The iPhone’s a game changer for phone games

I agree with my colleague Dan Moren that the Nintendo DS doesn’t have much to worry about when it comes to competition from the iPhone. But third-party games on the iPhone are definitely going to change things when it comes to mobile gaming.

The iPhone won’t threaten the DS’s dominance in the marketplace. The DS is a fraction of the price and focuses on a younger demographic. It’s also a device with a single focus—games. The costlier iPhone does a lot more. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that games on the iPhone will be any less compelling, fun or challenging than they are on the DS.

Games and cell phones have been together for a very long time. I remember one of my first mobile handsets included a black and white version of “Snake,” a simple arcade game that can trace its ancestry back to the homebrew computing culture of the late 1970s.

More recent phones have incorporated color screens and passable 3-D graphics thanks to increasing processor power. Cell phone giant Nokia has tried to hybridize cell phones and game consoles, first with its ill-fated N-Gage phone, and more recently with the N-Gage service for Nokia’s line of smartphones. In fact, whether you prefer a Palm smartphone, Blackberry, or the flavor-of-the-month phone from a major carrier, chances are you can download plenty of games.

Despite an enormously amount of energy in mobile gaming over the last several years, it’s really been a tag-along to the console gaming market, however. Most phones are still very limited in processing capability and storage capacity, which has really constrained how detailed and how good these games can get. They’re often very poor imitations of their console counterparts, or backwards games that remind players a lot more of 15-year-old Game Boy titles than they do of something you’d expect to play in 2008.

From all indications I’m seeing in the developer community, the iPhone is going to shake things up in the mobile gaming market very dramatically. Its support of OpenGL ES, a 3-D graphics API, OpenAL, a positional sound API, and its basis in Cocoa development make the iPhone a keen platform for developers who are accustomed to modern computers and consoles. Developers don’t have to jump through the same hoops they’d have to developing for other phones. That’s why EA was able to get Spore running on the iPhone, as it demonstrated a few months ago when Apple unveiled the iPhone SDK. Sega did the same thing with its Super Monkey Ball game. And that only scratches the surface—there’s a ton of original game development coming down the pipe for iPhone as well.

People are quick to point out what they see as the shortcomings of the iPhone’s input system—that games will rely on the device’s accelerometer and touch screen, so they can’t be really that complex. But Nintendo has already proven with the Wii—and, for that matter, Sony with the PlayStation 3’s Sixaxis controller—that you can have some really cool, fun games by using motion-based input.

So while some people may see adversity, I think that original-thinking developers are looking at the iPhone as an opportunity to try new things. Hopefully iPhone users will see the opportunity to try new things too.

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