Is the iPhone the Next Wii?

iphone_wii.jpg

Of all the software demonstrated at the iPhone SDK launch yesterday, nothing was more compelling to me than the games. With the addition of the iTunes App Store which will allow iPhone users to purchase and install third-party applications right from the phone, even over the relatively slow connection of the EDGE network, the reward for the developer who creates the first hit game for the millions of existing iPhone and iPod Touch customers could be substantial. For just $100—the price of the iPhone SDK—even indie developers have soup-to-nuts sales access to millions of mobile gaming customers.

But there’s more than just the easy access that makes the platform promising. Mike Lee, “Chief Primate” of fledgling software company United Lemur (and formerly of Delicious Monster) thinks the hardware is more compelling than that of even dedicated handheld gaming devices.

“It’s more like a Wii than it is a DS,” said Lee, before warning that “superior hardware doesn’t guarantee success.” I pointed out that some types of games, such as traditional fighters and platformers, pretty much require a dedicated directional pad.

“Instead of being stuck with a d-pad, you can create any kind of control setup you want,” said Lee. “When you need something more sensitive, like an analog coolie hat controller, the phone itself can be used. Like the Wii, the developer may need to think outside the box a little when it comes to game design and control, but that’s a good thing.” Developers can view the hardware as a limitation or inspiration.

Certainly some games will work better than others. At the SDK launch event, SEGA’s Ethan Einhorn said Super Monkey Ball on the iPhone “feels like it was always the way Super Monkey Ball should be played.”

Even developers who haven’t worked with Apple hardware in the past are intrigued. Scott Jennings, currently working for MMO developer NCSoft (but not commenting as an employee of NCSoft, but only as a developer in general) noted he is “pretty stoked about it, to the point where I’m thinking of picking up a Mac Mini to run the SDK. This would be a great platform for strategy/RPG games.”

Although I remain emphatically opposed to the Touch platform’s monolithic third-party application distribution model that allows no way for users to officially install their own software outside of Apple’s chute, there’s no doubt that the App Store provides a distribution system for games that in many ways exceeds those currently available from dedicated game vendors. Microsoft’s Xbox Live system offered the first real only distribution method for indie game developers, but the relatively high barrier to entry has held back the indie hordes from easy access to Xbox gamers. Sony has dipped their toe in downloadable games for the PSP, including the ability to play Playstation 1 games, as well as downloadable game demos and a handful of games that can be played from the PSP’s flash MemoryStick. Promised game integration between the Nintendo Wii and the DS has been minimal, at best. Neither portable platform allows gamers to connect to an online store over Wi-Fi to download games directly to their device.

Sony appears to be dabbling with a similar idea if the 2006 patent released today is any indication. If the PSP2 (or PSPhone—hopefully the same thing) ends up being, more or less, an iPhone, I can’t wait to see what the Nintendo DS2 ends up being.

What about downloadable game demos, one of the best aspects of connected game systems? Although there doesn’t seem to be a simple system in place for the iTunes App Store to provide a separate demo software that can then be easily upgraded to a pay version, the ability for developers to distribute free software with no tariff from Apple should make game demos possible. Demos may be able to provide a link at the end of the game to the specific purchase page of the full game on the App Store.

The iPhone is already a great mobile internet device, smartphone, and media player. It will certainly be a solid casual game platform. It could become the first portable gaming console it’s appropriate to pull out in the middle of a business meeting. But more exciting is the chance that with a robust development community experimenting with new gameplay ideas and and easy access to a marketplace of millions of users, the Touch platform could go on to become a viable environment for more than just the type of pass-time trifles that have been common on phones but as one of the platforms for truly innovative games.

(Which isn’t to say that I don’t want Peggle Touch the day that the iPhone 2.0 software update is released. I’ve got $15 waiting for you, PopCap!)

I tried really hard to work in a reference to an apocryphal indie iPhone developer as “Wii Shipley” but I just couldn’t make it happen.

Update: Forbes‘ Brian Caulfield agrees with me.

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21 Responses to Is the iPhone the Next Wii?

  1. mdhatter says:

    #8 – “and Apple has the final right of refusal on everything.”

    Apple are control freaks who make elegant machines.

    The surprise is that they’re even considering submissions from outside.

  2. mdhatter says:

    and by “outside” I mean “the great unwashed”.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Puzzle Quest would do well on the iPhone.

  4. Enochrewt says:

    IF I could get Peggle on an iPhone, I would seriously consider buying one. And that’s saying something. Generally I’d rather kiss the business end of a wood chipper than buy anything Apple.

  5. Anonymous says:

    @kid,
    If your fingers are getting numb while texting or warm while scrolling, you are DOING IT WRONG! Your fingers don’t even have to touch the screen for the screen to sense it. How is it that your fingers are getting “numb”? You are using your button-using habits and applying it to an iPhone which is the wrong way. If you need to break your old habits, you’ll need to try the iPhone longer than you did, clearly.

  6. tregenza says:

    I’ve been thinking about the iPhone as a great games platform but with a different slant.

    I’m interested in games that teach skills. Not your traditional dull, spelling test type education game but games that people want to play. Games built using all the abilities of the modern game designer to teach memory skills, rhythm and movement. Skills that being increasing understood as important foundations to language development and academic learning.

    I wrote this piece on how the iPhone will change education [ http://www.myomancy.com/2008/02/how-the-iphone-will-change-education ] and a couple of follow up posts. Including this one looking at a game by an iPhone hacker that cleverly uses the iPhone’s tilt detector as a game controller [ http://www.myomancy.com/2008/03/yet-more-future-training-technology ].

    Chris

  7. Anonymous says:

    The SDK and related documentation itself is a free download. The $99 price enables you to sign app’s and deploy them to a device.

  8. TheFirstMan says:

    “never having owned a cell phone” – A New Challenger

    No offense meant at all Challenger, but where I’m from (the northeast of the États Unis), cellphones have outpaced line phones by a large margin (at least among the below 30 set).

    I’d like to know where you live, because I have good reason to suspect that this phenomenon will spread.

    Just a point of interest,

    -TFM

  9. klimegreen says:

    On the point about the SDK costing $99. Its free if you want to develop and just use the mac based simulator. It costs $99 if you want to actually run the application on your iPhone. I know that means you end up paying $99 anyway, but the point is that you can try out the SDK for free… though I am thinking of paying the $99 because that gives me the 2.0 beta on my iPhone (bragging rights, silly eh?). There is a good post on Personafile http://www.personafile.com/products about what the final version of 2.0 will offer, namely hardware support for a 3g iphone, now that will be cool!

  10. Andy Wilton says:

    “Honestly, I think that iPhone development sounds like a raw deal. You can’t distribute your software on your own terms, and Apple has the final right of refusal on everything.”

    That depends on what you’re comparing it to. From a console developer’s point of view, Apple are actually offering a pretty good deal here: you’d have even less freedom developing for DS or PSP, and with the physical media to pay for, you wouldn’t get anything like 70% of the purchase price.

    The real question is, will enough iPhone users buy enough games to justify the cost of special controller support?

  11. dculberson says:

    One thing’s for sure.. tossing your controller after a frustrating round or losing your grip on it would be way more expensive.

  12. A New Challenger says:

    Sounds better than the N-Gage at any rate.

    I’ve never been terribly interested in gaming on a phone, and don’t anticipate getting excited in the near future for a number of reasons–among them never having owned a cell phone–but I’ve sort of followed news about phone games ever since Gamespot briefly had a mobile section. It was pretty much the only site I’d seen at the time that reviewed cell phone games (they actually bought out a separate site that was doing mobile reviews already and folded them into Gamespot.) As I noted, it didn’t last long.

    That was a lot of words without having a point. Heh. I guess I’ll just say while I don’t anticipate ever buying a phone with games in mind, I’d almost certainly play the good ones available when/if I finally submit to the wireless masses. A unifying trend like this is a good thing for now, as cell gaming has been all over the map in the US ever since Snake.

  13. Charlie says:

    Damn, you got the Peggle bug too? My sister got me hooked on it after explaining that her and her husband had just spent a large part of their 2 week honeymoon in Paris glued to that game.

  14. Xenu says:

    The SDK costs $99. Lame. Even Symbian doesn’t charge for their SDK, as far as I know.

  15. Toma says:

    Would there be any difficulty at all playing accelerometer-based games in a moving vehicle (with bumps and turns)? I know this was a minor concern with Kirby Tilt and Tumble a few years back.

  16. chus3r says:

    Man, I’d love to see an Op/Ed on the distribution system. I get that the code hacks will not want to be tied down. But I can think of plenty of reasons why I would prefer to have it centralized.

    Is it not beyond the realm of possibility that a “dock” with game controls would be available? I’m pretty sure the access to “dock” functions was not available yet, but I can’t image a FPS via touch.

  17. Kid says:

    As rosy as the iPhone sounds, the Wii controller still has a d-pad and buttons. And optional keyboard so you can browse Opera easily.

    If Apple were to design the Wii, I guess it will be just a wand with no buttons. Imagine how much less games you will find on this hypothetical Wii.

    Since the iPhone doesn’t have one button (except the Home button that cannot be overriden), either the game developers have to think really outside the box to program everything with the accelerometer or touch, or devote half the screen as the keypad.

    The day someone makes an attachable keyboard for iPhone would be the day I can finally consider the phone seriously.

    During the few days I spent with my returned iPhone, I found that my fingers got really numb after texting, and really warm after scrolling extensively. I see most people who uses the phone have to pose their fingers as if they were touching some cement on top of a brick i.e. trying to hold their hand in the position so that just the index finger touches the screen in order to prevent errors. I simply cannot imagine how much my fingers will hurt fiercely tapping on a hard piece of glass during an exciting action game.

  18. Doomstalk says:

    Honestly, I think that iPhone development sounds like a raw deal. You can’t distribute your software on your own terms, and Apple has the final right of refusal on everything.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Is the iPhone the next Wii? Hell no. It’ll be nice, and it’ll top the DS for now in terms of potential — which isn’t quite as hard as it used to be considering how old the DS is, but still impressive.

    Most importantly, the iPhone costs nearly, or more than, twice as much as the Wii, and several times as much as a DS. Part of the Wii’s allure is that it’s relatively inexpensive. Sure, the iPhone can do more, but if you can’t afford it and its monthly bill, it can’t do _anything_ for you.

    Almost as importantly, Nintendo won’t ever release content designed for it. The Wii wouldn’t be great without Wii Sports, Metroid, Super Mario Galaxy. Having what appears to be a full version of Spore is very nice, though.

    And as Kid mentions, the Wii at least still has a d-pad for more traditional games. The only games that will really, really work on the iPhone are those that are designed for it.

    I know the idea of using the SDK for games is intriguing. But the iPhone itself is not designed to be a gaming device, so the end result is going to be something somewhere between playing games on a cell phone and playing games on a TI-84 — it’ll take incredibly creative implementations of the interface to get usable, controls. That doesn’t sound much like the Wii at all.

    The SDK is for making and distributing really useful third-party apps. Why aren’t people as excited about that? Why games?

  20. joelbartlett says:

    Is the iPhone the next Wii? No, it’s a better Itsy!

    Doom: http://www.hpl.hp.com/downloads/crl/itsy/Quicktime/doom.mov

    Rock ‘n’ Scroll – gesture-based user interface without buttons: http://www.hpl.hp.com/downloads/crl/itsy/Quicktime/RocknScroll.mov

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