What Apple's Game Center Means to IPhone Gamers

On Thursday, Apple unveiled a developer preview of Game Center, a new social gaming platform for iPhone OS 4. With Game Center, Apple has finally acknowledged what people have known for over two years: Apple is a player in the gaming market.

Due out "later this year," Game Center is a social network platform for games that will allow you to invite friends, do automatic matchmaking, compare yourself to other players via leaderboards, and earn achievements. Think of it as Xbox Live for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad users. "We want to make gaming even better on the iPhone, so we're adding a social gaming network," explained Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iPhone Software during Apple's iPhone OS 4 announcement.

The new Game Center platform will be available to developers first so they can presumably integrate the technology into their own games. Brian Akaka, formerly of Freeverse and now with Appular, sees a lot of potential in the Game Center platform. "As much as the Game Center is about games, it's also about app discovery. This will be the first Apple-created way (besides the iTunes store) for people to discover other apps. If the Gaming Center takes off, I would imagine that it would spread to non-games very quickly, sort of a Yelp for apps."

With each update to its iPhone OS, Apple has addressed shortcomings to its gaming market. iPhone OS 3 allowed apps to have downloadable paid content, and thus compete more directly with viral Facebook games. Developers like Ngmoco have benefited greatly from this business model--most of its games are free to play but include in-app purchases that further the experience.

When the iPhone was first announced two years ago, the possibility that Apple would have launched a gaming platform would have seemed preposterous. Now, there are over 50,000 games and entertainment titles at the App Store--far more than the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS, two mobile gaming platforms from two of gaming's bigger names. The Game Center announcement is an acknowledgement from Apple that the iPhone and iPod touch competes against traditional gaming platforms.

That's a stark contrast to Apple's usual party line, and many are wondering what has changed about Apple's approach to gaming. "I think that they wanted to see the potential for a hit game-platform, and are now looking to invest some resources into beefing it up. In my opinion, Apple was caught a little off-guard by the potential for the device as a gaming platform, and is now playing some catch-up," explains Akaka.

The ability to socialize has been a shortcoming on the iPhone platform, but third-party developers like Aurora Feint and Gameloft have already tried to address this consumer need. Aurora Feint's OpenFeint social platform has been out for over a year and offers much of what Apple's Game Center will--leaderboards, achievements, etc. But so far OpenFeint (which is used by over a thousand applications), Gameloft Live, and Plus+ have only captured a small percentage of the market. Apple sees an opportunity to bring in everyone under its big tent.

While gamers on the iPhone and iPod touch may be accustomed to seeing some basic social functioning performed by third-party developers, Apple will be able to cast a much wider net and likely make it a much cleaner experience. This does not bode well for companies like Aurora Feint who may be thrown to the side by Apple's muscle.

When the dust settles, Apple will likely have reshaped the iPhone and iPod touch market dramatically. The matchmaking ability alone will dramatically change how players conduct multiplayer games, and how developers incorporate multiplayer features into their games. Social elements will change, as will the ability to find apps. Developers will have to find new ways to market their games, and discover new ways to keep their apps fresh and at the top of people's lists.

These changes will all hopefully benefit the player. The iPhone OS updates aren't just reshaping how developers market their games, new ventures by Apple like the Game Center indicate the company wants to make the gaming experience that much better for the user.

[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]

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