Is the iPhone the Next Wii?

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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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