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This Changes Everything: iPhone's Five-Year Gaming Revolution

This Changes Everything: iPhone's Five-Year Gaming Revolution

Tue 03 Jul 2012 7:41am GMT / 3:41am EDT / 12:41am PDT
MobilePublishing

How Apple's device has changed when we play, what we play, and what we pay to play forever

It's always fun to dig out old quotes from senior figures dissing a rival product that goes on to become wildly successful. This one, from January 2007, is a particular gem:

"I can't believe the hype being given to iPhone. Even some of my blindly-loyal pro-Microsoft friends and colleagues talk like it's a real innovation and will 'redefine the market' or 'usher in a new age'.

"In the space of five years, talking about gaming devices in terms of "millions" is no longer enough"

"What!?!? I just have to wonder who will want one of these things (other than the religious faithful). People need this to be a phone, first and foremost."

Words taken from the blog of Richard Sprague, who was a senior marketing director for Microsoft at the time. Clearly, Sprague was subject to all the unconscious - and conscious - biases you'd expect from an employee of a fierce competitor. Fun, as I say, but what's really interesting is not that he was wrong, but how wrong.

iPhone turned five on June 29th. We can all reel off success-related facts and figures, but here's one that must make particularly sobering reading for Sprague today: Apple's iPhone business alone is now worth more than Microsoft's in its entirety ($22.69bn vs. $17.41bn, Q1 2012 revenue - as detailed in this eye-opening infographic).

I can't think of another product that has had a bigger impact than iPhone in a similar timeframe. That, of course, goes for its impact in gaming too, and at the half-decade point it's worth reflecting on the revolutionary changes, good and bad, the device has inspired in our own industry.

iPhone didn't exist when the current generation of consoles launched, and it wasn't until a year later that the App Store arrived. Now, 365 million iOS devices have been sold worldwide, 218 million of which are iPhones. And new competitors have stormed in through the door iPhone smashed open, not least Google, which just announced 400 million Android activations. In the space of five years, talking about gaming devices in terms of "millions" is no longer enough.

That applies to games now, too. Earlier this year, Rovio celebrated one billion downloads of Angry Birds. That's across many platforms, naturally, but the springboard to success was iPhone. Think of it another way: imagine that Angry Birds had been an exclusive Sony handheld title. You don't reach a billion based on a spectacularly unoriginal physics game and some cartoon birds alone. It needed the ecosystem, installed base and cool cultural cachet of Apple.

"iPhone has done more to make gaming a regular, normal 'thing' in five years than the traditional games industry has managed in 40"

That last point is particularly important. iPhone has done more to make gaming a regular, normal 'thing' in five years than the traditional games industry has managed in 40. A few years ago, Labour MP, passionate gamer and scourge of News Corp, Tom Watson, told me he knew a Government Minister who was addicted to Guitar Hero, but was too afraid to admit it publicly for fear of being excoriated by his local press.

When British politicians want to sound 'with it', they talk about iPhone not Xbox, Angry Birds not Mario. The effects of Apple's infamous reality distortion field reach far beyond the walls of its press conferences. The public can empathise when it emerges that the British Prime Minister is obsessed with Fruit Ninja on iPad. It's cool when a Hollywood star gets booted off a plane for refusing to stop playing Words With Friends on his smartphone. It wouldn't happen with handheld consoles.

Smartphone gaming, spearheaded by iPhone, has become an essential part of daily life and culture because it happens on the only device essential to daily life. Whatever their many merits, that cannot be said of a bespoke gaming system.

I should, in theory, be able to play every single iPhone game in existence on a PlayStation Vita, while enjoying experiences with a level of depth and complexity impossible on a smartphone. If only it were solely a question of hardware capabilities. Manifestly it isn't, which is why for all the brilliance of its design and enormous potential, Vita struggles to justify its existence.

The economics and accessibility of iPhone have also made gaming ruthlessly disposable, with a profound impact on design. As businesses fret over the painful transition to a free content model, consumers try something, dump it, try something else, dump that, then leave the Post Office queue without a thought.

In this context a game has mere seconds to impress before it is banished back into the ether and damned with a one-star review. Needless to say, that is not a friendly environment for great ideas that need a little explaining to flourish.

Meanwhile, optimism fuelled by chart-topping successes has been replaced by the awful fear of anonymity: with 100 games uploaded to the App Store every day, each one becomes another needle in an immense haystack.

Traditional safety nets - a great game design backed by good PR and marketing - can no longer be relied upon. Indeed, NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil argued compellingly at Game Horizon last week that they are a waste of time and money.

"A game has mere seconds to impress before it is banished back into the ether and damned with a one-star review. That is not a friendly environment for great ideas"

"[PR] has no impact that you can see for a big game when you run a dedicated, very well executed PR campaign," he said. "It does nothing, absolutely nothing. The download numbers that you're dealing with overall are so huge that any PR downloads you create are just noise."

What hope, then, for those without any kind of marketing budget? For every Tiny Wings and New Star Soccer, there are innumerable beautiful failures. In the age of iPhone, word-of-mouth is more important than any critic's review.

What can make a difference now, according to Reil, is the standard of production, bringing console-quality presentation to the simplest of concepts. Epic Games has proved this most convincingly, revealing last week that Infinity Blade is its most profitable title ever in terms of return on investment.

And the fantasy fighting title highlights another important chapter in the iPhone story: the rapid evolution of technology. With expensive consoles stuck in long cycles, iPhone has transformed from a poor phone with no third-party content into a retina-screened gaming powerhouse with over half a million apps to choose from in less time than it took Sony to make Gran Turismo 5.

Is it any wonder the traditional games industry is running scared? So nervous of the mere idea that Apple might be making a television, Microsoft broadcast to the world that SmartGlass will "turn any TV into a smart TV". What could they be thinking of?

"If iPhone has made the console business sweat and suffer, it is also hardly killing off console games"

If iPhone has made the console business sweat and suffer, it is also hardly killing off console games. Rather, there are now more games, more types of game, and more people playing them than ever. It's not an either/or, zero-sum game; but every company must now find its place in the new world order.

But you know what the truly amazing aspect of iPhone's gaming revolution is? That it happened without Apple even really trying. The company hasn't the slightest interest in making games; it just created the right platform, delivery mechanism and economics for them in the eyes - and hands - of consumers.

Not bad going for a five-year-old.

10 Comments

Nick Parker
Consultant

280 143 0.5
...and what about the next five years? If Apple can make such an impact, why couldn't another current player or new entrant, or even Apple again, turn our gaming behaviour upside down? I know it's very topical at the moment but the cloud will change where, when and how we play games just as the iPhone did.

Posted:2 years ago

#1
I co-designed the first iPhone game, iWhack ... inspired by Steve Ballmer's reaction to the iPhone ... five years ago. Here's some thoughts about that:

http://gamasutra.com/blogs/WilliamVolk/20120702/173439/Reflections_on_Five_Years_of_iOS_Gaming_What_Have_I_Learned.php

Posted:2 years ago

#2

Pete Thompson
Owner / Admin

169 97 0.6
I may have missed something then, as My Iphone is used for making calls and sending txt's and chatting to "talking Carl" ;-), I tried gaming on it but the screen is too small and the controls are pretty dire for an adult with big hands.. you cannot beat gaming on a big screen while in a party with your mates, who may or may not be playing the same game as you are.. I'll continue to be an X360/X720 & PS3/PS4 console gamer for the time being...

Posted:2 years ago

#3

Andrew Ihegbu
Studying Bsc Commercial Music

439 146 0.3
Pete, I'm with you and I'm much much younger (I assume, I'm 19 lol).

I think the 'cool cultural cachet' and 'reality distortion field' actually stopped people from realizing they are gaming, because the majority of these people - my girlfriend included - would touch a games console and actually still moan about me 'playing all those nerdy games'

A question I'll post to all the industry members here is 'Why is there such a mental gulf between playing on your iPhone and playing on anything else?'

Posted:2 years ago

#4

James Prendergast
Research Chemist

734 429 0.6
I can't think of another product that has had a bigger impact than iPhone in a similar timeframe. That, of course, goes for its impact in gaming too, and at the half-decade point it's worth reflecting on the revolutionary changes, good and bad, the device has inspired in our own industry.

I guess the NES didn't do anything particularly spectacular within a similar 5 year time frame.

"How Apple's device has changed when we play, what we play, and what we pay to play forever"

Not true. I very much doubt that the iPhone has changed the way anyone who is in or attached to the industry plays. I also doubt whether it's changed the way any 'core' gamer plays either... but I am SURE it has allowed people who didn't play that much or at all the opportunity to play games on a device that they did not buy for those games.

Posted:2 years ago

#5

Murray Lorden
Game Designer & Developer

199 72 0.4
Loved the article. For someone who's worked in the industry for 10 years, starting out on PC, Xbox, PS2, and moving to work at Firemint just before the iPhone came out, then working on Flight Control, Real Racing and SPY mouse, it's been an amazing journey.

I've now split off to make my own indie games, entirely by myself.

The thing I like best about what's happened over the last 10 years, is that the iPhone and iPad offer a certain return to the golden age of games, where an individual or small team can release a game to a large market of players.

Sure, it's hard to stand out from the crowd, but it always has been. That's simply fuel for the designer to really come up with something brilliant, fun, engaging, original, accessible. These challenges have always existed.

I think the unique challenges now, for me personally, are how to make a great little game, that really makes the users feel great, excited, challenged, and personally engaged by the game world, while avoiding the unethical/bad-design driven features that are so alluring in the Freemium model. As a one-person-team, my goal is to survive in the ecosystem, and to stand out with unique games, while remaining ethical, while building a relationship of trust and friendship with the players.

Posted:2 years ago

#6

David Bachowski
VP Business Development

66 0 0.0
I guess the NES didn't do anything particularly spectacular within a similar 5 year time frame.

The NES made a big impact to be sure, but nowhere near the impact that the iPhone has had. iOS games and apps have pervaded almost every aspect of culture in the countries where it exists, down to how we view content, how long we spend playing games, and even blurring the line between what is a game and what is not.

Not true. I very much doubt that the iPhone has changed the way anyone who is in or attached to the industry plays. I also doubt whether it's changed the way any 'core' gamer plays either...

I am in the industry, and it sure has changed gaming for me as well as plenty of other people I work with in the industry.

Posted:2 years ago

#7

James Prendergast
Research Chemist

734 429 0.6
@David - taken in the context of its release, the NES is equally the shock moment in the industry that the iPhone has been.

"I am in the industry, and it sure has changed gaming for me as well as plenty of other people I work with in the industry."

So are you saying that before the iPhone you didn't play a broad range of titles (flash, core, MMO etc)? Because that's what I'm talking about. The iPhone games aren't "new" they're just a new delivery system. In the same way that CoD:MW2 isn't radically different from MoH all those years ago (or even Quake 2) - you wouldn't go around saying that CoD:MW2 has changed the way that the industry plays games, would you? It's still a first person shooter and it's still multiplayer though obviously all the experience is more streamlined.

With the iPhone I don't see anything intrinsically different to what came before. We had Game&Watch/Gameboy/Gamegear/etc, we had flash games, we had digital purchases. Putting all those things in one box doesn't alter their essence.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 4th July 2012 8:17pm

Posted:2 years ago

#8

Doug Paras

117 61 0.5
@David Bachowski I'd just like to point out the NES all but saved console gaming when the industry was all but falling apart. I personally think the original Game Boy has done more then the Iphone has, it was the system that brought gaming in mass to the people in a portable format. All the Iphone has done is brought cheap low end games in mass quantity too people who might spend 3 minutes gaming imo.

Posted:2 years ago

#9

Andreia Quinta
Creative & People Photographer

214 533 2.5
The iPhone (and Android portables for that matter because please, the world does not revolve around the late Mr. Jobs) has done as much for the gaming scene as a car manufacturer reduces world-wide pollution to a significant level by making hybrid cars, which is close to nothing.

iPhones have only provided the world with a new distribution method of already well established game genres. With a different approach system regarding controls yes, but none the less it did not innovate the gaming industry to the point of saying it's ground breaking.
Wolfenstein 3D was groundbreaking, same with Doom. it created a whole new genre of game giving birth to everything today where you only see a gun on the lower right corner of your game screen.

The new iPhone/Pod/Pad mania only brought those same genres to the slim screens with adapted control schemes, so lets not get overly excited here like industry analysts usually do and say it's done more then 40 years of video-game evolution.

A related subject would be what a gamer Otaku really is. The man besides me in the underground playing Angry Birds for the 406th time is not what I would consider a gamer or someone who feels truly engaged in the games community. He just plays for the sake of burning commuting time.
I wouldn't go and say 10/15 years ago that Nokia revolutionized the games industry just because everyone was playing 'Snake' at the time. Same thing here.

Posted:2 years ago

#10

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