The Future Of iPhone Games: Apple, EA, Ngmoco Talk
November 20, 2008 | By Christian Nutt 2 comments More:
With the success of the iPhone (and the iPod Touch, which can also access the App Store), there has been a huge influx of games to the platform, which is currently the best-selling U.S. consumer mobile phone.
At a recent San Francisco briefing, Apple's senior director of marketing for iPhone, Bob Borchers, showcased a range of upcoming iPhone game titles, and laid out his company's vision of why the uptake has been so swift.
Though most people think of the iPhone as the single target platform, the iPod Touch also works with the vast majority of applications. Borcher noted: "If you're a hardware developer you've got two great platforms to develop for." On top of that, Apple has "worked very hard to develop [the SDK] in a very comprehensive way."
While Sega's Super Monkey Ball, one of the launch games for the App Store and a 500,000 unit seller, was an early indicator of what the platform is capable of -- Borcher described it as "a posterchild of what's possible" -- he believes that "things have gone so much further than that."
Of course, this is true in terms of choice as well, perhaps making it more difficult to sell that many in today's iPhone game market. There are over 8,000 applications available on the store in 20 different categories; according to Borcher, over 200 million applications were downloaded in the first 100 days of availability, from July 10, 2008.
Big Players, Big Games
To reinforce the strength of the platform, Borcher invited a handful of Apple-selected app developers to present their games and software, starting with Electronic Arts.
Patrick Gunn, director of marketing for EA Mobile, showcased Need for Speed Undercover, which will be available next month. Gunn says that EA has "taken full advantage of all of the unique elements... like touch, flick, accelerometer, and motion sensitivity" -- and graphically, the game appears to be roughly on par with a PSP title.
More revealingly, Gunn says, "The partnership that we are building with Apple in delivering these great apps and helping sell more hardware is equally as exciting" as selling games on iPhone to consumers.
He added: "From our perspective of being in the mobile industry for a long time, the UI that Apple has delivered is so easy and so compelling that it makes shopping for apps so compelling, that it has us excited."
Gameloft also showed a 3D driving game, Ferrari GT Evolution, which will also be available in December. PR manager Carmen Pearson gave out some interesting stats -- the publisher, part of Ubisoft, has over 18 titles on the app store currently, and notes that "Apple is actually Gameloft's top customer right now."
Neil Young, who recently founded iPhone-oriented startup ngmoco, commented, "We specifically created our company to focus on the iPhone and iPod Touch. We have 14 games in development right now."
Five ngmoco titles will be released between now and the Holiday season, though the company chose specifically to showcase Rolando, its platform/puzzle hybrid that calls to mind Sony's LocoRoco.
Time was also given to demonstrations from marketing firm AKQA, which is handling retail apps for Target and Gap, social networking tool Loopt, and Handmark, which is launching a version of the Zagat restaurant guide for iPhone. Handmark's Cassidy Lackey also commented that while its GTS World Racing game is available for a variety of smartphones, "our iPhone version generates 98% of our revenue."
In-Depth: Talking Rolando
After the presentation concluded, Gamasutra had a chance to speak to the presenters about their game titles and get some time to try out the applications.
Simon Oliver, founder of Hand Circus, the London-based developer of Rolando, explained that though he had never developed a game before, he has worked in new media and Flash development and had been toying with the idea of making games for some time.
He had also considered the XNA Community Games service as an outlet for his aspirations before settling on the "uncharted territory" of the iPhone.
When Super Monkey Ball and Spore Origins were first revealed, Oliver concluded that "it was very much an indication that [the platform] was viable" for games, and at that point he began to move forward with prototyping Rolando.
According to him, the title drew its initial inspiration from early-'80s British kids show Terrahawks, which features a group of rolling robots, as well as PC and console classic Lemmings. Oliver believes that games which are "heavily evolved" to make use of the iPhone's unique control properties "will fit that platform best."
His initial challenge was getting the Lemmings-esque gameplay to work, combined with the rolling characters he'd envisioned when inspired by Terrahawks.
Though Rolando started with a puzzle-oriented point and click design, like Lemmings, "it evolved into something more platformery. We had to throw away a lot of stuff," while prototyping, Oliver admits, "but it's led to a lot of fun things. It's been very iterative."
Development on the game began in June this year, and became a collaboration with Finnish illustrator Mikko Walamies, whose pop-art design (he's a T-shirt designer by trade) has lent the game its colorful LocoRoco-like look.
While Oliver originally intended to release the game independently, he hooked up with ngmoco after he released his first trailer. He notes that ngmoco's staff "has been a great creative sounding board" thanks to their experience in the industry, and has also facilitated music licensing -- the game features tunes by DJ and musician Mr. Scruff.
The Established Names of Gaming
EA Mobile's Patrick Gunn notes that the company's overall console expertise "certainly helps" in developing games for the iPhone, noting that the company intends to "bring as much advanced gaming to this platform as it can handle."
While noting that dealing with carriers on other mobile platforms is difficult, the ability to directly market to consumers on the iPhone is extremely attractive to EA. Despite the large selection, Gunn says, "We've had no trouble staying in the top 100 apps."
Sanette Chao, director of PR for Gameloft, feels that the iPhone opens up more opportunity for the carrier, noting, as her colleague Carmen Pearson did during their presentation ,that the company has been very aggressive in releasing games for the platform.
Though the company has not done much research into the audience spread yet, "we see it very competitive to DS and PSP", according to Chao. She also notes that while typical DS games clock in at 20 or 30MB (but can go as high as 256MB), iPhone apps top out at 100MB, allowing much more room than Nintendo's platform for the average game.
What makes the system a competitor -- its graphics abilities or its unique controls? "A little bit of both," Chao suggests, noting that she believes currently released games from Gameloft only tap into "10% of the capabilities" of the platform, and explaining that the company's second generation of titles will begin to launch in January.
Casual titles have been "really successful on iPod" for Gameloft, but Chao sees the iPhone as attracting more than just a casual audience -- the company seeks a "good balance" of titles while "targeting also the hardcore gamers."