you’re a developer of iPad applications, then today, I’m talking to you. More specifically, the one’s who shouldn’t snooze through today’s address are the iPad game developers, but what I want to talk about applies to a wide range of apps.

I come to you today with a problem that I’ve been putting a great deal of thought into over the last few months. You see, I’m what the tech world might call a “dinosaur.” I got my iPad (the original iPad) around Christmas time the year it came out. This was, if you don’t recall, only months before the iPad 2 was released. I’ve watched as the new iPads and the apps developed for them have gotten better, and I can’t help but feel like I’m being left in the dust – specifically, regarding graphics.


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Don’t Forget About Us

Now, I know that technology advances, and things become obsolete before they even arrive at my doorstep. But we all know what it’s like being Apple users, right? A new version of each product is released every year, and it becomes quite costly to keep up with the newest model of every device. I applaud Apple for always thinking of the next big thing, but for those of us still using outdated devices, we need to watch out for each other.

I am specifically addressing graphics today because it tends to be the one area in which each subsequent iPad release improves the most. And while some apps that are less graphics-intensive may run a bit sluggishly on older devices, some of the cutting edge games become nearly unusable on my first generation iPad.

It became most noticeable to me while playing Motorbike HD many months ago.

It became most noticeable to me while playing Motorbike HD many months ago.

A Proposed Solution

Graphics settings. Now I’ve disclosed on this site in the past my lack of iOS development chops, so I may be unable to grasp how big of a job implementing a feature like that would be. But all of my favorite computer games have deep and complex graphics settings menus so that you tailor the strain on your computer for the components inside. Given that Apple isn’t likely to be supporting more than two models of iPad at any given time, I would think that a graphics settings menu on an iPad would only have to consist of a single toggle switch.

To the iPad developers out there: would this be unnecessarily difficult to employ?

Final Thoughts

The recent release of the “new iPad” may make all of this irrelevant to me and all of the other prehistoric iPad users (and I fully accept that, being two models behind now, it’s probably time for me to upgrade), but it’s not unreasonable to expect Apple to continue offering an older generation iPad concurrently with the newest one. I realize that the temptation to jump at the new hardware and use up all of it’s juicy power designing the latest and greatest games and apps is tempting (and indeed, you should!), but keep in mind the users of older devices, the trailers and the stragglers. We want to use your apps and play your games, too.

Graphics intensive games like Mass Effect Infiltrator can even struggle slightly on the new iPad.

It’s particularly worrisome to me, because I don’t want to miss out on one single app because of the graphics capabilities on my device. And how am I going to tell all of our readers here about your great app if I can’t use it?

And what about you, dear readers? We have run polls on the site before, so I know that at least some of you are still rocking the original iPad. What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you find that some apps are simply out of the question when considering what to run?


  • Jack Cavacth

    I like this idea. Computer games allow you to change graphics settings, flash games have quality toggles, it would make sense to include these options on iPad games. Devs would greatly increase their customer base and decrease 1 star ratings on their apps (since from what I’ve seen, alot of low ratings come from a recent update or a new app not being compatible with older hardware).

    • Leonick

      Or, since there are such a limited amount of iOS deviced (in contrast to PCs or Android where there are innumerable combinations) the developers could actually test their apps on the different devices :p they already detect what device you are one to adjust graphics.
      Unfortunately there are for some reason sometimes apps launching saying they are compatible with certain devices but just crashes on some, seems common with heavy games and the first gen iPad.

  • Leonick

    Right… Ok…
    First, the is no need for graphics options of the developers can detect which device you are running on and change the graphics accordingly which they both can and do.
    Second, until last Friday I had a first gen iPad (got it when it first released here in Sweden, just a few months before the second one), it ran Infinity Blade 2 more than fine (though the graphics couldn’t compare to the new iPad or the iPhone 4) and Mass Effect Infiltrator ran with a smooth frame rate and about the same graphics as newer devices which took me by surprise considering it looks pretty good.

    Now, I’m not saying there aren’t every any problems, some games have been released incapable of even loading on the original iPad but would instead just crash, but most of the time developers do a great job of scaling the graphics for older devices. That has at least been my experience with my first gen iPad.

    • http://twitter.com/@scottld3 Scott Danielson

      Granted, some apps do make adjustments based on device auto-detection, and I applaud developers for implementing this. However, some apps and games have been frustrating at best for me to run on my first-get iPad.

      I propose a graphics selector because, just like in desktop gaming, some users are likely to be willing to sacrifice the performance to experience the high level of graphic detail that developers have put into their games, while many users will prefer to take the graphics hit in order to have an app that runs smoothly. As a multi-platform gamer, I can certainly sympathize with both sides.

      Thanks for the thoughtful response!

  • Ben

    I remember seeing a few games with toggle-able graphics options. One of them was a turn-based strategy game called Time of Heroes. I think it had options for AA and textures.

    But yea, these games are very rare. Some games tend to auto-adjust the graphics based on your device (like GTA 3 and Infinity Blade), but unfortunately they still end up performing poorly on the iPad 1 (constant crashes in my case.)

    Just before upgrading to the New iPad, I played mostly 2D games on my old iPad, as those were the only games that would run reliably.

    Now that I have a new iPad though, I’m anxiously waiting for retina updates for my games library (only 25% have been updated.)

  • tickbite

    I agree with you, but I think a related and more pressing problem is that new iPads and new versions of the iOS make it impossible to use some apps if you are still using older versions. I would like Apple to make it possible to go back to older versions of apps, those which were designed for my version and my iPad. Once they update, I lose my paid-for software. It happened enough times already …

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  • ivan

    hm… my advice to you.

    sell your 1G iPad on ebay internatinally,

    for example in Russia you still can get 500 – 700 on it, coz official apple suppliers there making %100 on newest models, so iPad 3 costs there about $1100.

    so, just sell your old one, and get you new one.

  • protocollie

    as a software engineer, i’m going to give you the flipside of this:

    graphics settings are a poor, incomprehensible-to-the-average-user solution to a problem that’s mostly caused by platform fragmentation. nothing is more fragmented than desktop PCs – there’s so much that varies between them – quality of drivers, operating system version, average machine load (some people’s machines are poorly maintained and running lots of processes and services at once) and hardware. the iPad, however, is a very different beast – you have a predictable pool of memory to allocate, you have a predictable floor level of CPU use, you have a predictable and EXTREMELY limited (there’s only three unique configurations that matter from the perspective of performance) set of hardware configurations and a very limited number of possible software configurations with an opt-in upgrade rate that’s high enough you don’t really have to worry about anything but the latest and greatest.

    introducing graphics settings into this environment would be pointless. a responsible developer should be able to tune their application appropriately in this sort of environment with little issue. console games don’t have ‘graphics settings’ because the developers know what they’re building for. there’s no question as to whether the device supports hardware shaders or whether your game can be run at 2x or 4x AA smoothly – you determine this in testing, and can safely assume that your testing environment is an accurate representation of the consumer experience.

    the real solution to this problem is that developers need to be responsible in listing their apps. just because your game doesn’t have hardware capability requirements that preclude it from launching on an iPad 1 doesn’t mean that you should say it’s compatible. if your graphics engine doesn’t run well on the iPad 1, don’t support it. simple as that.

    Apple also needs to do what they’re doing for the iPhone for the iPad, which is set in stone a product lifetime that developers need to consider a device for. Knocking the iPad 1 off the market when the 2 came out made testing and developing for the iPad 1 unappealing, as that customer base will only die off from the day that the iPad 2 launches. The iPhone now has a set product lifetime of 3 years, with 3 tiers – the free tier, the mid-range tier, and the bleeding edge tier. That ensures that for at least 3 years, all devices are making it into circulation in reasonable numbers and still viable platforms for development.

    Just my $.02 – menus of incomprehensible settings are no good. If you’re asking the end user to performance tune your game for you on a console, you’ve failed at building a game.

    • Joel Bankhead

      Thanks for the comments – it’s great to hear this argument from a different perspective! I think you’re right about how complicated adding extra settings in could be. It’s certainly a good comparison to look at the iPad and games consoles, developers have a reasonably narrow window of what they’re developing for.

      There’s an interesting debate to be had over when developers should stop supporting older hardware, and how they should go about it. Requiring a certain iOS version is one way to go, but can still leave users frustrated. It’s a shame that Apple doesn’t currently allow you to specify hardware in the requirements.

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