Will iPhone 3G S create a divide for mobile gamers?

Don't let the identical exterior fool you. Apple's latest iPhone iteration is packing some significantly upgraded hardware. Apple pulled no punches with its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) keynote this year: Its flashy (and affordable) new operating system, Snow Leopard, was priced and dated, and a new line of more powerful and less expensive MacBook Pros was announced. But as usual, the iPhone swooped in at the last minute to steal the show -- this time with a brand new model: iPhone 3G S.

Although Apple wasn't eager to spout specifics at the WWDC keynote, various sources have disclosed the details on the iPhone's first major performance bump (see AnandTech's writeup here.) Simply put, the increases in processing power and graphics rendering capabilities mean Apple's newest device will be capable of greater visual detail, faster rendering and more complex imagery than ever before. It also means that, theoretically speaking, games could be developed that will only run (or run effectively) on the iPhone 3G S.

Video capturing and editing, voice commands and a built-in compass. Finally, a phone built for all the limbless orienteering documentarians in the world.

Progress is inevitable, particularly in the tech sector. And consumers wouldn't ever think otherwise, although groaning and complaining are natural reactions. But because of the universal compatibility of applications across all models of iPhone and iPod Touch up to this point (save for some GPS- and phone data network-dependent features), the 3G S could create the first great schism in Apple's latest platform.

This wouldn't be such a problem for most consumers if it weren't for the draconian pricing put forth by the iPhone's sole provider in the United States: AT&T. While new subscribers and a few current AT&T customers who qualify for upgrades can take advantage of the new pricing scheme (ranging from a $99 8 GB iPhone 3GS to the 16 GB and 32 iPhone 3G S models, priced at $199 and $299 respectively,) current customers in mid-cycle are forced to pay much higher premiums for the phones themselves -- to the tune of an extra $200.

To put things in perspective: This means I'd be paying the same amount of money I paid for my 16GB iPhone 3G on its release day nearly one year ago ($299) just to purchase an iPhone 3G with 8 GB of storage today. But to upgrade to a 3G S with the same storage capacity as my current phone? I'm looking at $399.

Even more alienated are the iPod Touch owners, who are facing a dearth of hardware upgrades to match the latest iPhone revision. It's likely that Apple will roll out a new line of iPod Touch hardware to keep things on equal ground before too long, but it looks like the most advanced technology will only be available to the iPhone crowd.

While Apple doesn't dictate how AT&T conducts business, it is significantly accountable for how its sole provider operates in a major market.

ngmoco's upcoming first-person shooter, LiveFire, will operate on all iPhone and iPod Touch hardware -- but iPhone 3GS owners can look forward to a bit more visual flair.

Fortunately, some developers have the best interests of all iPhone owners in mind. Today, ngmoco trumpeted the benefits of iPhone 3G S's superior processing and graphics capabilities, but it stressed it won't develop games exclusive to the new-and-improved 3G S hardware. Instead, games will perform differently in order to best utilize the capabilities of the hardware they run on:

We’re scaling the imagery based on the performance of the device, so if you’ve got a 3G S, the game’s going to look better and run at a great framerate. And if you’re on an iPhone 3G, the game will look a little bit different, but the framerate will be the same, ’cause obviously performance and speed are actually an important part of a cool first person shooter gameplay experience.

-- ngmoco co-founder Neil Young, in an interview with MTV Multiplayer

Given the massive install base of iPhone and iPod Touch users -- 40 million owners and counting -- contributing to 3,000 apps downloaded per minute, there's no denying the vivacity of Apple's digital marketplace. But there's no denying the iPhone would have been much less successful if it lacked its near-seamless integration with Apple's iTunes Store and App Store. The hardware draws consumers in, but it's the content that keeps them coming back.

With any luck, Apple and its development community won't be locking anyone out from continuing to share in the fun.