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[In a Gamasutra special feature, we talk to five leading iPhone game developers, including the makers of hit titles Rolando, iShoot and Flick Fishing, on the state of making games for Apple's explosively popular platform.]
As both a gaming handheld and smartphone, on paper, the iPhone has very few weak spots -- and fewer by the day. But what the spec sheet doesn't convey is how quickly the iPhone as a gaming platform is evolving.
Some developers -- those who don't subscribe to the Get-Rich-or-Die-Spamming school of iPhone development -- are using this opportunity to rethink the art of making games from design, promotion, and updates.
We rounded up five heroes of the App Store and got them talking about not only how the iPhone is changing development, but how development is changing the iPhone.
"There are some games that should not be made for the iPhone, but there's also a huge group that should," begins Bruce Morrison, senior producer at Freeverse -- the mobile game company responsible for such successful apps as SlotZ Racer and Flick Fishing. "With the iPhone we get to strip out all the extra crap and focus by narrowing the gameplay."
Part of this need for focus arises from the way consumers play games on their phone, mostly in transit. As Simon Oliver, the developer of the critically acclaimed app Rolando puts it, "Portable gaming is all about convenience."
And Ian Marsh, a one-man-development team credited such hits as Textropolis and Scoops, explains that "The biggest advantage the iPhone has over other platforms is that it is a phone or iPod -- a device carried around by millions of people every day. That option to play is suddenly always there, just an unlock swipe away."
Ethan Nicholas' iShoot
And it's this idea of convenience that meshes so well with relatively simple game mechanics. Morrison expounds on the point by praising another participant, Ethan Nicholas, the recently day-jobless creator of iShoot. "If you look at the top 10 games, they all have a focus. iShoot didn't try to build a social network, it focused on what was core to the game, shooting."
And yet focusing on one particular aspect of a game, especially on a device with no tactile buttons, can be head-spinning for a developer. "There is a different mindset you have to get into with iPhone games," continues Morrison. "The lack of tactile buttons is a huge obstacle. And I think it's interesting that every person here has overcome the need for physical buttons."
But where the lack of tactile buttons represents a significant challenge to developers it also makes the device more accessible. "I definitely agree with Bruce that the absence of physical buttons does present a significant challenge and requires considerable thought to work with, but with care and attention most genres can be represented well," says Oliver.
"The immediacy and accessibility of the accelerometers and touchscreen make it a really un-intimidating device to use," continues the Rolando developer.
Consider then that Rolando, one of the most well received games on the platform utilizes simple tilt-based controls and an inviting, bubbly cartoon art-style. The final control scheme and mechanics took considerable effort, though. "The very first control scheme [for Rolando] was command-based, more like Lemmings or an RTS," says Oliver.
"The idea was that you would pan around, select the little creatures and instruct them to do things by swiping on the screen -- such as roll left, right, stop or jump -- and they would just carry on until told to stop. The trouble is that controlling them became a bit of a nightmare as they were always rolling off the screen, doing unusual things and generally dying."
"As the control scheme evolved, it definitely affected genre -- originally there was considerably less emphasis on the platforming element, with the main focus being on puzzle and strategy," says Oliver.
"Personally, I find this one of the most exciting aspects of iPhone development, as it offers you the chance to really explore and create on this new canvas, as opposed to creating within an established genre on an established device."