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After a long wait, Apple has finally enabled third party applicaations to be installed on the iPhone and iPod Touch. All applications are distributed through the iTunes store, where a lot of games are already available. What will be the impact of this on the gaming industry? Will the iPhone dethrone the DS as the portable gaming system of choice, or will it be forgettable, like Apple’s previous efforts at getting games on their systems?
From a developer’s standpoint, the iPhone certainly has a lot going for it. The hardware is surprisingly powerful — with 620 MHz CPU, 128 MB RAM and 3D acceleration, it might even be better than the PSP.
Since it’s connected to Wifi and cellphone networks, the iPhone is essentially always online and since it’s a phone, users will carry it around with them at all times. I believe there’s a lot of potential for games using the always-on, always-at-hand nature of the system.
Finally, the distribution system for applications is really interesting. Contrary to console manufacturers, Apple does not consider applications sales to be its main revenue stream — they’re in the business of selling a platform. As such, they give back 70% of sales price to developers. That’s a much larger slice of the pie than what game developers usually get after distributors and brick and mortar stores take their slice. Getting rid of middlemen can only be good.
Still, the iPhone is not the perfect game development platform. One big question is whether users will care about games at all. They didn’t buy the iPhone to play games initially after all. Cellphone gaming hasn’t taken over the world, so it’s quite possible it won’t take over the iPhone world either.
Another problem is input. The iPhone is not a gaming device and has such it doesn’t have the buttons a typical gaming device has. The multi-touch screen is great and motion sensitivity is nice, but sometimes the best interface is pressing a button and you can’t do that on the iPhone. This limits the types of games that will play well on the system.
Finally, while the distribution system is nice, it doesn’t solve the problem of funding and marketing. Making a game takes a lot of people and time, which requires money. If you want people to know your game’s out and why they should care, you need marketing. Publishers are good at funding gaming projects and marketing them, so I don’t think we’ll get rid of the publisher-developer relationship just yet.
Overall I’m cautiously optimistic about the iPhone’s potential as a gaming platform. If good games come out and grab the public’s interest, it might be a very interesting system. On the other hand, it may become just another way to play Bejeweled and brain training games while on the bus, like the rest of cellphone gaming. Time will tell.