Steve Boxer 

Apple gets in touch with the console market

In the iPhone and iPod Touch, Apple already has not one but two handheld gaming devices, says Steve Boxer
  
  

At last, a tedious inevitability has been rendered immaterial. Recently, whenever a big Apple press conference or Macworld keynote loomed, speculation would echo around the web that the Cupertino company would announce a handheld gaming device. But now it turns out Apple already makes not one but two handheld gaming consoles: the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Developers have been raving about the gaming potential of the iPhone and iPod Touch for a while, and Apple now feels sufficiently confident to join in: on a recent visit to the UK its vice-president of hardware product marketing, Greg Joswiak, busied himself talking up the gaming abilities of the iPhone and second-generation iPod Touch.

Both devices can run full 3D games roughly on a graphical par with Sony's PSP and way better than Nintendo's DS, while certain types of games (such as driving ones) can be controlled by the motion- and tilt-sensitive accelerometer. Apple's multi-touch screen lets game developers design their own control interfaces, such as the ghostly virtual onscreen D-pad, which lets you move footballers in Gameloft's Real Football 2009. Pretty much any control button found on a handheld console can be imitated virtually on screen.

Cash in its chips

What Joswiak didn't say was often more revealing than what he did. For example, he declined to state which processor and 3D graphics chip power the devices, saying: "Part of what we've done, purposely, with the iPods and iPhones, is to tend not to geekify them." (Online sources suggest it has an ARM CPU running at between 412MHz and 532MHz, and an implementation of the PowerVR MBX Lite 3D accelerator.)

Joswiak is less tight-lipped about another key element of the credibility of the iPhone and iPod Touch as games devices: "We kicked off the App Store a little over 100 days ago, and in that time there have been 6,000 applications in the store and over 200m downloads - and the biggest category has been games."

Now there are 1,800-plus games in the App Store, and six of the top 10 bestsellers are games. Joswiak wouldn't reveal how many iPod Touches have been sold worldwide, but says that 13m iPhones are out there, along with a cumulative total of 175m iPods, of which 55m were snapped up in the last fiscal year.

The most recent cumulative global sales figures for the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP are 77.5m and 41m respectively, but taken as one entity, the iPhone and iPod Touch are clearly already in a similar ballpark. Such potentially huge markets get developers very excited.

Developers also love Apple's hands-off nature towards third parties keen to upload games to the App Store. Joswiak says: "It's not somewhere you have to be represented by somebody; you have to be in the development programme, which is very inexpensive. It's a very smooth process for developers to get their apps in the store."

Jim Mummery, creative director at the small UK developer Doublesix, explains what this means in practice: "One of our guys wanted to make a quick game, Colour Theory, which could be released online, and which we would put up there for free rather than selling, just to see the process. We had a lot of fun playing with the idea of the console, which is about as powerful as a PSP, and from the technology we developed, we were linked with a movie IP from Paramount, and our game based on that will be in the App Store soon."

The iPhone and iPod Touch are also attracting developers from two distinct groups: handheld console and mobile phone specialists. The aforementioned Doublesix is best known for the DS game Geometry Wars Galaxies, as well as Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network games, whereas the mega-publisher Electronic Arts, as EA Mobile's executive producer Chris Gibbs explains, is approaching the platforms as mobile phones.

Platform for change

Gibbs says: "One of the challenges that the mobile games industry has faced since day one is an awareness issue. What Apple is doing with the iPhone that's changing our world - which the other devices haven't done to date - is making the discovery of really good mobile games easier." But he acknowledges that they have gaming attributes superior to other mobile phones. "The multi-touch screen is so much better than single-touch ones. From a creative standpoint, the big thing is that we have a chance to design just for that platform."

However, Gibbs sounds a couple of notes of caution: "If people think of them as just another PSP or DS, I think they're missing the point. People bought an iPhone as a phone, not a games machine. And I know developers are worried about getting swamped - there are so many games up on the App Store." But customers (and only customers) can rate the games they download, and it is also well served by forums, lists of bestsellers and staff picks.

Fergus McGovern is the president of HotGen, which has made more than 200 games for Nintendo handhelds, and is about to release its first iPhone/iPod Touch game, Brain Surge!, along similar lines to Brain Training. He addresses that perceived drawback of the App Store's structure, and maintains that it frees up small developers to concentrate on the quality of the games they put up there: "Unlike the traditional publisher model, where publishers will take a game from a developer because they have a sales team they have to keep paying a salary to, we can be far more selective on the App Store.

"With conventional games, we had the mentality that the publisher is the customer, but this time our customer is the real consumer, so we have to take more care. We have no idea how many downloads we will sell, but you could easily be into the hundreds of thousands of downloads in a week."

Joswiak points out: "These games are easily under £10 and most are under £5. So what we typically see is people buying more titles. And this is just the start - we're less than four months into this. My mind boggles with where we're going to be six months or a year from now."