Let’s pretend for a moment that we live in 16th century France. Because if it we did, then what we would have witnessed last week was this: Steve Jobs, The Earl of Apples, pulling off his white gloves, one finger at a time, and then – thwap, thwap – taking said white gloves and slapping Nintendo and Sony upside their heads.
“I challenge thee to a duel!” Jobs would have declared. “Meet tomorrow at sunrise and we shall settle this once and for all!”
Sony and Nintendo would have stood there wide-eyed, a bit befuddled by the whole thing, pretending not to care even as their cheeks burned red from the spanking. “Who…me?” they might have stuttered. “You want to go toe-to-toe with….moi?”
Of course, since we don’t live in 16th century France (which is a shame, really), what actually happened was this: During Apple’s ludicrously named “Let’s Rock” event in San Francisco, Jobs showed off the latest iPods, lavishing special attention on the new iPod Touch. More importantly, he doted over the games that can be played on both the Touch and the iPhone. And he pointed out that after a mere 60 days in operation, the company’s virtual store – known as the App Store – already offers some 700 games that can be download and played on the Touch and iPhone.
Then Jobs topped the whole thing off with this statement: “The iPod Touch is the best portable device for listening to music, it’s clearly the best portable device for watching video, and now you could make a pretty good argument it’s the best portable device for playing games on.”
Thwap. Thwap. Most observers could see the thought bubble hovering over Jobs’ head clear as day: Take that Sony and Nintendo! Your portable gaming machines don’t stand a chance!
“The not-so-subtle message was, ‘If you’re thinking about buying something like a PSP or a DS, maybe you want to think again because we’ve got this cool device that does all your mobile stuff and, by the way, is a pretty excellent game platform as well’ ,” says analyst Michael Gartenberg, vice president of Mobile Strategy at Jupitermedia/MobileDevicesToday.com. “I think gaming is a serious business for Apple. It’s not just fun and games.”
The revolution has begun
Certainly Jobs’ announcement raised more questions than it answered. Should gaming behemoths Sony and Nintendo be shaking in their boots, like, for reals? If so, is Nintendo’s DS or Sony’s PSP more vulnerable to this new challenger?
While answers to these questions sit perched on a distant hill somewhere, there is one thing that most involved in the games business do know – the iPhone is revolutionizing mobile gaming.
“The iPhone is going to make the mobile games industry into everything we always wanted it to be but failed to achieve,” Steve Palley, Editorial Guru for Vivendi Games Mobile, said at the recent Casual Connect games industry conference in Seattle.
Indeed, gaming on mobile phones has been a frustratingly limited experience for years now, with cell phone games being bare-bones things, confined to tiny screens, hampered by poor graphics and awkward controls.
But along comes the iPhone with its beefy computing power, Internet connectivity, beautiful display, multi-touch enabled touchscreen, and an accelerometer that senses movement ... and suddenly gaming on a phone doesn’t seem so limited anymore.
Meanwhile, for those who can’t afford the pricey iPhone and its monthly service fees, there’s the iPod Touch, which offers similar features to the iPhone – features that rival the two major handheld gaming machines on the market.
Apple iPhone and Touch users can interact with games by touching the screens and by tilting the machines to and fro. “The possibilities are near limitless with what can be done in games using these unique methods to interact with games,” says Matt Burris, creator of the blog FingerGaming.com.
Additionally, when the App Store launched in July, it suddenly offered an easy way for iPhone and Touch owners to download a veritable smorgasbord of games (and other programs) onto their devices. And Burris points out, “These games are affordable, lower than any other games on the market. They range from free, 99 cents, all the way up to $9.99. You don't have to go to the store to get them. All you have to do is tap on an icon, choose the game you want to buy, and within minutes you're playing that game.”
Gonzague de Vallois, senior vice president of publishing at Gameloft, says it is this combination of great device, great games and a great distribution model that has proved to be revolutionary. Gameloft already has nine games available through the App Store with plans to have 20 online by the end of the year.
“We think the iPhone is the beginning of a new era for mobile gaming,” he says.
A duel to the death?
This new era is already getting pretty crowded.
Game developers are so intrigued by these new platforms that everyone from the gaming behemoths to little indie developers are trying their hand at it. To give you an idea of just how huge it is to have more than 700 games already available in the App Store, note that there are currently some 600 games on the market for the Nintendo DS – and it’s been around for almost four years.
The App Store games range from more familiar fare to the downright bizarre – Gameloft’s “Asphalt 4: Elite Racing” allows you to steer a race car by tilting your iPhone like it was a steering wheel. Canadian company IUGO Mobile Entertainment has created the excellent “Toy Bot Diaries,” where you touch the screen and tilt the gadget to help a tiny robot solve environmental puzzles. And then there’s “PapiPole” – a game in which you help a smiley face on a stick eat hamburgers by sliding your finger across the screen.
Even Apple has dipped its toes into the game-making waters by offering the “Texas Hold‘em” card game through the App Store. And this raises an interesting question, says Gartenberg: Will Apple delve even further into the games business and begin making more first-party games, like Sony and Nintendo?
Gartenberg suspects Apple has lofty game ambitions and says the old-timers in this field had better stay on their toes – especially Sony.
He says that while Nintendo has stayed focused on games, Sony has tried to position its handheld PSP as not only a gaming device but a device that can play video and browse the Web – much like the iPhone but with far less success.
But like many gaming observers, Tracy Erickson, who writes about mobile games for the publication Pocket Gamer, believes Nintendo should be most concerned. He points out that the iPod Touch and iPhone offer similar features to the DS – a touchscreen and a microphone, for example – but Apple’s devices offer a superior touch interface and a larger screen that delivers sharper visuals.
“The iPhone is becoming a real threat,” Erickson says. “It has a better screen and it has cheaper games.” (DS and PSP games typically cost around $25.)
Burris disagrees. “If anything, Nintendo should be excited. The iPhone and iPod Touch will be reaching even further to an audience that may not even consider themselves gamers.”
He says that most people who have purchased an iPhone probably didn’t buy it to play games. But now that they’re able to find and easily play interesting games, they’ll be pulled into the fold.
For their part, Nintendo is striking a nonchalant tone.
“Any time you have a new company enter an industry, it’s always good for the consumer,” says Denise Kaigler, Nintendo VP of Corporate Affairs. “It gives them choices and we welcome that. But we have found over the last 20 years, despite all the choices consumers have had, that the Nintendo devices have enjoyed a great deal ofsuccess.”
Ultimately, Sean Amann , GM of Mobile and New Platform Games at RealNetworks, looks at it this way: “I think they’ll both lose customers to the iPhone and iPod Touch. But what I hope happens is the overall pie grows and that both Sony and Nintendo take this as a legitimate challenge and up the ante with even better devices.”