Can Game Center Ever Be the Xbox Live of the Post-PC Era?

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GigaOM recently sat down with ngmoco CEO and co-founder Neil Young to talk about the future of gaming and mobile apps. Young’s company blazed a trail for mobile apps developers, achieving early and sustained success in the Apple App Store (s aapl) economy. And while he thinks much about Apple’s platform, he’s not so keen on its own efforts to connect its gaming user community. Check out the video below (beginning at around 8:50) to hear Young’s thoughts on Game Center.

Obviously, Neil Young isn’t going to be keen to give too much praise to Game Center when his own company is the creator and driving force behind plus+, which is essentially a Game Center competitor. But there’s no denying Apple’s built-in service is lagging behind both plus+ and OpenFeint when it comes to features. Game Center acts as little more than a barebones leaderboard and achievements tracker, while other options like OpenFeint, plus+ and Gameloft Live at least offer the potential to really connect players to one another through matchmaking and other social networking features.

This isn’t the only time Apple has missed the target when it comes to social networking features and services. Ping, the company’s music-based, iTunes-integrated social networking tool was met with disappointment at launch, and though Apple periodically rolls out updates that seem to indicate it still has an interest in the service, it still isn’t succeeding as a social network.

Game Center seems to have been born out of the same kind of thinking: specifically, a desire to sell more content. Ping is very clearly designed to funnel users toward iTunes purchases, and Game Center is basically a sales tool designed to add perceived value to App Store game offerings. Both of which would be fine, so long as Apple wasn’t so transparent about its intent with both products.

Xbox Live (s msft), the king of social gaming networks, succeeds because it genuinely connects gamers, and it’s very good at doing that. So good that users are willing to pay a subscription to stay connected to the service. Think Apple could charge for Game Center? The Mac-maker may be very good at separating consumers from its money, but that’s a feat even it couldn’t pull off. Apple likely won’t ever charge users to use its gaming network, but Xbox Live also provides non-cash incentives for Microsoft that would benefit Apple just as much, including a sense of deeper platform investment and loyalty from gamers, and another means through which to effectively market gaming titles to an interested audience.

Young is right when he says in the above interview that games will succeed or fail based on the quality of the experience they provide, not based on how amazing their graphics or effects are or how much they push the limits of the technology that powers them. In a way, he’s talking about the same thing Jobs talked about when he discussed the post-PC era at Apple’s iPad 2 announcement event. In both cases, it’s the overall quality of the total experience that matters, not the isolated merits of the individual parts that make up that experience.

Apple understands this when it comes to its hardware, and most of its software, too. But it doesn’t seem to take that message to heart when it comes to its social networking efforts. Game Center, like Ping, is a missed opportunity that could add infinitely to the experience of iOS gamers. Alternatives from third-parties like plus+ go some way towards filling this gap, but if Apple can add true social networking elements (a messaging system, matchmaking service, more detailed leaderboards, chat and better user profiles, to name a few) to its own native offering, it can make iOS a much richer and wider-reaching gaming platform, for both users and developers alike.

Related research from GigaOM Pro (subscription req’d):

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To be fair, Game Center does offer matchmaking, it’s just that very few iOS developers take advantage of it. Even Epic, who were part of the Game Center launch announcement with Project Sword (later renamed Infinity Blade) have yet to deliver on their Game Center matchmaking promise, something we saw them demo on stage back in August 2010.

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