Game Developers Rev Up for iPhone
Last week's introduction of an iPhone Software Development Kit (SDK) has game developers everywhere excited about the possibilities of iPhone game development, especially after seeing game demonstrations during the event. Developers agreed that Apple is pushing the iPhone as a major portable gaming platform.
"This is the coolest thing I've seen in game development in 15 years, except maybe for the Nintendo Wii," said Glenda Adams, director of development for long-time Mac game publisher Aspyr Media.
Adams said that iPhone development plays uniquely into Aspyr's strengths: their in-house developers have experience with the core technology that the iPhone uses, such as OpenGL, Cocoa and Apple's user interface. They also have experience developing applications for the mobile space.
Electronic Arts (EA) and Sega both showed off iPhone games in development. EA showed off an iPhone-specific version of Spore, the forthcoming game from Will Wright, maker of The Sims and SimCity, while Sega introduced an iPhone version of Super Monkey Ball, a game that first appeared on Nintendo's GameCube console.
Helping to separate signal from noise
With giants like EA and Sega already staking claims to the iPhone ecosystem, Adams expects that the iPhone game market will quickly fill with titles. She anticipates it'll be a combination of original game development and ports or adaptations of existing intellectual property.
That sentiment was echoed by Brian Greenstone, president of Pangea Software. Pangea's best known for Mac games like Nanosaur and Bugdom.
"Everyone who I talk with wants to write iPhone applications right now," said Greenstone. "The market is going to be flooded with stuff."
Familiar surroundings for Mac developers
The iPhone SDK introduction has revitalized Greenstone's interest in developing for Apple platforms. He said he'd put new Mac game development on the back burner for the past couple of years, partly because of what he perceived to be a lack of interest or support from Apple itself for original game developers.
"This is the best thing I've seen Apple do in recent history," said Greenstone. "I'm elated that they're actually doing it right."
Greenstone anticipates that developing for the iPhone should be a pretty smooth transition for developers already experienced with creating products for Mac OS X, which will give him and other Mac game developers a leg up on the competition.
"The SDK has most of the basic functionality that programming in Mac OS X does," he said.
A fair deal
Another aspect of iPhone development that won praise from many Mac game developers is the App Store, Apple's method for offering users iPhone applications. Steve Jobs indicated that developers will be able to sell their games or applications through the App Store for a 70/30 split -- Apple will retain 30 percent of the revenue, and won't charge developers anything additionally for bandwidth, credit card processing or marketing.
"I'm amazed they're giving developers that much," said Bruce Morrison, a producer at Freeverse Software, which has already sketched out in broad strokes its initial plan for iPhone games. "Other systems like that aren't nearly as generous."
Greenstone also said the 30 percent cut seemed reasonable, especially compared with the exorbitant costs and extraordinary risk associated with getting Mac software on retail store shelves.
Other developers posting their thoughts in blogs and social networking services weren't quite as laudatory, but most felt that the split was acceptable.
Another aspect of the App Store anticipated by Morrison is the prospect of built-in copy protection managed on Apple's side, rather than a home-grown system that developers have to rig -- the situation now with Mac applications.
"We're hoping it will help cut down on piracy quite a bit, and put independent developers on equal footing with the big guys," said Morrison.
One aspect of iPhone publication that developers did have questions about involved getting applications onto the App Store itself. Jobs left out any details about the certification process from the presentation on Thursday, except to say that Apple would be weeding out applications that presented security hazards, were bandwidth-hogs or were pornographic.
Freeverse has developed games for Microsoft's Xbox 360 "Live Arcade" system, which enables users to download games over the Internet onto their video game console rather than relying on a store-bought DVD.
"It may be a bit daunting, but I don't think it'll be anything to worry about," said Morrison of the App Store certification process.
What to expect
Morrison, Adams and Greenstone all expect that at least initially, the market will be flooded with games, and many of these will probably be "me-too" copycats of each other, or retreads of tried-and-true genres that now work on iPhones. Still, everyone expects there to be a lot of innovation, too.
The iPhone's three-axis accelerometer and touch screen is earning the most comparisons to Nintendo's Wii and its remote. To that end, Adams suggests that game publishers -- and consumers -- may want to take note of what's happened in that market.
"There are a lot of fun, innovative games for the Wii," she said. "But if you go into a retail store and look at their Wii section, there's a lot of 'shovelware,' too."
"Shovelware" describes software that's just pushed into distribution with little thought as to its utility or quality. In this respect, Adams is referring to mediocre-quality ports of game titles that have made their way to the Wii.
"Some companies are probably going to license existing brands just to help get above the fray," said Adams.
Morrison, whose company produces original titles and has dabbled with porting, said that his mind isn't made up -- though it's perhaps worth noting that Freeverse's iPhone page shows original games, not ports.
"If you had asked me up until [Thursday], I only wanted original stuff," said Morrison. "But once the news dropped, that changed. This system appears to have a lot more power even than we thought."
EA's CEO, John Riccitiello, feels similarly. "The animation technology in the iPhone OS enables us to build awesome games," said Riccitiello in a prepared statement. "I think iPhone consumers are going to be blown away by the games we create for this platform."