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Is iPhone the future of cell-phone gaming?

Mobile-phone games aren't exactly setting the world on fire. But Apple, with its sleek, sexy iPhone, could change all that.
Image: Super Monkey Ball on iPhone
Sega demonstrated a version of its "Super Monkey Ball" game at Apple's presentation of its new software development kit. Apple hopes that more developers will create unique titles that take advantage of the gadget's technical capabilities. Sega

Last week, Apple got into the mobile-game business.

The company, which projects it will sell 10 million iPhones by the end of 2008, is trying to make it easier for third-party developers to make cool stuff for the sleek, sexy devices. More cool stuff, more phones sold. And a key part of that effort, it seems, is games.

Electronic Arts showed off an iPhone-specific version of “Spore” during last week’s presentation.  The game, easily one of the most anticipated titles of the year, is the brainchild of “Sims” creator Will Wright. And Sega demonstrated a few minutes of “Super Monkey Ball,” which makes use of the iPhone’s “accelerometer,” motion-detecting sensors that work much like the Wii remote.

That’s all very cool — and certainly exciting for a sector of the game industry that’s not exactly setting the world on fire. Despite the fact that everyone has a cell phone, only a small percentage of users have actually bought a cell-phone game. Can the iPhone change all that?

“There seems to be an enthusiasm around (the iPhone) that I’ve never seen for a particular device model,” says Mark Donovan, senior analyst with M:Metrics. “What we’re hearing out of the game community is that they’re viewing this as much closer to a console platform than your typical mobile handset platform.”

That’s an important distinction. Mobile phones are for making phone calls. The user interface for your average cell phone has a small screen and a keypad for punching in numbers and letters. Not exactly an ideal gaming device. No wonder the most popular cell-phone games have been tried-and-true fare like “Tetris” and “Solitaire.”

But the iPhone has a 3-D processor and graphic capabilities that far surpass those of other mobile phones. It has a 3.5-inch widescreen display that makes it look more like Sony’s PSP than a RAZR. No keyboard, and only one button. It’s really a blank canvas, says Travis Boatman, vice president of Worldwide Studios for EA Mobile.

“With a blank canvas, I can create any kind of interface I want, to make any kind of game experience I want,” he says.

If its predecessors are any indication, there’s a huge audience for portable gaming devices. Who among us didn’t own some flavor of the Nintendo Game Boy? Its successor, the Nintendo DS, was the top-selling game machine in 2007 — besting the Wii, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. And Sony’s PSP is a gorgeous little gadget that can play games, music and video. The iPhone has all that — and it makes phone calls.

The release of the 2.0 software in late June will also contain something Apple is calling the App Store, an application that lets users browse, search, buy and download programs like games. It will look a lot like iTunes, an interface already used by millions of people.

The App Store will also let developers deliver applications to iPhone users. The iPhone software development kit download is free, App Store-inclusion is$99 a year for developers, who set the price for their applications, and get to keep 70 percent of all sales revenues.

“The App Store for the iPhone certainly will help level the playing field a little bit, especially for smaller developers, to get their titles into people’s hands,” says Peter Cohen, editor and game columnist for Macworld Magazine.  “Of the developers that I’ve spoken to about game development for the iPhone, that’s where they’re most excited.”

Game developers haven’t always felt the love from Apple. Cohen says that game-makers interested in creating titles for the Mac have met with indifference or a lack of support from the company.

“There really hasn’t been a concerted effort to get Mac gaming on the same level of parity as PC gaming or console gaming,” he says. “It’s always been sort of an afterthought.”

It wasn’t always this way, says Brian Greenstone, owner of Pangea Software, which makes Mac titles like “Enigmo” and “Bugdom.” About a dozen years ago, Mac was the platform for gaming. Apple went out of its way to encourage small developers in creating unique titles. But Greenstone says that as the personnel changed at Apple, so did the interest level in games.

“It was impossible to get anyone to listen to you, unless you were doing a gigantic, triple-A title that already existed on other platforms,” he says.

Greenstone is thrilled at Apple’s newfound interest in games for the iPhone — which he believes is driven mostly by dollars.

“You don’t really do useful work on a cell phone, but you can do games. I think they realize that that’s where the money is,” he says.

So Pangea, which had slowed down its development for the Mac, is hard at work, hoping to get its “Enigmo” title ported over to the iPhone in time for the 2.0 release.

“I definitely think that’s where the money is, without a doubt. I wouldn’t even consider doing anything but a game for the iPhone,” he says.

Despite all the buzz, and the excitement from game developers, it’s unlikely that the iPhone will dramatically reverse the fortunes of the overall mobile-game industry — at least initially.

“I wouldn’t expect that the iPhone is going to have any lateral impact on the rest of the game market,” says M:Metrics’ Donovan.  “But the iPhone has been a really disruptive device that I think has raised the bar and is sparking a lot of innovation and openness.”