Amidst Mac efforts, EA also pushes iPod games

Electronic Arts (EA) began the summer by pledging at June’s Worldwide Developers Conference to bring six A-list games to the Mac platform. But the world’s largest independent game publisher was pursuing other opportunities with Apple long before that.

Nearly a year ago, Apple began offering premium games for fifth-generation iPods, and EA was an early supplier. iPods games, available for $4.99 each, run the gamut from puzzle to card, arcade and more.

Although Apple and its publishing partners don’t reveal the number of games sold, EA is arguably Apple’s biggest iPod games publisher: Seven of the 18 games now available from the iTunes Store are EA titles, more than any other single publisher. EA’s contributions to the iPod game library include a version of the classic popular action puzzle game Tetris, the number crossword game Sudoku, the Asian-flavored tile-matching game Mahjong, a mini-golf title, solitaire, and most recently, two games based on the hugely popular game series The Sims.

To find out about the market for iPod games, we spoke to James Holloway, EA Mobile’s managing producer of emerging platforms. In his role with EA, Holloway is front and center when it comes to creating games that are fun to play on Apple’s fifth-generation iPods.

Designing for the iPod

When Apple first revealed plans to publish games for the iPod, some industry watchers scoffed—limited processor performance, a small display and the device’s Click Wheel interface seemed like serious limitations, compared to modern handheld game systems like the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP). However, Holloway says that developing games for the iPod is no different than designing them to run on a mobile phone; in some ways, he adds, it’s better.

“The Click Wheel interface is a good thing,” Holloway said. “It keeps the gameplay simple and keeps the game mechanics simple. We’re really good at developing games for devices that weren’t originally meant to play games.”

What’s more, the iPod’s homogeneity as a platform makes it an easier target than mobile phones, which are made by many different manufacturers. “With the iPod there’s once device, with mobile phones you have to develop for varying capabilities,” he explained.

That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges creating iPod games, however.

“We have to support multiple languages,” said Holloway. “When you buy our games, they have Japanese, French, German and Spanish support built into them. And if you change your language settings on the iPod, the game will automatically detect and dynamically change what language it’s using.”

When it comes to actual game design, however, the same rules apply for the iPod as for other systems, Holloway said.

“The games we make to be picked up and played quickly, and they also have to be interruptible and short—something you can play for a couple of minutes, put it down, then come back to later,” he added.

Casual and innovative

This emphasis on approachability isn’t something that means gameplay experiences on the iPod have to be shallow, Holloway warns.

With EA’s most recent releases, The Sims Bowling and The Sims Pool, the company has taken familiar gameplay elements and mixed them with new gaming styles. In either game, you have the option of just playing a simple game against a computer-controlled opponent, or you can create an in-game player who has goals and aspirations, just like The Sims in the computer game.

“I don’t want to confuse ‘casual’ with ‘not innovative,’” Holloway said. “Even though they’re easy to play, they have a lot of depth and interesting twists. Mobile platforms are a great opportunity in general to explore new gameplay mechanics. You make it so people can understand how to play the game from the beginning—‘I know what I’m supposed to do.’ It can be intuitive, but refreshing and different.”

Solid partnership

During a May conference call with financial analysts, EA’s senior management revealed plans to release four new games for the iPod. The Sims Bowling and The Sims Pool are the first two.

Holloway is staying mum on any other offerings for the iPod or when they might be coming, however, preferring to leave those sorts of announcements to someone else at EA. Still, he’s very complimentary to Apple about the iPod, and Apple’s strategy with it as a game platform.

“I think the games are affordable for most people. For what people are getting, it’s a tremendous value,” he said. “We’re very pleased with what Apple has done and we think our partnership is a really good one.”

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments