Undoubtedly the iPhone has plenty of muscle. Games such as Super Monkey Ball and Crash Kart Racing have proven that the device is capable of decent 3D gaming. The device is also presumably quite capable of online gaming since it has rather robust connectivity options. This begs the question, where are all the awesome iPhone games? I don’t want to be overly critical of the games available for the iPhone since there are several quality games available. That said, outside of a small handful of games, the iPhone library does not begin to deliver the quality of games available on either the Dreamcast or DS to which the iPhone has been compared. Why is this?
The iPhone has a great screen. It is capable of being very bright, has excellent resolution and is quite responsive as an interface. In addition, it can recognize more than one touch at once. Outside of the screen as user interface the iPhone and has tilt control and the as of yet unused (as far as I am aware) camera and GPS. This all sounds good on paper and works wonderfully as an interface for the iPhone as a media device however there are some problems with the iPhone as gaming device. Games for iPhone wisely, as a rule, seem to have abandoned attempting to recreate the console controller on the iPhone. Without the tactile responsiveness of real buttons, virtual buttons or joysticks on the iPhone screen don’t give enough feedback for a traditional console type experience. Additionally any buttons take up screen space that ideally will be used for graphics. Successful iPhone games that have a console feel, such as Crash Kart and Super Monkey Ball, use the accelerometer for a primary user interface. Crash Kart has a general area that the player can touch to activate a power slide and steering is done by tilting the iPhone. In Bomberman Touch, the player touches the side of the screen to move, replacing the traditional joystick control. Using touch zones rather then buttons frees up space for graphics when some elements of the user interface are not being used.
Most designers appear to have entirely focused on more casual games with a mouse inspired user interface. Many of them work quite well. Most of the card, mahjong, and board type games translate quite decently. A key problem with casual games on the iPhone is that since the screen is so small it may be difficult to accurately touch a specific piece in a game of mahjong or solitaire. This is a minor gripe for games that are rather straight ports of classic board or card games whose rules dictate a specific piece layout. Additionally many of these games do not offer much more than any number of free to play online flash games or time wasters.
When the mouse control scheme is used for more action oriented type games things can become problematic since the act of moving your finger or tapping obscures a considerable portion of the screen. I have not yet found this particularly problematic with any of the games I’ve played on the iPhone. However, I did find it to be quite difficult with a painting program, Brushes. So difficult, in fact, that I ordered a stylus. Ultimately user interface design for the iPhone games is in its infancy. There has been rumor of peripherals being developed for the iPhone such as the Belkin Joypod and iControlpad which, if released, will turn your iPhone into something akin to a PSP. This may bring a greater variety of games to the iPhone, but it could balkanize the iPhone gaming library as different games receive different levels of support for peripherals. I personally would prefer to see designers rise to the challenge of designing for the iPhone. The system offers new and interesting opportunities and challenges for game design. Truthfully there are many more challenges for game makers on the iPhone. However with creativity and persistence interesting and exciting new games can be made.
The second reason for the lack of quality games seems due to the fact that as a true multimedia device any game must be more engaging than any movie, piece of music, Youtube video, and the internet (pornography included). Not only does a developer have to compete for an end users time but they must compete for the end users space on their iPhone. This means that even a big concept game needs to be relatively small in size. These concerns create quite a bit of risk for an iPhone developer. Even if there are solid numbers on the install base for the iPhone I don’t think there is a clear idea of what sort of attach rate games will ultimately have on the iPhone. This fact, along with size concerns, may relegate the iPhone to the position of a strictly casual gaming machine. This is unfortunate since the possibilities for a device with such an interesting set of technical assets is very wide. Beyond simply what is possible graphics and processing wise, the iPhone could be used for some very innovative stuff. Imagine a game that tracks players in the real world thru GPS to allow players to gain points for finding or occupying specific locations or an “enhanced reality game” that would allow a virtual avatar to interact with the real world thru a combination of motion control and the camera. These are by no means new ideas however the iPhone actually is a popular and capable enough device to make such gaming pipe dreams a reality.
The final challenge and perhaps most significant reason that great games have not found their way to the app store is largely a financial one. The iPhone apps store in many ways resembles the Wild West where anything goes. Apple, it seems, does not in any way filter the content that makes its way onto the iPhone nor, it appears do they enforce any type of pricing structure. This may initially seem beneficial to the consumer however in reality it is not. As an example, if a user searches for “Cowbell” in the apps they will come up with several results with a price point ranging from a few dollars to free. This level of granularity seems intuitively like a good thing. If a potential consumer wants a simple cowbell they can opt for the free app. If, in the unlikely event that they want a fully featured musical instrument, that option is available to them. The reality of the situation is a bit different. The task of adding value over a similar free app is very difficult. This makes developing for the iPhone quite risky. Development costs even for a small app can be quite high and since Apple does not appear to have any pricing structure there is no guarantee that a competitor may not offer a similar app at a much lower cost. In order for great games to make their way to the iPhone consumers must speak with their money. This means being willing to pay a premium price for high quality offerings. The flip side of the coin is that Apple needs to enforce a pricing structure for content and figure out a way to act as gatekeepers in a way that is both fair and maintains a minimum standard of quality. This does raise the bar for the aspiring bedroom developer and will block a segment of would-be iPhone programmers from having their apps see the light of day, but I think it would ultimately increase the quality of software available. I have no problem with Apple allowing free apps, but the large number of similar low quality, cheaply made games in the app store seem to have created a gaming ghetto where only low quality free or cheap games can survive. A more proactive model is needed, such as the Xbox Live Store which Microsoft heavily monitors and will go so far as to enforce prices for content offered. This would inevitably increase prices in the apps store but would also hopefully inspire game makers to take chances and develop some bigger concept games. This may be a moot point if the game development community has written the iPhone off as a casual only device.
I’m going to forgo any sort of scoring for the iPhone and instead take a wait and see approach. Hopefully games such as Line Rider, Vay, and Spore Origins will prove that a wide range of game types can successfully sell on the iPhone. Hopefully consumers will demand more than the tired casual games and sloppy racers. Hopefully good iPhone games such as Super Monkey Ball and (the admittedly casual) Bubble Bash are getting supported. Until then I’ll be patiently waiting for all the good iPhone games.