Apple's iPhone has managed to single-handedly reinvent the market for mobile games, a market that had promised a lot but delivered very little. As quickly as publishers flocked to mobile with its promise of a massive installed base, they soon backed off when fumbled commerce, multiple SKUs and horrible interfaces left many consumers laughing at the format.
So when the iPhone launched, larger publishers were wary, allowing smaller, younger and experimental developers to take advantage of a cheap SDK and a relaxed approval process to create titles that reached a wide audience. Established gaming franchises and licenses mean very little to the format so long as titles are designed specifically for the iPhone, and with constant support from Apple such as the forthcoming release of the 3.0 upgrade, the format is evolving alongside the talent creating for it.
"The 3.0 upgrade is very significant for games producers," offers Paul Farley, managing director of Tag Games, creators of New Jack Streets. "It's our belief that subscription and micro-transaction business models will change the way we all pay for our games in future and so Apple is certainly ahead of the curve here.
"In a market that has seen a rapid shift to the bottom in terms of retail price this will help the creators of the better quality games increase the return on their often sizeable investments. It's not rocket science to see the relationship between profitable developers and greater innovation and quality in the marketplace."
iPhone developers are already able to upgrade and tweak their games once on the market, a function that has endeared the format to many gamers as everything from bug-fixing to difficulty spikes are assessed on a regular basis. It's a great feature, says David Hamilton of Bloons team Digital Goldfish - but for small teams its not financially viable in the long-term, and he believes that in-App commerce and upgrades will help address that problem.
"I think the micro-transactions will add longevity to the lifespan of games and drive developers to keep on improving their products. Right now it's good to listen to the feedback of your customers and do one or two free updates for them but at the end of the day developers are losing money doing this unless the free updates increase sales of the game."
"As much as we would love to keep on giving our customers more and more value for money and make our games as feature rich as possible, it's just not feasible without any more revenue coming back in."
Hamilton is also looking forward to added multiplayer functionality from the 3.0 upgrade. "I also think the peer-to-peer functionality will be a big hit in terms of improving games. Allowing multi-player is really exciting not just for the user, but also for us developers, he says.
Brian McNicoll of Dynamo Games the team responsible for the recently released Championship Manager 2009 Express is ready to get his hands on GPS functionality, and the possibilities that can add when incorporated into titles.
"The GPS Navigation features which have been added that allow your position to be accurately tracked even as far as direction using the compass opens up a lot of gaming possibilities so I'm looking forward to seeing what unique games and applications will start appearing that use this functionality," he says.
Part of the iPhone's unique appeal is the touch screen, which is the only form of input for the handheld. Perhaps surprisingly, some games developers miss a more traditional control scheme, and feel that peripheral support might be a feature that would add more to the gaming experience, particularly with established genres.
"The inclusion of peripheral support should open up a lot more control scheme opportunities which is one of the main things which we felt could improve gaming on the iPhone," offers McNicoll. "Hopefully we can now see things like joystick attachments to really give finer control over, for example sports and first-person shooter games."
It's a feature that Farley would also like to see. "Personally as a gamer that still enjoys more traditional gaming experiences I would really like to see a physical input device like a d-pad or analogue joystick. Given that this won't be something everyone would want, a hardware peripheral would be fine. It would appear support for external hardware is included in 3.0 so we might see this quite soon," he adds.
Despite the increase in content and competition, the business models on the iPhone are still a strong draw for small developers, with Hamilton pointing out that small projects can be profitable even when sold at the lowest prices.
"Before we moved into the iPhone market, we were in mobile for a couple of years and what a relief and improvement to have now stepped over to developing for the iPhone," he says. "The business model is fantastic and its great that you can get games to market without having to go through a big publisher, giving away a big chunk of your revenue. If you get the correct game then you can be very profitable with small price points."
"All of our iPhone games have quickly achieved profitability even the ones selling at the very lowest price points from launch," says Tag's Farley. "The key is to be realistic about revenue return and don't go crazy with the budget. It's also fair to say that our profit margins aren't going to excite the likes of EA or Gameloft, but with our smaller overheads we can achieve profitability with fairly low volume.
"It's a key competitive advantage we have over the bigger players in this market and one we fully intend to continue exploiting," he adds.
McNicoll is a little more cautious of the price points of games, in a market where GBP 3.49 is considered expensive and high-end. He believes there should more structure to pricing, and an area for premium content could help the iPhone business mature.
"I am sceptical about the different price points at the moment and feel there should definitely be a premium content area so that great games aren't lost because of their higher pricing. And lets face it these type of games cost a lot more money to make so should be priced in a higher price bracket," he says.
"If the platform is going to mature properly it cannot keep the current price points. It will not be viable for most games to make a profit with such a small price point as it is only the lucky few that really can break through at that price range and make a lot of money. People are willing to pay a fair amount of money for good content as has always been the case," he adds.
McNicoll would also like to see a redesigned App Store to help promote titles more clearly to consumers.
"We think a slight redesign to the iTunes store could go a long way to having an easier way of finding the type of App which you want and also sorting the wheat from the chaff," said. "Given the sheer amount of Apps available it is always going to be a problem getting noticed on the App Store."
Marketing and promotions an area usually handled by publishers, not developers is still vital to selling games, even on the App Store where the smallest of teams can release their product.
"I think for many game developers the biggest barrier is that they simply don't appreciate or understand the importance and role of marketing," says Farley. "In that sense the role of the publisher is still alive and well even on the App Store because, lets be honest, sales and marketing skills are not naturally an area of expertise for most developers."
He adds: "The fact that the competition is so strong and there is such a huge amount of content to choose from means that you must have both a great product and great marketing get only one of the two right and your chances of success are much reduced."
Hamilton agrees that its down to developers to get their games noticed. "Unless you get really lucky then you certainly need exposure on the App Store. You really do need to try get some sort of feature so your product gets seen. However, viral marketing, outside of the App Store, can also prove to be successful in building up a fan base."
As the iPhone grows as a format, developers are still enthusiastic about the possibilities for the future. For many, the iPhone still remains a unique format over its home console and handheld rivals, and a much more accessible format for talent that wouldn't be able to make a dent on Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo machines.
"The biggest advantage of the iPhone platform over any other gaming platform at the moment is the brilliance of the game delivery process through the App Store," details McNicoll. "The ease of use for developers firstly getting their games live on the platform, then the efficient and simple process for the consumer to buy and feedback on the games, and then the ease of the developer being able to provide updated versions of the software based on user feedback.
"It is all a really amazing and fresh ecosystem that is starting to involve the gaming consumer more than ever before."
"Today I took a look at the top 50 iPhone games in the US and the UK and I think that speaks volumes about the unique opportunities on the format," comments Farley. "The entire market is incredibly open compared to the traditional console game market which is dominated by a few large publishers.
"If you are making, small, cheap yet appealing casual games you have a very active and large installed user base and a potentially lucrative opportunity. The difficulty with small mobile games is that they appear much easier to create than they actually are, but for those that get the mix right it's a pretty exciting space to be right now," he concludes.