Last week, French mobile games giant Gameloft lent me an iPhone stuffed with its first titles for the Apple platform. The likes of Asphalt GT 4, Real Football 2009 and Guitar Rock Tour (currently pick of the week on App Store) really stood out for their imaginative and confident use of the accelerometer and touchscreen features. Asphalt is something of a revelation, an urban racer controlled by tilting the phone itself.
At first, it feels uncomfortable and over sensitive, then you realise the slightest twitch is enough to take most corners and it quickly becomes an enjoyable and intuitive driving experience - a million times more fun than using a crappy keypad to jab out the racing line.
Anyway, earlier this week I talked to Gonzague de Vallois, Gameloft's SVP of Worldwide Publishing about the company's thoughts on iPhone so far. He immediately downplayed the launch titles, developed extremely quickly thanks to the tardy arrival of the SDK in March, barely four months before the launch of the 3G iPhone model.
He's pretty complimentary about the hardware. "In terms of the games we're working on now, I'd say the iPhone is comparable to the PSP or DS," he said. This seems to be inline with what other developers are finding, and with what Apple pitched at its SDK rollout, where a version of Quake was shown running on the identical iPod touch hardware. Tech pundits analysing iPhone's ARM CPU reckon it has twice the clockspeed of PSP, though without the specialist graphics co-processor, of course. And the file sizes are smaller. According to de Vallois, iPhone downloads are around 60-80MB, which compares well with Java downloads (around 1MB), but is dwarfed by the storage capacity of the DS cart and PSP UMD.
In terms of development times, it seems iPhone is much more similar to the handheld consoles - Gameloft's teams will spend between nine months and a year on each title. "The main difference from other mobile platforms is that we're spending most of that time on the creation of the game," said de Vallois. "We do one SKU and it works on all iPhones worldwide. With regular mobile games we had to adapt the title to - I would say worldwide for us - 1200 mobile phones. We were spending 80% of our money and energy just adapting. On iPhone we're spending 100% of our time creating the game."
Longer development arcs also mean more time to explore the iPhone featureset. "Each of the new games we launch, we're thinking okay how can we use the accelerometer, how can we use the touch," explained de Vallois. "I was talking to one of our lead designers who's working on a new racing game, and he said we'd already managed to optimise the touch interface for steering". The game, by the way, is Ferrari GT Evolution, due out later this year.
Gameloft also has two titles - Uno and TV Show King - which support Wi-Fi multiplayer. I asked about proper online gaming, "latency is always a problem, even on 3G phones, but our teams are working on it," he said.
For now, the company is announcing two more titles, due before the end of the year. Brothers in Arms: Hour of Heroes is a new take on the console shooter series. The 3D third-person perspective WWII actioner features jeep and tank driving as well as onfoot blasting with a range of authentic weapons. Like Real Football 2009, the game uses a virtual D-Pad for movement, and automates elements such as ducking for cover or jumping over obstacles.
Then there's Hero of Sparta, a God of War-style third-person mythological hack-n-slasher. Again it features an onscreen D-Pad as well as contextual options like hit, defend, change weapons, etc. During combat, stringing together a range of moves results in an icon appearing onscreen - if this is repeatedly tapped quickly enough, you get a special finishing move.
de Vallois wouldn't name any of the company's 2009 iPhone projects, but said the company would be bringing more casual games to the market. I also asked him about other decent game phones, and he talked about the latest range of handsets using native code (he mentioned Windows Mobile, but I'm sure he was also thinking of Google Android), specifically naming the Samsung Omnia ("in terms of gaming experience it's competing with iPhone"). Apple's handset may be leading this new charge to bring mobile gaming up tp spec with handheld platforms, but it is far from alone.