After all of the peer pressure, I finally took the dive and procured the latest iPhone. Coming from old-school Palm devices, I have to say I am extremely pleased with my new acquisition. In fact, I’ve spent just about all of the past month or so customizing everything on the phone and loading it up with all manner of music, podcasts, and, of course, apps – which is really what I’m here to talk about. There’s been a lot of hype these recent years in the gaming industry about the growth and potential of the mobile app market. Many of the traditionally console-oriented companies have already found the waters to be inviting, EA and Square-Enix being among the notable ones.
Of course, while this massive market explosion was going on, I was sitting idly by, twiddling my thumbs on my portable mainstay DS, and waiting for the right time to get myself one of these devices of legend. The announcement and subsequent release of the iPhone 4 presented exactly the opportunity I was looking for. And let me tell you, I am still catching up on what I’ve missed in the world of smartphones (and, very specifically, the iPhone).
Luckily for me, I’ve been a faithful viewer of Area 5‘s CO-OP series (through its entire run), which did me the service of pointing out a good number of the popular iPhone games. I already had a list in mind before even installing iTunes. But that didn’t prevent me from browsing endlessly through iTunes’ massive app store. I’ve spent weeks researching what I should buy, and I also spent a good amount of time just demoing countless “lite” versions of games that piqued my interest. Finally, after nearly a month of iTunes obsession, the contents of my iPhone are beginning to settle down, and I’ve had the opportunity to gather my thoughts on the device’s viability as a true gaming platform.
This year, Nintendo announced the development of the 3DS, finally revealing it at E3 and hailing it as the next leap in portable gaming. There was a small discussion over lunch at work regarding whether the 3D on the 3DS would advance the gaming experience in a way that was more than superficial. Though I haven’t gotten a chance to try it for myself, I’m convinced that 3D technology is little more than a graphical leap. It won’t change gaming paradigms in the way that the Wii opened the world’s eyes to motion control, which, of course, prompted the subsequent development of competing technology from Microsoft and Sony (in the form of Kinect and Move, respectively) as they attempt to explore the limits of that gamespace.
However, I do see the possibility (and the actual execution) of new gaming experiences on the iPhone. Watching from the sidelines in years past, I had assumed that Apple’s devices were doomed to present dumbed-down clones of much better and much more polished experiences that traditional gamers already have on their DS’s and PSP’s. However, there are certain things about the iPhone (which mostly apply to all modern smarthphones in general) that, together, give the device the potential for experiences not currently found elsewhere:
- Always on: this property of mobile gaming denotes more than just “always being supplied with power.” My DS usually stays on for extremely lengthy periods of time as well, but that doesn’t really do much for my gaming experiences. Smartphones, on the other hand, are things that are frequently checked and frequently used at all hours of the day, whether it be for checking email, reading news, or talking/texting with friends. It’s not just something you pull out to play during your lunch break or after work. When using the device is part of your daily rhythm, you’re bound to find yourself gaming more frequently. Factor in a feature like push notification, and asynchronous gaming becomes a natural fit for the device. Just look at the success of Words With Friends.
- Always online: despite complaints with AT&T’s 3G coverage, always being online has enormous consequences. Multiplayer is readily available at your fingertips, anywhere you go. This can’t even be said of the DS and PSP, which both require a Wi-Fi connection that, given America’s remedial network infrastructure, is not so easy to obtain when you’re out of the house.
- Multitasking: something you definitely won’t be doing on your DS or PSP is playing multiple games simultaneously – at least not as seamlessly as you can on an iPhone. This feature encourages more frequent gaming and I’ve personally found that it shifts my gaming preferences to punctuated spurts of play rather than lengthy affairs.
- True indie development: I know a couple of coworkers who have released apps on the App Store. My wife’s friend has found moderate success developing a fantasy sports app (Fantasy Monster, which I’ll shamelessly plug for him right now). Though Nintendo and Sony have certainly tried to entice these kinds of small-time developers, the barrier to entry just appears to be too high. I’m not certain of the reasons – maybe it’s the debug units, or the SDK, or the licensing fees and smaller profit margin. In contrast, it’s hard to ignore the way iOS game development has exploded in a way that the DS and PSP downloadable scene never experienced. Even though people like to bash Apple for their supposedly restrictive app approval policies, I’m not really seeing a problem as a consumer. I know for a fact that their standards aren’t very high because… well… I’ve seen and played through a lot of crap. But there can’t be trash without treasure. One of the unique consequences of independent app developers’ efforts to differentiate their product in a crowded market is the increasingly adopted practice of releasing free and frequent updates. Pocket God has, since launch, released over 30 episodic updates. Cult favorite Minigore also promise to provide free updated content as well. Compare that to your other portable consoles: how often do you find yourself getting new, free content for your DS and PSP games? I’ll answer that for you: almost never. And with a price point for iPhone titles that typically ranges between $1 and $5, it becomes harder and harder to justify some of those less-than-stellar DS and PSP purchases.
- Portable media player: I’m not sure about other people, but a huge reason I bought the iPhone was because Apple has set the standard for portable media playing devices. I haven’t had an mp3 player since my hard-drive-based Rio died so long ago, and I’d been itching to listen to my library of music in the car and at work again. I tried using the PSP as a primary media player but was extraordinarily underwhelmed. The iPod experience was exactly what I was looking for. Being the exceptional media player that it is, the iPhone is likely to have a large amount of stuff sitting on it, just waiting to be integrated into some intrepid app for a procedurally generated, synaesthetic experience (a la Audiosurf). We’ve heard in recent news that iOS4 has finally granted the API-level access to make this possible. There have already been a few games toying with the idea (I believe Space Invaders Infinity Gene has such a feature).
- Augmented reality: while not exclusive to the iPhone (or even smartphones in general), since the new DSi is equipped with a camera and the PSP is getting a camera attachment, augmented reality is an altogether new gaming experience that draws nearer and nearer. I know of several apps that have made some attempts to employ the mechanic, Joybits’ Ghost Bastards AR and AR Monster, to name a couple that have yielded unspectacular results. AR has yet to birth its “killer app”, but it’s coming. The tech is there, and the audience is eagerly awaiting its arrival.
- GPS: the most paradigm-altering gaming experience I’ve had on the iPhone so far would have to be geocaching. If you’re not familiar with the activity, it’s basically a real-life treasure hunt, in which people all over the world have hidden millions of caches for others to find. Though geocaching has been done for over a decade, it required dedicated GPS units. Now that GPS tracking is built into the majority of smartphones, the activity has become far more accessible. Geocaching.com – home of the most widely used geocache database – released an iPhone app that I have absolutely fallen in love with. But geocaching is not the only experience to be had with a GPS-enabled phone. Popular social networking services such as foursquare and Gowalla also make a metagame out of daily travel. Booyah’s MyTown one-ups those services by allowing players to virtually own real-world properties whose values are determined by the frequency of real-world visits. And then there’s Parallel Kingdom – a location-based MMO built on innovative, groundbreaking ideas but plagued with lackluster execution. Just imagine if that kind of game were built by the likes of Blizzard.
Of course, the iPhone platform is not without its drawbacks. For one, the battery life is terrible for high-fidelity gaming. Anything 3D sucks power like you wouldn’t believe. I can game on my DS for well over 10 hours straight, and on top of that, the thing can stay in sleep mode for weeks without needing a charge. But the moment I load something like Eliminate Pro on the iPhone, I’ve got maybe two or three hours before getting that nagging urge to plug the phone in. (And, at least in my experience with the iPhone 4, that sucker gets hot.) This limitation is certainly one explanation for why short-form experiences are so popular on the device (as opposed to your hardcore, fully-immersive, rich narrative experiences). Viewed a certain way, though, this could actually prove to be a good thing, as it forces games (and gamers) to focus on new and innovative gameplay utilizing strong theme more than traditional narrative. I’m okay with that.
Secondly, Apple’s Game Center will probably end up being too little, too late. In the same way that Sony’s late introduction of PSN trophies resulted in product inconsistency, Apple will be forced to combat a number of popular services such as OpenFeint, Plus+, and AGON Online, who have already stepped up to provide the unified online gaming framework that Apple did not.
Lastly, the platform’s widespread “secular” use by non-gamers combined with its sudden proliferation of independent game development has resulted in a wildly untamed consumption environment. What I mean to say is that it’s very hard for the seasoned gamer to judge what is actually worth getting (app-wise) for his iDevice. This is because your average iGamer isn’t really a “gamer” in the way the rest of us veterans define the term. They’re the casual end of the casual market. Most of them don’t realize when an app is a shameless knockoff of some old console game that we “real” gamers played and loved years (or even decades) ago – and they don’t care. Now I’m not saying that this new audience of gamers should be shunned – they have every right to entertain themselves with the experience of their choice. But I am saying that as a core gamer (and if you’re reading this, you’re probably the same), I can’t really trust many of the app reviews floating around out there. After browsing through a few of the reviews on the App Store itself, I know that a lot of those are worthless to me. Some people give 1 star for the pettiest things, and other people give 5 stars for nothing at all. And some of those reviews are just faked. Browsing more controlled outlets on the world wide web doesn’t avail much either because most of those reviewers, while they have valid and well-articulated opinions, are just not our people, y’know? So I’ve had to (and continue to) scour the web for outlets and personalities that I know I can relate to and that have that core-gamer credibility, which is why I’m so thankful for Area 5′s CO-OP iPhone segments, because I relate to those personalities so much. I can probably launch into an entirely different discussion regarding the role of reviews in game consumption, but it’s hard to deny how an organized and trusted review infrastructure allows gamers to filter out trash and find titles with exceptional quality (instead of deceptive advertising). This also encourages audiences to congregate around the worthwhile multiplayer titles and enrich the online experience for those titles rather than dilute the audience across a number of me-too clones. The iPhone platform is not at the point where the core gamers have that reasonably trustworthy at-a-glance source of what’s good and what’s bad. This isn’t so much the fault of the platform as it is the platform’s infancy. Let’s see if and how things change when iPhone games show up on Metacritic.
All-in-all, though, I’m excited about the platform as a whole. It’s got that “Wild West” vibe – a lot of peril with a lot of promise. As the platform (and the audience) matures, and as developers continue to strive to differentiate themselves in the crowded market, we’re bound to see amazing, innovative, and captivating experiences on the App Store in the not-too-distant future. Yeehaw!