iPhone Gaming: Can Apple Unseat DS and PSP?
With Apple guru Steve Jobs’ recent proclamation that the iPod Touch is “the best portable device for playing games”, the internet once again began buzzing as to whether or not the creators of the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP need to be worried about their one and two spots, respectively, in the market. Of course, we’ve been through this before—remember Nokia’s N-Gage and Tiger’s Gizmondo? At one time or another both failed platforms spawned headlines suggesting they could be the new kid on the portable gaming block. But, what those two didn’t have—among many, many other things we’d need way more space and time to cover—was Apple’s marketing magic (Jobs could sell a Big Mac to a vegan if it were covered in sleek, shiny white plastic and held more music than any single human being could ever listen to in their lifetime), an already-healthy install base, and strong support from third-party publishers. EA, THQ, Sega, Vivendi, Namco Bandai and Gameloft have already signed on, and given Sega’s success with the iPhone/Touch version of Super Monkey Ball (300,000 downloads and counting after just two months—not bad for a “cell phone” game), the list of developers is guaranteed to grow.
Aside from strong development community support, though, Apple’s also got some nifty tech specs to grab gamers' attention; its visual capabilities have been compared to the Dreamcast, but after seeing games like THQ’s Star Wars: The Force Unleashed--a mediocre but undeniably pretty game—in action, that comparison may be underselling the platform’s graphical power. It also possesses that whole touch-screen thing; cutting out the middle man-like stylus that DS users have grown accustomed to, Apple’s platform essentially turns your finger into the action-controlling mouse. And lets not forget the built-in, 3-axis accelerometer. You know, the cool tech that can add tilt functionality to games. This feature could’ve easily fallen by the wayside as a gimmicky one-trick-pony, but Super Monkey Ball proved right out of the gate just how much it can enhance the experience.
As we’ve learned countless times before, though, it’s about the games, not the technology. You could harness the power of the Death Star Station to run your gaming machine, but if the software sucks, few will care. Thankfully, it looks like Apple’s potential gaming juggernaut is already learning this. Sure, there’s plenty of shovelware—just type “mahjongg” or “solitaire” into your iPhone or Touch’s App Store search to see how much this new market’s already brimming with mediocrity—but other early efforts like EA’s Spore and Crash Bandicoot Nitro Cart 3D have shown plenty of early promise. Additionally, the super-intuitive App Store makes it a breeze to separate the mediocre from the must-haves. And then there’s the price; most games fall into the .99 to $9.99 range, and many are even free. Dropping ten bucks on a game is far easier to swallow than the $19.99-$39.99 price points stamped on most DS and PSP titles.
Despite all the potential of Apple’s toys as viable gaming platforms, it’s unlikely Nintendo or Sony need to break a sweat just yet. Even if the iPhone and Touch became home to an exclusive, Halo-sized killer-app, the device isn’t likely to unseat the current rulers of the hand-held kingdom any time soon. For one thing, despite boasting an impressive install base, those consumers who purchased Apple’s new devices did so, so they could upgrade their cell phones or iPods; they weren’t shopping for a killer gaming device. The diversity in the gaming and Apple audience becomes even clearer when you look at the critical reception of the games; free download Tap Tap Revolution--an okay rip-off of Guitar Hero—has been heralded as a great rhythm game. But honestly, would any legit gamer drop their GH and Rock Band peripherals to go tap, tap on their iPhone? The same can be said for Super Monkey Ball. Sure, it’s awesome on the iPhone and Touch, but for longtime gamers, rolling a primate around in a sphere is old hat. So, what may seem revolutionary to Apple adopters may not be the second coming that gets longtime gamers to ditch their DSs and PSPs just yet.
The iPhone and Touch were other things before they set their sites on gaming. And because they planted this firm footing as communication and music devices, first—that just happen to run kick-ass games—they’ve carved a secure spot for themselves, assuring they’re never mentioned in the same sentence with N-Gage and Gizmondo. Now that they’re here to stay, they can begin focusing on a piece of the portable gaming pie. And, judging by their new add campaign boasting the Touch as the “funnest iPod ever”, it appears that’s exactly what they’re doing. For the time being, however, it looks like there’s plenty of room for Sony, Nintendo and Apple to offer on-the-go gaming. Besides, as long as Mario and Zelda live exclusively on Nintendo platforms, the big N needn’t worry about losing their license to print money anytime soon. Still, it appears they may be taking Apple’s aggression seriously—rumor has it the next DS will support music-storage and picture-taking functionality. Oh yeah, it's on!