[Gamasutra's Christian Nutt analyzes the most important features of OS 4.0 for game developers, and speaks with Riptide Games founder Brian Robbins and ngmoco's Simon Jeffery to find out their take. ]
Today at a Gamasutra-attended showcase in Cupertino, Apple unveiled details of iPhone OS 4, the latest iteration of the software that drives the basic functions of the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad device family.
Over 1500 new APIs are being added to the OS with this update, offering developers both substantial new challenges and opportunities.
Set to be released this summer, it includes some features profoundly relevant to game developers, and some that, while not directly relevant, are appealing and interesting enough to potentially drive adoption of the platform to even greater heights.
You can watch Jobs' keynote speech about OS 4 here
The Impact of GameCenter
Most notably, Apple announced an Xbox Live-like service called Game Center, which will roll out in a "preview" form along with the OS 4 launch this summer before fully releasing this fall. Matchmaking, friends lists, achievements, leaderboards, and push game invites are all slated to be included in the service.
At the App Store's launch, Apple didn't seem to quite see the potential of games. Now, at this latest press conference, the company trumpeted "more than 50,000 game and entertainment apps" and made direct comparisons with Sony and Nintendo -- claiming the PSP has 2477 titles and DS 4321. It's been a trend, but Game Center cements Apple's support for its mobile OS as a home for games.
There are currently gaming social networking solutions for the OS from third parties -- notably OpenFeint and ngmoco's plus+ network, neither of which will be disabled by the OS 4 update, according to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, this morning. However, their days seem numbered unless those third parties can find other compelling commercial reasons to keep App creators using their solutions.
At the announcement Scott Forstall, Apple's SVP of iPhone software said, "A lot of developers have come to us and said, 'There are a bunch of different social networks out there.' When you want a social network, the most important thing is that your friends are on it. Since this is built in... Everyone can unify and be on the same social network."
It's hard to see this is anything other than a good thing -- competition is not being shut out, and an infrastructure is being put in place that puts all developers on an even footing, as on Xbox Live or PlayStation Network.
In a conversation with Gamasutra, IGDA board member, iPhone developer and Riptide Games founder Brian Robbins agrees. "Providing a common, centralized way for players to see and connect with each other should help with the overall usage and penetration of this type of service."
"With our game Gravity Sling
, which is free and has three level packs available through in-app purchase, we've seen that players that are using OpenFeint are four times more likely to purchase the level packs. I'm hoping that we will see similar levels of increased attachment with users using Apple's Game Center," says Robbins.
However, though you can download the beta SDK today, it's not clear precisely how Game Center will handle these features. In fact, it seems that the form Game Center will take is not yet completely locked down. For example, when asked how achievements would work, for example, Forstall said "we're still looking at different options."
It's also unclear precisely how Apple will provide services like matchmaking and leaderboards to developers -- will there still be room for SDK developers like GameSpy?
Surprisingly, ngmoco chief publishing officer Simon Jeffery seemed sanguine about what might mark the death knell for his company's plus+ service when he spoke to Gamasutra: "It will effectively clean up the social space on the iPhone, which has become confusing and cluttered to consumers due to the number of social gaming networks vying for attention. ngmoco has anticipated this move from Apple for some time, and is happy to see a cleaner developer and consumer experience on the horizon."
"There's no money to be gained or no competitive advantage to be gained from having your own social gaming network," said Jobs. However, says Robbins, "In some respects Apple's announcements today completely undermine the primary service that [providers like OpenFeint] exist to provide. We've found OpenFeint in particular to be a great partner and supporter of game developers, so while I don't envy the position they are now in, we hope they can find a way to distinguish their services from, or as an addition to, what the Game Center will offer."
In a statement, Aurora Feint CEO Jason Citron seems to echo Jeffrey, however. “OpenFeint X is currently built on top of OpenFeint and in the future it will also sit on Apple’s Game Center social graph, achievements and leaderboards so developers and gamers don’t miss a step, Apple is a key partner and we are delighted that they have validated the first half of the OpenFeint vision and we can now fulfill the second half: OpenFeint X and Virtual Goods based Social Games."
He added: "Our developers can be 100 percent assured that we will continue to invest in OpenFeint so our 1500 live games, 2000 games in development and 19M players have a flawless experience with OpenFeint and Game Center."
The Discoverability Problem
In fact, Jeffery sees plus+ moving toward a new function, which is why he's not so bothered. "Plus+ took a strategic shift in direction a few months ago toward being a service, and less about being a set of social gaming features. Plus+ is all about empowering monetization and discoverability mechanisms for the development community... Ngmoco actually reorganized our corporate structure earlier this year to reflect this expectation -- with Jason Oberfest now running the development of plus+ as a service."
One of the biggest problems developers have cited with the platform, in fact, is that apps have a hard time standing out, it's hard to connect with an audience, and the tremendous competition on the service means that even quality games can disappear beneath the waves quickly.
When asked this morning by Gamasutra why no changes to the App Store were announced for OS 4.0, Apple CEO Steve Jobs pointed out that it's not tied into updates that way -- it can be incrementally updated.
But more importantly, Apple seems to want to continue to all but stay out of the business of promoting applications. Though its Genius will continue to auto-recommend apps based on your likes, "with a small window we can only do so much," said Jobs, in reference to the iPhone's small screen.
Instead, third parties will shoulder the bulk of recommendations -- review sites, for example, said Jobs. "You can start to see more being done by more websites and publications. What I see happening is that there's a lot of infrastructure building up outside and around the iPhone, and through websites and other things that are starting to provide" recommendations.
Said Forstall, "one of our goals with [Game Center] is to help the viral spread." The OS 4.0 update allows users to gift apps to one another, and via Game Center, also challenge friends to games -- even ones they don't own, which will prompt the user who receives the challenge to download the app. Since you can also browse what your friends are playing, that will be an incentive too, he said.
Phil Schiller, Apple's Senior Vice President of Worldwide Product Marketing, pointed out that "it's important to keep it in perspective" how much Apple does to help developers -- including including third party apps in its TV marketing and direct email campaigns. "We're going to continue to do a tremendous amount of support," he said.
And the company's approach, he said, is "changing every day -- we take feedback." He noted that the company cleaned out stuff that was "mucking up" the top 10 and top 50 lists, and that the company will "continue to to do more than anyone else to improve" the App-buying experience.
OS 4.0 also allows for in-App SMS messaging -- which will likely result in really horrific spam from the worst offenders and, potentially, a quick and nice way for a user to recommend a game to a friend.
Advertisements Are Go
Apple's acquisition of mobile advertising company Quattro Wireless early this year laid the groundwork for iAds, which will deploy with iPhone OS 4.0 -- and which are important for game developers in multiple different ways. Robbins calls iAds potentially "exciting", saying that they "should provide another revenue stream for games that are already extremely cheap."
However, he cautions, "The important thing to remember is that ad revenue only becomes significant when you are able to drive a large number of impressions. For most developers which don't have their games in the Top 100 for long periods of time, this is likely to only provide a few hundred or couple thousand dollars in additional revenue. Everything helps, but this alone is not going to suddenly make a game profitable that wouldn't have been already."
For one, the revenue split on iAd advertisements will deliver 60 percent of the money to developers. In fact, said Jobs, developers are "why we're doing this in the first place... So they can survive and keep the prices of their apps reasonable."
Robbins worries that this is the "first step" to decreasing the app revenue split for developers, however. "In the casual game space, and nearly every other distribution platform we have seen recently they have started with developer favorable terms like the 70/30 split developers currently get on the App Store. As those platforms matured almost all of them have changed over time to favor the platform holder or distributor more heavily."
"Apple has been far too public and adamant about their current developer friendly levels to easily change that split. As such I expect to see them start to introduce more and more services like this in the future that lower the developer's overall revenue share."
Still, in a world of Apps that have been driven to 99 cents or even free, this may be good news. Good news, too, is that developers can potentially derive revenue from developing the media-rich HTML5 advertisements, which can be developed on any HTML5-compliant platform by any program, in between or in addition to, game projects.
Applications can also be purchased directly from within advertisements -- opening up a new world of promotion to developers hungry for audiences... if they have the funds to buy the ads. Says Robbins, "I doubt that this new ad system will do much for discoverability unless a developer wants to spend money to purchase ads on Apple's ad network. Of course, if there's ways for us as a developer to easily push our own ads through the same system without additional cost then it opens up lots of those possibilities."
OS 4.0 will also introduce multitasking -- though only to the most recent of its devices (iPhone 3GS and third generation iPod touch.) One particularly interesting facet of its implementation is that, in the live demo, Tap Tap Revolution
did a 3, 2, 1 countdown before resuming its play when Jobs switched to the game.
"We looked at the tens of thousands of apps and we distilled down the services that those apps need to multitask in the background, and then we implemented all of those services ourselves and did so in a way that preserves battery life and performance," said Forstall.
This includes things such as background audio and voice over IP which are potentially relevant to games -- Skype is suddenly an option while playing, for example. And Forstall described fast app switching as "probably the easiest for developers to adopt, and the most important," aspect of its multitasking.
Presently when you get a call or switch to another app, games must quit. Many save their state, but it's up to the developer to implement this. It will now be handled at the OS level via some of those new APIs. Now, programs will "move into a quiescent state in the background, not using any CPU at all... When you go back it's instantly exactly where you left it. No need to restore the state [or] where you are in the game," he said.
While the dramatically improved enterprise aspects of iPhone OS 4.0 aren't directly relevant to gaming, they are likely to drive more business adoption of the platform. And more iPhones in pockets means more gamers -- particularly bored businesspeople on trips.
Apple is also adding automated testing of applications, allowing developers to script touches of the screen using its new UIAutomation Instrument. Performance and power analysis will also be delivered via Time Profiler and Energy Diagnostics Instruments for iPhone OS -- helpful particularly on a platform that's becoming more and more split among different pieces of hardware.
And while it will become a "4.0 world" this summer -- and while the older versions of the platform, like the 3G, may become more unappealing since they won't support multitasking and other aspects of the update -- Forstall noted that "we allow the developer to see what the capabilities of any device are and enable or disable them" as necessary, leaving support for the older platforms, which have a huge, active installed base, continue to be viable.
However, the developer contract has also changed -- and though Apple didn't trumpet it at this morning's event, the changes may be problematic, suggests Robbins. "The full impact of this is going to take a while to see, but it appears some of the new language would specifically prohibit the usage of external publishing tools such as the upcoming Publish to iPhone feature in Flash CS5."
"While that's probably a good thing for game developers like myself that are already creating native iPhone and iPad games, this could be a huge blow to developers that were counting on using this feature as an easy path to iPhone development."
In all, Apple's OS 4.0 seems like a good move for the consistently trailblazing company -- but the situation, like most in this complicated market, is more complex than it at first seems.