Disregarding Snake, gaming on the mobile phone has never quite managed to attain any real ubiquity.
There have been two main problems. First, the sheer variation in handsets available on the market at any given time makes it hugely expensive and time consuming for any publisher/ developer to create their game for enough models to be financially viable. Second, it’s been very difficult for publishers to get their content onto the devices. Bandwidth has been very limited and the install process less than streamlined, causing many users to quit even after deciding to make a purchase. (Snake of course, was successful because it was already on the phone when you bought it…)
Whilst as a device the mobile phone has saturated our live, outside of the core enthusiast base, mobile phones have never really been true lifestyle objects of desire. That was of course, until a Cupertino company decided to get involved and radically intervene in the market.
A few weeks ago you might have noticed the media hysteria around the new mobile phone by Apple. Apple’s release of the new iPhone 3G was an embarrassingly botched affair - marred by critical system failures and inadequate stock. Of the faithful individuals queuing outside stores, few who wanted one got one - and those who did had problems activating them as servers crashed.
It’s an extraordinary testament to the brand loyalty they have managed to create that even following an embarrassing catastrophe such as this, goodwill can be restored so quickly. Within 24 hours all had been forgiven and the nerdsphere was back to doe-eyed worship of Steve Jobs and all he touches.
But whilst an irresistibly device, the biggest leap in iPhone 3G isn’t the built-in GPS or the faster connectivity, but the app-store. Finally, Apple are allowing third-party developers to create applications for the device (and the iPod touch - essentially the iPhone without the phone) and in doing so elevating it from being just a phone, to a mobile computing platform.
The App-store is based within iTunes, and by exploiting an already hugely established install-base users Apple has done what it does best - humanised software.
By removing the clumsy download and install problems that have blighted the mobile games market for years and replacing them with the slick, seamless and, most important, familiar iTunes conduit - mobile gaming has suddenly become accessible.
At the E3 show in LA last week, the major publishers all came out in strong support of the platform, with key games being announced by many. It’s clear that it has the kinds of titles coming to it which will ensure its appeal amongst more discerning players - this will be about more than just Snake and Tetris clones.
But how is it to use? Well, the built-in accelerometer is a joy, albeit one that takes a little getting used to. Tilting the device from side to side is a surprisingly easy interface and it’s deserved that SEGA’s Super Monkey Ball should have been at the top of the download charts since launch.
It’s only when playing titles that demand touch control that the real shortcomings of the device become startlingly clear. Even with my delicate, artiste's hands it’s a frustrating experience on occasion to touch and drag over the screen with any real accuracy. It becomes very clear, very quickly why handheld pc’s usually come with a stylus.
Perhaps the real trojan horse of the new iPhone though isn’t its ability to run games itself, but the potential it has as a controller for another system. One of the other most downloaded applications at launch was ‘remote’, a small and free-of-charge app which enables the user to control another machine's iTunes library from your iPhone.
In a moments download, the potential of the device as not just a platform in itself, but as a peripheral is revealed. Anyone with a basic WiFi network can control music around the house from a single handheld device. The AppleTV, their initial mis-fire entry into the media hub market is suddenly given new possibilities as a gaming platform when coupled with the iPhone as a remote. This is surely the real potential here.
iPhone is set to transform the handheld gaming market, but not just as a platform in itself. It’s also the sexiest controller you ever had.