A New Hope: How Apple Reformed the Mobile Games Industry


Before Apple’s App Store went live last July, mobile games journalism was an optimistic discipline. We listened to developers enthusing about Next Big Thing technologies like camera-based motion-sensing, touchscreen interfaces and GPS multiplayer, but none of these ideas ever took hold. Mobile gamers didn’t want innovation. They wanted Tetris.

We also listened to publishers enthusing about the business potential of making entertainment software for a platform that had at least two major advantages over the mainstream consoles: everybody had one, and it had by far the best distribution mechanism. Consumers could buy games without moving, and the cost was invisibly added to their monthly phone bills rather than conspicuously surrendered in sweaty cash over a counter.

For some publishers, mobile gaming is big business. EA Mobile makes money by hoovering up big licences like Deal or No Deal and Tetris. Gameloft, meanwhile, has thrived largely by focussing on quality. The mobile games industry even lured EA founder Trip Hawkins into its fold. His studio Digital Chocolate is one of the widely respected in the business.

But the cultural impact of even the most successful and creative developers of mobile games on the video game medium is negligible. There’s an art to making a good mobile game – just as there is to making any good casual game – but the art has been largely effaced by the business. Tetris outsells everything, followed by generally execrable film and television licences, followed eventually by the best of what remains.

So why hasn’t mobile ever really taken off? Despite the business potential of an unassailably massive install base and a dream distribution mechanism, mobile games developers have always worked with three huge handicaps: controls, fragmentation, and – once the game is made to everybody’s satisfaction – the tyranny of the operators.

Control is the least of these problems, but it nevertheless limits the type and quality of game a developer can make. Peggle and Tetris sit fairly comfortably on a device whose primary interface is a grid of numbers, but racing and platform games are less successful, and football games are strictly for committed fingersmiths.

Fragmentation – the necessity to make a game compatible on hundreds of handsets – is a bigger issue, affecting as it does development costs and the feasible quality of many games. It’s difficult for a developer to push boundaries when he needs to test on hundreds of handsets and make his game playable on new models and models that are five years old.

Some developers have the luxury of being able to produce high and low end versions of games for different phones, but fragmentation is still a major headache in the mobile industry and much ire is privately directed at those who enforce it: the operators.

Though few publishers or developers will go on record about it, almost all have grievances about the operators on whom they largely rely to distribute their games. Eavesdrop at the door of any mobile development studio and you’ll hear about unreasonable revenue splits, unrealistic demands, and the operators’ dispiriting tendency to see games as just another form of mobile content, rather than a creative medium.

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The industry is about potential, rather than accomplishment. Fewer than 5 percent of people in Europe and North America have ever downloaded a mobile game, and only a tiny proportion of those have repeated the venture. Imagine, the industry has been collectively saying for the last few years, if that number increased by just a few percent – we’d all be swimming in cash, which would in part fuel the development of more creative libraries of games.

But nothing ever happened. The figure has held fast at 5 percent.

When Apple launched the App Store, it was underwhelming. The flagship title, Super Monkey Ball, arguably underlined the limitations rather than the possibilities of the platform, and it got lukewarm reviews. It was a nice gimmick, we all thought, but if neither touchscreen nor accelerometer based games were any good on mobile, what chance did a device that incorporated both to the exclusion of keys stand?

But the iPhone’s momentum gradually grew, thanks largely to the deal Apple cut with developers: Make what you want, put it on the App Store at whatever price you like, and we’ll simply take 30 percent of the revenue. Suddenly, there were no bars to entry: Developers had room to experiment both creatively and commercially.

A few key events propelled iPhone through the low canopy of mobile gaming: Neil Young’s company ngmoco released the superb LocoRoco-esque platformer Rolando; Hideo Kojima announced that he was making Metal Gear Solid Touch; and independent developer Ethan Nicholas famously made enough from his iShoot app to leave his job at Sun Microsystems – ironically, the firm responsible for the Java platform so harshly affected by the iPhone.

By the end of GDC 2009 it was finally clear to anybody who wasn’t already aware of it that the iPhone was a gaming platform in its own right. To games blogs, it seemed to materialise as a legitimate platform as if by stealth; to publishers and hardware manufacturers it was more like an avalanche, rumbling ominously one minute and tearing down cabins the next.

Competitors scrambled to redress the sudden imbalance. Since the App Store arrived, we’ve seen Google’s Android Market, 02’s Litmus, RIM’s BlackBerry App World, Nokia’s imminent Ovi, and news has just emerged that Sun Microsystems is planning to launch a Java app store.

But so far Apple’s competitors have failed to impress, and Java gaming is looking increasingly endangered. In the words of independent game developer Nalin Sharma, mobile is ‘effectively finished.’ He echoes the views of Rolando creator Simon Oliver, who said in an interview recently that mobile gaming was, “such a mess, such a mess.”

Mobile studios are redirecting their resources at iPhone en masse, and with great success. Gameloft’s first quarter earnings in 2009 were $40.5m, up 22 percent from the previous year. The company attributes its growth to the iPhone.

The story is the same across the mobile industry, and the iPhone’s impact isn’t confined to that sector: it’s being felt with increasing persistence in the mainstream. DSiWare and the growing number of exclusively downloadable PSP games signify that Nintendo and Sony are responding to the threat, even if neither company outwardly acknowledges that there is one. The PSP Go! represents a huge step in Apple’s direction.

In well under a year, Apple has covered an astonishing distance with the App Store, clocking up a billion downloads and fundamentally changing what gamers and developers expect to get from the portable games industry. It’s not without its critics, and we’ll hear from those in future columns, but it’s only right that we give credit where’s it’s due.

Mobile games journalism is now pretty cool, and we’ve got the iPhone to thank.

Pocket Gamer is Europe’s leading source of news, opinion and reviews on mobile and handheld gaming.

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