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iLang Syne: A Guide To iPhone Game Development In 2009
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iLang Syne: A Guide To iPhone Game Development In 2009

January 6, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this in-depth Gamasutra feature, veteran developer Alessi looks at the state of the iPhone/iPod Touch game market in 2009, mapping out the pitfalls, engine choices and opportunities of developing for Apple's hit device.]

With the holidays behind us,  the development path for the iPlatform -- iPhone and iPod Touch -- is coming to a crossroads.

Will the iPlatform live up to its overwhelming promise, or will it fail to deliver truly meaningful gameplay experiences by nickel-and-diming users with free or extremely inexpensive gimmick content?

In this article, we'll analyze the iPlatform's past, present, and future to determine what pitfalls developers should be aware of before taking the plunge in 2009.

The Past

The iPlatform awoke in beta form during February 2008. During this time, developers large and small signed up in excitement to develop for the device that made Star Trek look ancient. Apple unleashed a powerful and easy-to-use SDK.

The word on the street was that the iPlatform was more powerful than even Sony's mighty PSP for gaming applications. Looking at the power of the hardware, the ease of iTunes for app delivery, and the cellular phone cornerstone of this platform, it was easy to see why this might be the way of the future.

Not all was rosy, though. Developers had to deal with a restrictive NDA, which caused the flow of information to travel like molasses. Developers like id's John Carmack said that Apple's devices would revolutionize mobile development, and it sounded great.  Perusing Internet forums, however, showed a different side of the story. Developers struggled with a cumbersome code-signing process.

Apple's G4 computers, still widely used, were not compatible out of the box, or supported by Apple's iPhone SDK. Through some hacks, it was easy to get a G4 to work with the iPlatform simulator, but getting an app onto an actual test device was nigh impossible.

To get in on this promising platform, one had to pony up for an Intel-based Mac. There was a lot of promise for the platform, but there were legal restrictions, information bottlenecks, and additional costs even for long-time Mac developers.

The Present: Tools & Finances

As we now know, the stumbling blocks of early iPlatform development were actually minor. Developers overcame the code-signing niggles, Apple dropped the restrictive NDA, information flowed more freely, and people were making money.

For a developer looking at the iPlatform today, there are many development options -- not just Apple's SDK, but dedicated game development tools such as Unity, ShiVa, and Torque. The cost is obviously higher, but the rate of production may be equally so.

The minimum price of entry for a completely green Mac developer is $1,144.54 at current exchange rates. The breakdown of this total is $99 for Apple's development program, $599 for an Intel Mac Mini, $229 for a second Generation iPod Touch, and $217.54 for StoneTrip's ShiVa, the cheapest complete game engine for the iPlatform. The free game iBall3D was developed using ShiVa, and has gone on to see more than 850,000 downloads.

Many developers have used Torque at some point in time. The engine is an indie development staple, and some would argue that the iPlatform is the ultimate indie destination.

Currently, only the 2D version of Torque is available for the iPlatform. The price of entry is $500 on top of a pre-existing Torque Game Builder (TGB) Pro Indie license ($250).

Furthermore, there's an additional $100 per-title fee. The total for an Apple development newcomer using this platform, then, is $1,677.00.

That comes out to a $532.46 gap in the cover charge from ShiVa. However, it might be worth your time if you've already developed a TGB game and simply want to port it over to the iPhone.

The last card in our current hand is Unity. The price of entry is steeper than ShiVa, but not as steep as Torque. The minimum grand total using this solution is $1525.00.

The Unity components are an indie license for $199, and an additional $399 for the iPhone Basic license. Already, a host of great Unity-developed titles have been launched for the App Store including Bubble Bang, Crazy Snowboard, and my personal favorite, Debris.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Luis Gomez-Larez
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Great well-rounded article. Couldn't agree more. As an indie developer for iPlatforms, I would put even more emphasis and caution on the challenges of Marketing/Advertising on the App Store. This has been by far our toughest challenge on this platform; getting our app noticed among the thousands of already existing ones, on an indie developer budget.

I feel apple did a great job of 'solving' many issues for indie developers: low cost of entry, ease of programming, distribution. The one issue that remains unsolved (not that it is apple's sole 'responsibility' to solve it), is a better app search and ways to give exposure to all apps more evenly. I wish the iTunes/App Store had at least a 'Random' section that would showcase a selection of random apps. Also maybe a section showcasing top rated ones, (best reviews). This would 'spread' the coveted app store front page exposure a little more evenly across all applications.


Mike Lopez
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Great article. The cost of entry and platform feature differences were especially insightful.

I find it really strange that Apple sorts categories by popularity but not by ratings. With such a large flood of Apps it is hard to determine the quality of the app by which to make a purchase decision based on price-to-quality value. Subsequently purchases are much more of a guess and so as a consumer I am not willing to risk as much at higher price points.

I also think much more of the App statistics need to be exposed to the consumer such as total number of ratings, more granular averages (i.e. 3.27 stars), ratings by App version number and by calendar quarter or month, version update rate, total and monthly average number of downloads, etc.

There might also be some interesting ratios or misc. stats that could be very insightful to some consumers in determining App value such as possibly the average rating per current version, the average rating per dollar of price?, the average downloads per dollar of cost?, the most popular Apps per category without a price drop, the average price change per month. I think the more Apple discloses to the consumer the harder it will be for developers to attempt to release cheap gimmicky shovelware for any genre and this should result in an increase in quality and value for the consumer and make it easier for quality developers to survive.

Mike Lopez
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By the way, one can activate 1/2 star ratings in iTunes 8 by editing the prefs file:

I would still like to be able to set the level of granularity though.

Peter Bakhyryev
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Would be interesting to hear about the multiplayer aspect, and whether you think it's important or not, given that iPhone is an almost-always connected device and iPod Touch's internet capabilities are on par with Nintendo DS and PSP? Multiplayer and social games are becoming more and more widespread and developers should absolutely take that in consideration. You could probably add a whole page or 2, just to cover that one topic.

I Already
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Great article, thanks. The iTunes App Store interface *on iPhone* (rather than on Mac) is a curse from the most unimaginative and user-unfriendly depths of some soulless executive's most bland nightmares, so I think you slightly under-emphasized just how bad that part is ;), but I'm sure Apple will ditch it and put something half-way usable in its place soon.

I've started a FAQ recently to collate info on the technical, operational, and marketing issues around the platform:

Maury Markowitz
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I think the entire issue of presence has been underdeveloped on the Mac. On the PC you have things like XFire and such, but what I think we really need is a single "Presence Kit" that ties into SIP, XFire, iChat, you name it. That way programs on the iPlatform could register they're being played, and friends could see this and fire up. Even better, if you combine this with Bonjour and/or location-aware apps, then you could find people to play with simply walking down the street.

Dushy Singh
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Great article for newcomers. I think the next wave would be the emergence of RPG engines, FPS engines, RTS engines etc. specific for the iPhone. Some would probably be opensource. Hopefull,y some one comes up with an equivalent free / opensource kit like the ones you mentioned. We run an iPhone Learning course online via Video, PDF, and one-on-one support, at EDUmobile.ORG, and we do have a few people who struggle with the upfront costs of hardware. Hopefully the folks at Mac come up with a discounted version of the hardwares for developers - just as Google has done with their Gphone.

Robert Rose
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My company recently started licensing our iPhone game engine to the general public. An "indie" license is only $49. The engine is quite capable. You can read about it here:

SIO2 Interactive
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I think Borke3D is totally obsolete when you can get SIO2 for FREE which provide alot more advanced features, it is open source, it provide a development toolchain that work out-of-the-box, and its currently use by more than 200+ games currently on the App. Store... You don't even have to purchase a license in order to publish your games...

If you need more info:

About the technology under the hood: