One look at the games being released for this season and it's easy to think we're entering into the next great generation of iPhone (and iPad) gaming. Infinity Blade has brought Epic's Unreal 3 Engine to iOS in grand fashion, with spectacular, real-time environments, fun gameplay, and character models and motion that would have blown me away on a PS2, let alone a handheld device that also surfs the web and makes phone calls. In a day or so we'll also get Real Racing 2, sequel to Firemint's Apple Design Award Winning driver, complete with 30 licensed, gorgeously reproduced cars and highly anticipated multiplayer online gaming.
These are features that, until now, were reserved for PC and console games. They're premium titles, the kind that take the time and effort of small scale motion pictures to make. They're what's putting a hurt on Sony's PSP and Nintendo's DS business, never mind other smartphones. And they're on our iPhone, with more and more to come.
In a market where other platforms are now achieving 3rd party software parity with Apple -- they have enough of the kind of applications people want on their mobile devices that tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands are quantitative but no longer qualitative differentiators -- and raw hardware specs that equal and may soon eclipse iPhone 4, these kinds of games could be the iPhone's killer apps and Apple's next short term differentiator.
The first series of iPhone 2G ads were features -- the internet in your pocket, music on your phone. The next series of iPhone 3G were centered around "app for that" with every commercial showing off first the apps themselves and later, with iPhone 3GS, what you could do with them. Then the Android Market gained critical mass and with iPhone 4 Apple returned to feature marketing -- FaceTime, Retina Display, and battery life (along with a healthy dose of Kodak-style emotion thrown in). But there are already front-facing cameras on competing devices, along with a couple Retina-class displays, and battery life will no doubt catch up as well. Whether or not other platforms get software and user experience to match iPhone 4 is a different question, but the feature checklist will make the advertising moot. Apple's update cycle means they won't have a new iOS to show off until March or April's preview event, new iPad hardware until April, and iPhone 5 until June. But they'll have these games.
Market share numbers remain dubious metrics. We often see how many OS-running devices competitors sell compared to how many iPhone AT&T sells. It's hardly news that all other devices combined outsell the iPhone but here's the thing -- Apple still sells a ton of iPhones, 14+ million last quarter and that was the quarter before the traditionally strongest holiday buying season. Apple sold so many iPhones in fact that even Verizon may have conceded ground to line it up for next year. Add to that all the iPod touches sold, and iPads that can run iPhone apps (albeit in fuzzy double chunky mode) and it makes a realistic install base approaching a hundred million mostly compatible devices. (Apple has sold well over 125 million iOS devices but the number still in active use, and able to run modern games is no doubt significantly lower.)
Sure there's some legacy issues as older devices don't have cameras or GPS or the RAM and chipset power needed to run current generation games, and some fragmentation between iPhone and iPad, but it's nothing compared to other platforms and even discounting older devices the install base is huge. (That's not a debate, developers will tell you that especially when it comes to apps that need to be as carefully coded and optimized as premium games.)
The biggest evidence to support the size of iOS' install base, the quality and consistency of Apple's hardware, and the power of their SDK is that we're seeing games like Infinity Blade and Real Racing 2 on iPhone and... nowhere else. Not yet and probably not for a while. (I still think one look at Unreal Engine 3 for iOS as much as any government antitrust action got Apple to change its mind about cross-compilers and quick).
Talking to developers, they're happy enough to take on the small challenges of porting their casual games to other mobile platforms as things like Android's install base and Palm's easy-peasy PDK make it attractive. Gameloft has almost made a science out of packing their apps for multiple platforms.
As things like Android 2.3 Gingerbread and the accompanying PlayStation
Phone app with enhancements and content specifically for gaming get wider penetration, as Microsoft fields Windows Phone with its Apple-like platform control and Xbox Live integration, as RIM flirts with a next-generation OS for the BlackBerry PlayBook, and as Palm gets its post-HP acquisition act together, a lot of things could change and we could see a far more mature, more competitive gaming market.
Until then, next generation games are all but exclusive to iPhone and for the next few months, that's the killer app.