Over thirteen million iPhone owners are carrying a device which legendary game designer John Carmack considers comparable to the Sega Dreamcast. The iPhone’s CPU, graphics processing unit (GPU), memory, and storage all significantly outperform the older technology in the PSP and the DS. Add to all that its 320x480 multi-touch screen, accelerometer, and a cellular data connection, and the iPhone has the potential to be a mobile gaming powerhouse.
It does have some drawbacks. Most notably, the iPhone does not have a direction pad or any of the traditional buttons found on gaming console controllers. Consequently, any movement that cannot be accomplished with the accelerometer has to be controlled by on-screen buttons which share screen real estate with the game itself. The highly portable iPhone is also tiny, making it more difficult for many adults to hold the phone with both hands and successfully play more complicated, action-oriented games. There is also some concern that games that attempt to take full advantage of the GPU’s capabilities can do so without severely decreasing the phone’s battery life.
At the time I wrote this article in mid January, 16 of the top 25 paid titles and 13 of the top 25 free titles in the App Store were games. With over 600 million apps sold in the first four months after the launch of the App Store, it is safe to assume that a significant number of those were games and a significant part of the iPhone’s future will be games!
As the App Store approaches its six-month anniversary, it is now possible to comment on what has and has not worked with iPhone games, as well as make some predictions about the future of iPhone gaming. (The games mentioned in this article are available from the iTunes App Store. Unless otherwise mentioned, they will work with the iPhone or the iPod Touch; OS 2.0 or better.)
One of the most suitable genres for any phone is puzzle games. This is because the rules can be learned quickly, the interface is uncomplicated, and the titles are fun and satisfying, even if you only have a few minutes to play. Unsurprisingly, puzzle games have been popular with iPhone users. the most successful ones take full advantage of the iPhone's hi-res screen and multi-touch interface. They also offer several modes of play, multiple levels, and a variety of goals, all of which keep drawing players back time and againStandouts in this category include the venerable Bejeweled 2 ($2.99) and the more innovative, iPhone-only Aurora Fent. (Four versions available, varying in price from free to $7.99.).
Tower Defense games, like the enormous successful Fieldrunners, could also be placed in this genre. The iPhone's interface is particularly well suited to this game play, which requires touching the screen to place cannons and rocket launchers in the path of an endless onslaught of animated opponents. Board games like Monopoly are a good fit for the iPhone because they have a familiar rule set and turn-based game play that can be stopped and started easily. In addition, the iPhone's Wi-Fi and cellular connections offer the potential for a variety of multiplayer options.
A more ambitious project, which takes full advantage of the iPhone's graphical capabilities, is EA's Monopoly ($4.99). The title demonstrates the strength of board as a viable genre on the iPhone, since the game play (rolling dice and moving pieces) allows for a sindierable amount of eye-candy without the frantic action of a 3D arcade of simulation.
Lincensed games are not the only option for board games. Thinly veiled clones of games like Risk are also available on the app store. Although they lack the polish of some of the more sophisticated apps, titles like vConqr ($2.99) show that this style of game can be very satisfying on the iPhone. A few minutes spent conquering Kamchatka can be a welcome stress release during a coffee break.
The popularity of the card game genre can be confirmed on the App Store; do a quick search on "solitaire" and you'll find over two dozen titles listed. Unfortunately, only a few of these apps have the production values and variety of features necessary to generage long-term interest in the game
Solitaire City ("Lite" version free; "Deluxe version $7.99) is arguably the best example of what a successful card game should be. With 15 different types of solitaire games, each with multiple rule sets, and tutorials for each version, Solitaire City has virtually unlimited replay value. In addition, it offers smooth game play with unobtrusive but appealing graphics, online leaderboards, and a long list of customization options. As iPhone gaming matures, Solitaire City and similar titles will help define consumer expectations for even the simplest card game titles
3D simulation and arcade games
There is certainly a wealth of 3D simulations available for the iPhone, including realistic racing games, kart racers, space shooters, flight simulators, and arcade fighters. All of these games look beautiful, but most of them lack compelling feautres and qualities. It seems that many developers have focused on the iPhone's graphics capabilities and ignored fundamentals like sense of speed and accomplishment and precision of control. All of these are vital to a successful 3D game on any platform.
Still, there are some stand-outs. For example, Venger ("Lite" version free; regular version $2.99) is a 3D space arcade simulation that lacks the stunning visuals of some other titles, but more than makes up for it with amazing accelerometer control and fast-paced, addictive game play. Likewise, Crash Bandicoot NitroCart transfers well to iPhone. Developers need to learn from the success of these titles and produce 3D games that play to the iPhone's particular strengths.
Role playing and adventure games
There are fewer role playing gmaes (RPGs) for the iPhone than there are 3D titles, but the genre may have more long-term potential. Classic titles from previous decades, like Bard's Tale and Ultima, focused on developing a character and exploring a story line. Since there was little arcade-style action in traditional RPG's, it's easier to port them over or create clones for the iPhone. Developers can focus on attractive graphics and game play, without having to worry about low frame rates and awkward controls, which plague action games on the iPhone.
It may be a while before new RPGs arrive, designed from the ground up for the iPhone. In the interim, a couple of ports from other platforms show some of the potential for this genre. Dragon Bane II ($4.99) faithfully recreates the first-person turn based game play of the old Bard's Tales. Similarly, Perilar ("Lite" version free; regular version $4.99) is styled after the top-down look for the Ultima series and NetHack. Neither game will dassle the player with its graphics; but both games provide solid role playing experiences. Hopefully this will be a reminder to developers that great games don't need to be flashy to be fun and engrossing.
Adventure games like Myst, which blend elements from both puzzle games and RPGs, typically require considerably more eye candy if they are going to succeed. The iPhone has sufficient power to sustain beautiful adventure games, and a few titles are starting to pop up. The most notable 3D title in this category is Bugdom 2 ($3.99). Unfortunately and despite its undeniably high production values, the game play of this title remains, well, "buggy." There are no real stand-outs yet among the small number of 2D advanture games, but Cyan has already announced that developers are working on a port of Myst. 2D adventure games have thrived on the (historically) 3D-challenged Mac platform, so there are likely to be many more ports of Mac games in the near future.
In essence, strategy games are very sophisticated board games, and like traditional board games they are very well-suited to the iPhone. This is particularly true for turn-based games where the player has unlimited time to pause and consider their next move, allowing them to put down the phone if necessary or to scroll around a large playing field.
Reign of Swords ($4.99), free version also available) demonstrates the potential of this genre for the iPhone. A fantasy-themed, turn-based game in tradition of Heroes of MIght and Magic, this title allows the player to progress through a series of increasingly complex battles involving multiple units and armies. Subsequent updates have made the game increasingly more sophisticated and improved its multiplayer options. Reign of swords artfully implements simple game play in a way interest for hundreds of hours. This deceptive simplicity is the strength of turn-based games on mobile platforms.
Real-time strategy games are more of a challenge on the iPhone because of the small screen and limited interface options. As a consequence, successful games from this sub-genre have to be extremely simplified compared to their PC or console counterparts. The game that demonstrates this perfectly is Galcon ("Lite" version free; regular version $4.99), a simple and addictive planetary conquest title that has both single and multiplayer options.
Of all the gaming genres, this is perhaps the one with the greatest untapped potential on the iPhone. Turn-based strategy games in particular allow for the kind of depth and replay value that make them ideal for playing on a long flight or when there are several hours to kill. they can also offer satisfying short-term goals that can be accomplished in a few minutes. Strategy games have the advantage of not requiring the kind of frantic action that can be processor-intensive on a small platform. Nor do they require sophisticated or awkward control combinations.
"Native" iPhone games
The so called "native games are titles designed from the ground up with the iPhone's limitations in mind. Many of these games are hard to categorize because they offer a unique combination of accelerometer and multi-touch game play that is specific to the iPhone. Whatever their genre, some of them are incredibly fun to play.
The two obvious leaders here are Dizzy Bee and MotionX Poker. Both games are outwardly simple, but goals become increasingly complex and challenging. Combine that with their highly polished visuals and intuitive game play and you have two nearly perfect iPhone games
What the future holds
The most successful iPhone games to date have several factors in common. Their interfaces are simple, intuitive, and make full use of both the accelerometer and the screen in ways that are not cumbersome. Their graphics are highly polished, but they do not slow down the game play or exist solely for the purpose of showing off the GPU. Finally, the game play itself accomodates the realities of mobile gaming including frequent interruptions and a small form factor while providing a variety of goals to keep players coming back for more. This is likely to remain the recipe for success as developers seek to produce increasingly sophisticated titles that will take full advantage of the options offered by the iPhone platform.