Are next-generation games the next iPhone killer app?

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.

But if and when it does, it probably won't be before Apple has iOS 5, iPad 2, and iPhone 5 ready to one-two-three combo 2011, and new set of features to tout in their ads.

Until then, next generation games are all but exclusive to iPhone and for the next few months, that's the killer app.

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, ZEN and TECH, MacBreak Weekly. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter, App.net, Google+.

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There are 22 comments. Add yours.

Chris Gonzales says:

I'm not much of a gamer, but I agree. mobile gaming is the next big thing. No question about it.

thebizz says:

Yes Noone can come close to touching some of the new games coming out on the iphone if your a gamer its hard to pass up this platform

DBox says:

Well, as far as gaming apps go that need accurate/precise input from the user to accomplish something, the iOS devices won't win. You need a button control akin to the Playstation Phone, and based on Apples design choices, they don't like buttons on their devices.

Chatnoir80 says:

And to say Steve Jobs wanted nothing to do with gaming for the longest time.

Mister-E says:

As much as I like games, they are the least interesting feature for a smartphone.

Ghop says:

@Dbox
Sony and Nintendo would disagree with you. Their handhelds are taking a beating from idevices. Nintendo has practically gone public about it.
Also developers develop applications based on what is being consumed and game apps are being consumed in droves in the App Store, there are more games than anything else in there.
These developers are not stupid, they are not going to allocate resources to something no one wants. Infinity blade made 1.5 million in four days.
It all sounds like a win to me. 

flyingember says:

DBox- you must not have tried out the free "infinity blade" preview with just the world. the movement method takes some getting used to but it works very well.
I'm better at games that use the accelerometer by a long shot over a controller. I've handed my iphone to a 6-year-old and she caught onto how to play dizzy bee in seconds because it uses that feature.
game designers just need to think about how the game works and not place critical game items under the controller part. the best touch screen games are ones done from the ground up for touch.

Lightningr1 says:

I have noticed kids asking for an iPod touch to play games rather then a ds or psp this holiday season

Jason says:

I really think that the iPhone games will kill all the playing consuls, as nowdays everyone has iPhone and games became so easy to get and download, they are also very cheap.
I think that other fields like tool and utilities are going to be the 'killer app'. e.g. check out this cool Christmas greeting cards app: http://bit.ly/czhoY7 (iSendChristmasGreetings)

ChocolatePacman says:

The reason you see dropping sales in the mobile platform arena for nintendo and sony is because they are treating the whole matter like ios isnt eve there. They act like its a make believe form of competition and continue to just compete with each other. This is obvious in their hardware line. They release a new hardware model (and I mean new as in guts and all not just appearances) every four or five years. Apple uses their resources to put out new models annually, which sounds dangerous but theyve proven that it works. Next year apple is going to crap out another brick and I promise you even I will be in line to buy it, but a psp phone (app), no thanks. Plus, I was never in nintendos camp after pokemon was released with practically the same content three years in a row.

Jeff says:

Are you kidding? First, quit talking about Apple like it has already beaten the other manufacturers and OS devs for 2011. You Make it sound like no other device can support games like this? You mentioned that Apple has not won the spec war. With other devices running the same specs or better than the iPhone, why do you think that games like this won't hit other platforms in the very near future.
I'm a fan of this site but you Rene, are insane if you really believe the crap you write. I come here for the app reviews and the news articles. Other SME sites clearly mark their editorials, you however, do not. I'm quickly learning that everything you write, every news story is filled with your F'ed up opinion of how the world revolves around Apple. Just the facts Rene. When you choose to inject your opinion into an article, clearly state that at the beggining so I can skip over it. Thanks.

JNGold says:

@Jeff,
Did you just happen to notice the "?" at the end of the article title? <- See what I did there? <- there too! A question mark denotes the statement that precedes it is a question. Knowing this little bit of grammar and punctuation, you are now armed with enough information to bypass any "editorial"-type post.

Roginator says:

This actually highlights one great deficiency in Android that no one talks about.
Apple apps are written in the same language that console games are written in. So porting to the iPhone is simply a matter of adjusting to the touch screen/accelorometer, and rebuilding. Real work for sure, but on the order of a few weeks.
Android Apps are written using a cross platform language that eases rebuilding across devices. NO ONE. And I mean NO ONE, uses that language for high end games. This is the technical reason why Android will never have the gaming support that the iPhone does. Game developers would have to completely rewrite their games for Android, and they would simply no animate or perform as well.
So yes, these high end games will allow the iPhone to compete with consoles while Android is on the outside looking in.
I see this gap widening, especially when iPhone becomes available on Verizon.

fastlane says:

Doesn't anyone here work... or at least have some companionship? Arguing over games? Seriously?
Ughh.... :roll:

SockRolid says:

@ Jeff - "You mentioned that Apple has not won the spec war."
The spec war is over. Apple doesn't emphasize hardware specs because they are irrelevant to the average consumer. And iPad, iPod touch, and iPhone sales prove it.
But hey, it's a free country. You are free to overclock your iPad and cool its CPU with liquid nitrogen if you want to impress your hard-core gamer friends. Knock yourself out.

SockRolid says:

@ Roginator - "Apple apps are written in the same language that console games are written in."
Well, only up to a point. I'm sure you can write C or C++ code for iOS apps (the way you can in Mac OS apps.) But you need to use the Cocoa Touch frameworks to handle Core Animation and multi-touch etc. and they are based on Objective-C. I doubt any consoles (other than Apple TV?) use either Cocoa or Objective-C.
@ Roginator - "Android Apps are written using a cross platform language that eases rebuilding across devices."
I can't speak for Android, but this is what Adobe has done for decades with their cross-platform apps. They create a core "generic" code base for their apps, then add just barely enough lower-level code to deal with each platform's OS and just barely enough higher-level code to deal with each platform's GUI. Just like the classic "layer cake" software design diagram.
And this is why Adobe is so slow to adopt new OS features. Because sometimes the changes to the OS are so deep that they affect not just the platform-specific code but the generic code as well. So they're forced to move more code down into the platform-specific code, which defeats the purpose. So they resist adopting new OS features, especially in the GUI, and you end up with a lowest-common-denominator GUI. All because Adobe wants to spend as little money as possible (e.g. hire as few developers as possible) on each individual platform they support.
Android's situation is different, of course. It's all Android. But it's 1.5, 1.6, 2.0 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3 all co-existing at the same time. Impossible to write one single app for all different versions. And the killer is the GUI skins that some manufacturers layer on top of the stock Android OS. What an unbelievable mess.

Jeff says:

After reading your comments, speaking to Rene, and re-reading the artical twice, I understand the point of the article better than in my first post. I was too critical and I own Rene an apology. Thanks for the heads up.

nizy says:

Well Infinity Blade and Real Racing 2 are just the tip of the iceberg. Just tonight we will see the launch of: Aralon (a massive indie RPG), Tales of Monkey Island pt1 (iPad only), Shadow Guardian (Gameloft's Uncharted clone), NOVA 2 (Gameloft's Halo Clone), Battlefield Bad Company 2 (EA's FPS series), Broken Sword 2 (classic point and click game), World of Goo (Indie puzzler for iPad) and Lara Croft Guardian of Light (port of the critically acclaimed XBLA/PSN game).

robnaj says:

Next Generation gaming is a $6 tech demo that I beat in 6 hours and I have wait for next year multiplayer what.
tech demos are free on every thing else that plays games not just consuls. Infinity Blade is died to me untile muti-player comes out no game should re-deem it is usefulness after an update.
Do not tell me that it is so cheep and we used to pay $50 for games because the Wii comes with Two free tech demos know and when I bought it When it first came out I got Wii Sports only, and I play that game even today for hours a day. Do I do that for my iPhone no, when I play a $6 game for 6 hours that means the game is worth $1 for one hour when I play a Nintendo DS or WII for years a Nintendo game at $50 is worth so much more than what I pay for.
I get so disappointed when it comes to iOS gaming could they do better yes the way I see it the iPhone has the same sensors as the Wii remote so can my favorite game developers the Sonic team make me a new Sonic game for the iOS yes could the Sonic team re-invent old Sonic games for touch or the accelerometer rather than weird touch keys, yes they could and I would gladly buy that game for $5 to $10, and play it forever rather than downloading an emulator and playing on my iPod or Mac , dame you let buy those game games again.
Sony needs to have to win so badly with the Android PSP phone (app) and show Apple what real gaming is all about Witch is not the number of junkie games don't nether do entertainment apps and cheep games are cheep. What does matter is the number of games no really (apple lies when ever they talk about the number of games they have because they always include entertainment apps witch are not games) the price can matter but the is also a lie/mixed truth the useful value of an iOS game is extremely over priced , racing have 1/5 of the other counterparts, fighting games are much to simple and short ,and FPS are so lame (not my favorite anyway) simple games good tower defense is ok , flash port is a flash port.
My Wii can play Flash games because i they count because if they did then that like a billion free games DS can to if the just would add a browser to it.

DBox says:

Ghop/Kevin
Apple is only playing the numbers game. And as far as that goes, they are either games whose design choices have not been fully fleshed out, or games that are just knock offs of original titles. Also, these games may have quantity but lack quality, as I have yet to find any iPhone game that can hold my attention by at least half, if not by the same level as games on my PS3.

Watcher says:

@Robert Najafabadi
WHAT?!?!