Skip to main content

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

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.

Read this next

Johnny Minkley avatar
Johnny Minkley: Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.
Related topics