Technology that changed gaming #3: The Apple iPhone

Rage HD running on the iPhone 4

The iPhone has made top-notch gaming available on the go – without having to carry a chunky pouch containing a dedicated device and cartridges. Hardly anyone carries a separate phone and PDA these days, and it will eventually become rare to carry a separate phone and gaming device. Even Sony realises this and is belatedly getting in on the act with the Xperia Play.

The rapid growth of the iPhone ecosystem has had a dramatic effect on the way mobile games are sold and consumed. Rather than pay Nintendo or Sony £30 per game, people usually pay a few pounds at most. This reflects two things. Firstly, phone gamers often have less time available and are looking for a quick fix to occupy them during brief periods of free time. Secondly, people change their phones every 18-24 months and the price they pay for games has to reflect this.

From out of nowhere

What was most surprising about gaming on the iPhone is the trojan horse nature of the machine. When it was first revealed in 2007, games weren’t even mentioned. They couldn’t be, because there was no SDK to write them with. Only HTML5 web apps were supported. The iPhone was widely understood to be a phone, internet device and iPod all in one – not a gaming platform.

Twelve months later Apple eventually delivered the native application development SDK and App Store, and held an event to show it the world. They brought in some big-name game developers demo what they were working on and it was a complete shock to see the quality of games the phone could produce – and this was still the original iPhone (the iPhone 3G launched at around the same time but the CPU and graphics were still the same as the original model). When the App Store first launched 500 titles were available – a third of these were games.

One of the very first titles demonstrated was Sega’s Super Monkey Ball. It’s a 3D title with great graphics. During development, Sega found that the iPhone is as powerful as a Sega Dreamcast console, and more powerful than a Nintendo DS. We were suddenly starting to understand that this was a very capable gaming device.

There were early reservations about iPhone gaming due to the lack of hardware buttons, although the accelerometer was a useful alternative for certain types of games. Early games were ports of existing titles from other platforms and often used onscreen direction controls and buttons which are disliked by many. Eventually, games developed specifically for the iPhone began to arrive and have been very successful. It’s possible to make a lot of money selling games in the App Store if they catch on with the user base.

Four years later, the iPhone has evolved into an even more powerful device and has redefined mobile gaming. This direction shift doesn’t just benefit Apple customers – Android and Windows Phone ecosystems are closely following the template defined by iPhone game developers.

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