It's already a groundbreaking phone and digital music player, and now Apple's iPhone is emerging as a popular gaming device as well. Of the 1,300 add-on programs currently available for it, about a quarter are games as are seven of the 10 most popular selections in the Apple App Store, which opened on July 11. That kind of demand, along with plans for more and better offerings, could launch the iPhone into a whole new stratosphere of mobile gaming.
The cell-phone gaming market is ripe for the picking. While millions of people play games on the portable Nintendo DS and Sony PSP every day, fewer than 10% of cell-phone users in the U.S. do the same on their phones, according to Nielsen Mobile. What's more, the average cell-phone gamer spends just $8 a year on new games, versus an estimated $45 a year for users of the PSP and $65 yearly for DS players. The iPhone with its gorgeous touchscreen, wireless delivery of applications and hundreds of entertainment titles is poised to bridge that gap. The Gartner Group research firm projects that iPhone games will help propel cell-phone gaming revenues in the U.S. from $845 million in 2008 to $1.2 billion in 2011.
Part of the reason cell-phone gaming hasn't caught on yet is that the games tend to be simplistic or crippled versions of games made for PCs or the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. "You find a lot of rehashed titles. The gaming experience is poor, and it's hard to discover the games," says Matt Murphy, who heads the iFund, a $100 million investment fund established by venture capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins to bring iPhone apps to market.
But more enticing titles are around the corner. Asphalt 4 from Gameloft will be the iPhone's first multiplayer, wi-fi game when it debuts on Aug. 15. And Spore Origins, a special version of the most anticipated video game of the year Will Wright's evolution-themed Spore will go on sale Sept. 7. It won't be as elaborate as its PC counterpart, but Spore Origins will feature 35 levels of game play and be packed with fantastical creatures. It's titles like these that could bring the iPhone into the same league as the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP.
San Franciscobased start-up ngmoco is betting on that promise. Founded by former Electronic Arts executive Neil Young and aimed solely at publishing iPhone games, ngmoco (which stands for "next generation mobile company") announced on July 31 that it had received an initial round of funding from Kleiner Perkins' iFund. "We want to be the definitive publisher of games for the iPhone. We think there is a tremendous opportunity," says Young, who says he will develop offerings for both casual and core gamers that tap into the iPhone's processing power, built-in GPS and excellent graphics.
Key to the iPhone's success as a gaming platform is a deep portfolio of titles that take advantage of the device's coolest attributes, such as its tilt sensor. The most popular application in the entire App Store today is the free maze game Labyrinth, created by Illusion Labs in Sweden, in part because it responds satisfyingly to even the slightest hand movement as players direct a virtual ball through various mazes. Another sought out game, Sega's $9.99 Super Monkey Ball, works similarly players tilt the device to navigate a series of increasingly precarious platforms. And the $0.99 ColorTilt by IMAK Creations lets you create paintings onscreen using your fingers as a brush; shifting the iPhone ever so slightly adjusts your brush color.
But can a cell phone ever really compete with dedicated handhelds like the Nintendo DS? Game developer Young says yes. "You have a DS, and you have a telephone. Why not buy just one?" he says. What's more, a third of all iPhone owners are already the video-game industry's best customers, aged 26 and under. And there is no reason why game play can't be as rich on the iPhone as it is on the most popular handhelds. "The iPhone has excellent hardware in it. It is as capable as the DS or PSP," says Greg Yardley of Pinch Media, which builds free tools for iPhone developers.
It remains to be seen, however, whether iPhone games actually evolve beyond the amusing, lightweight titles available now. "The games that you currently have are very appealing, but that doesn't last for long," says Ronan de Renesse of global media research firm Screen Digest in London. Once the novelty of the first wave of iPhone titles wears off, committed gamers are likely to look elsewhere for a more absorbing experience, notes de Renesse.
But if all goes well, elsewhere may be just a click away at the App Store, the virtual storefront that makes finding and trying new games easier than ever. Not even the DS or PSP, both of which use physical cartridges for their games, can top that.The original version of this article included some incorrect information about the upcoming iPhone mobile game, Spore Origins. It will have 35 levels of game play, not 18, but will not feature an "arena" mode for competing against other players around the globe.