Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of something that I haven’t done since I first got an iPhone: gaming. Sure, I’ll occasionally pick up Angry Birds when the developers release a new major update containing a level pack, but the efforts of others to date have provided little more than a passing distraction. That’s changing, and for the better.
The Early Days
When the iPhone first arrived on the scene, the quality of games available for the platform varied wildly. It was the wild west of gaming development, and many didn’t know what to do with this new device beyond replicating gaming experiences they’d had in other arenas. So we saw Tetris clones, Bejeweled, and ports of Java games aimed at traditional cellular handsets.
One of our articles about the must-have games for the iPhone near the launch of the App Store tells a tale of kart racers, puzzle games, and clones of popular franchises. Gameloft was in the business of churning out retitled and rebranded versions of console and PC classics, and it was a formula that worked so well major developers like EA took note and started getting in on the action.
How Far We’ve Come
While some things haven’t changed (physics games still show off the real power of the platform), others have. Derivative titles are still successful (look at Gameloft’s Gangstar: Miami Vindication, for instance), but consumers are also clearly rewarding those developers who are focusing on experiences tailored specifically to what the iPhone and iPad bring to gaming.
Angry Birds Sets the Pace
I mentioned the example of Angry Birds, but it’s hard to overemphasize the effect the Rovio Mobile-developed title has had on the state of iOS gaming. The physics-based puzzle game has dominated the paid App Store charts, and though it recently slipped from the number one spot, it often finds its way back. One reason is the attractive price tag ($0.99), but another is the unique experience it provides, which clones so far haven’t been able to match or capitalize upon.
Other gaming stars of late include Cut the Rope by Chillingo, another physics-based puzzler that takes a cue from Angry Birds but doesn’t feel derivative. If you haven’t tried it, and you like Angry Birds, I highly recommend it. It also uses the $0.99 pice point, as do Fruit Ninja, Doodle Jump and Flight Control. These stars all provide uniquely iOS-enhanced gaming experiences, and they all enjoy consistent, healthy sales.
The Big Fish Adapt
More expensive games are also doing well, though they’re offered by larger studios and probably reflect development budgets. These games, too, released by major studios like EA, Sega and 2K Sports still often have ties to major franchises designed for other platforms, but it’s obvious more attention is being paid to tailoring game experience for iOS.
Instead of getting repackaged versions of games we’ve already seen elsewhere, iOS games are themselves getting the cross-platform treatment and arriving on other devices via things like the PlayStation Store and DSiWare.
A Bright Future Ahead
The iPhone was good for gaming because it presented a challenge to developers. How do you create satisfying experiences for a gaming device that lacks physical controls? It wasn’t a question anyone had really asked before, and there wasn’t a clear answer. Now, there isn’t only one clear answer, but instead a variety of exciting ones that each provide an original, satisfying take.
While the iPad isn’t a brand new challenge, it definitely requires developers to come up with additional, unique answers to new game design questions. The success of universal apps like Cut the Rope, and of fairly straightforward big-screen translations like Angry Birds is a good starting point, but the iPad will have its own maturation process when it comes to gaming above and beyond these kinds of efforts.
Small and Clever Will Supercede Big and Flashy
Despite its current success, the App Store’s gaming section still has a long way to go before it catches up with dedicated gaming companies like Nintendo, at least in terms of revenue. Gamasutra recently estimated that Apple has made around $210 million from game sales in total. Nintendo makes in the ballpark of $400 million on one of its top games alone.
Of course, Apple wants to sell hardware, not software, and games are simply a means to help it do that. That means it will continue to be an appealing choice for developers, because Apple will go out of its way to make sure that it is. As the iPad boosts the already huge pool of iOS users, we’ll see more and more small, agile development firms spring up to fill the demand for games on the platform, leaving major studios to continue to develop major franchises for consoles.
I’m willing to bet that the development cycles and fanfare associated with those games will start to look pretty old-fashioned in tomorrow’s gaming economy, especially when, from a user experience perspective, the enjoyment derived from a well-designed, highly replayable iOS game isn’t that much different from that derived from a complex, lengthy RPG.
The iOS Exclusive
With Android and now, Windows Phone 7 set to become major players in mobile entertainment, we’ll probably see Apple make some moves to keep its lead in smartphone gaming. One way they could do this is by encouraging and promoting iOS exclusives, the same way Sony and Microsoft do now with home console titles.
Even if Apple doesn’t try to arrange agreements with developers to keep titles exclusive, it may do so indirectly by introducing hardware and API features that make exclusivity (of features at least) a byproduct of design. The gyroscope in the new iPhone 4 is one example of that kind of tactic, and if RFID makes its way into the iPhone 5, that may be another.
Competition Opens Up the Possibilities
For both developers and iOS device owners alike, the next few years should prove an exciting time for gaming. Apple will have to provide more and more access to device features via the iOS API to keep things feeling new and fresh, and introduce new hardware with better capabilities to keep buyers interested. That’ll translate to more opportunities and challenges to spur iOS gaming to even greater heights. Even though the scene’s matured, there’s still plenty of room to grow.
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