“I’ll tell you one thing,” said a UK journalist at the end of last year’s E3. “The mobile’s dream’s well and truly over.”
It really did seem like it. For endless years, the mobile games industry had been banging the drum of promised success, but two factors had always prevented the supposed explosion from finally happening. Firstly, the games were either rubbish or completely misappropriated to the casual audience. Secondly, the carriers didn’t take gaming seriously, and delivery methods and presentation across a bewildering swathe of handsets was both stupidly flawed and obviously impractical.
With no central focus to last year’s E3 for the first time in its history, there was no way for the believers to get their products in front of journalists by default and the awful truth emerged: no one cared. All that VC was looking very ill-advised indeed.
The situation for mobile gaming, however, could well have changed dramatically last week.
***cross – Mobile’s forbidden fruit
Apple showed Spore and a game called Touch Fighter running on iPhone last Thursday, and announced first proper details of its SDK and business model for developers looking to get their games onto the handheld.
While much eye-rolling was going on in private among “hardcore” journalists, the truth of the matter is that iPhone is likely be the knight in shining armour the mobile games industry has been waiting for and could be a serious and unique platform for many years to come.
Firstly, there’s the lack of ambiguity. If you buy an iPhone, you can play games on it, or you will be able to in the near future. You can play games on almost any handset now, obviously, but they’re largely just bolt-ons developed for countless handsets that hide somewhere in the OS and charge you money for something you know will be terrible.
Phones just aren’t made for games. iPhone is, if that Spore demo was anything to go by. It’s extremely unlikely the experience of buying and playing a game on iPhone will be anything like trying to find something decent to play on a Blackberry. Call it a hunch.
Secondly, there’s the touch-screen. Touch-screens and handhelds have been rather successful in recent years. The fact the touch-screen is so integral to iPhone’s functionality means developers will be forced to be creative with their games and address the hardware properly, something Nintendo knows a few things about. Besides that, iPhone’s touch-screen really is good: the possibilities for gaming on it could be fantastic.
***cross – Dancing to Apple’s iTune
The sucker punch in the iPhone games story, however, is iTunes and iPod Touch. Mobile games firms must be dribbling. The SDK allows developers to make games for both iPhone and the next-gen iPod, which is essentially an iPhone without the phone “bit”. Games will be delivered via iTunes, an extremely popular download service, for transfer to either platform. iTunes could be a miracle for those looking to get mobile content into the market, and with developers keeping 70 percent of all revenues, it could be a very lucrative miracle at that.
Lastly, it’s worth remembering just how much commitment Apple has to its brands. There will be a next generation iPhone, and the current model will be supported heavily until a successor is announced. Look at the backing to iBook, MacBook and especially iPod. Barring maybe Nintendo, no other company in tech can boast such unfailing commitment to a handheld brand.
Mobile gaming, then, may well be breathing a sigh of relief after last week. Hopefully the seriousness of games like Spore a delivery method in iTunes will mean the mobile dream will be alive for a good while yet.