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The rise of the iPhone

The idea of being able to play beloved titles on the move has been a dream for many gamers. The Sega Game Gear brought us a handheld with an appalling battery life, the Atari Lynx was a 16-bit handheld that quickly disappeared and the old black & white (green) Game Boy came through victorious.

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Technology has since moved on; a lot. In the ‘70s owning an appliance to play films at home was a vision of the future. Forty years later and we’re now able to download software from servers in another country, watch films in the car and use mobile internet connections to play video games wirelessly. With the Nintendo 3DS and Sony’s NGP (PSP2) announced we’ll take a look the current iPhone model. As the primary function of a phone is to make and receive phone calls there are some limitations to game design. Ensuring that games run on older models of the iPhone will limit developers from pushing the most recent hardware and there is also the matter of controls.

Consoles will always outpower handhelds, releasing games with superior sound and graphics; unless it’s Infinity Blade, which you wouldn’t see on the Wii. Ports of classic games to the iPhone rarely play as well as the originals, as forcing traditional controls onto a touchscreen is cumbersome. The lack of any conventional control pad allows for a range of possible user interfaces, but means that there has been little standardisation of control schemes yet. Onscreen analogue sticks vary in sensitivity between titles and additional touch buttons clutter the screen, not to mention having your thumbs covering some of the 3.5 inch screen.

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Titles featuring an onscreen d-pad, conventional buttons or analogue sticks never feel accurate. Like learning to ride a bike, you’ll eventually master the controls but it will never be as accurate as a controller would. It takes time for people to explore and discover ways of using a new medium, and early titles are still based on older control schemes. However, recent titles like Need for Speed, Rage and Infinity Blade are starting to show what is capable. These games not only look and sound great but also feature controls that work. The developers have thought about what would succeed and not forced a traditional control method. This is the path that developers need to take if they want to be successful in this market.

Slowly, but surely, handhelds are separating themselves from their discount cousins, creating games built for the platform. An article published by Gamasutra stated that a report by Game Developer Research found an increase in smaller developers moving to iPhone/iPad over the Wii and Nintendo/Sony handhelds. The cost of developing titles for the iPhone is considerably lower than doing so for Xbox Live Arcade; it’s entirely possible for a one-man team to design and create a game from scratch. It’s no surprise to see plenty of games available for purchase, ranging from amateur to professional.

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Two of the iPhone’s main advantages are the pricing of games and ease of purchase. A triple-A title will cost no more than £5, with some games priced at just £0.59, and 70% of the purchase goes straight to the developer. No costs on shipping and no second-hand trades. Enter your debit or credit card details when registering and voila, you can buy on the move. All games can be purchased at a tap of the screen, only requiring your password to be entered once per login. Those already registered on the iTunes store know full well how easy it is purchase a few titles on a whim.

There is one demographic not mentioned yet – the casual gamer, a hugely important group in the current market. Following the demise of the Dreamcast, everyone thought the same would happen to Nintendo after the GameCube. It didn’t happen. Nintendo saw a change in the market that they could exploit, and boy did they do it well. The same applies to the iPhone. Look at the game store – it’s filled with cute, colourful avatars for masses of casual games. Angry Birds: need I say more?

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Casual games are successful on the mobile platform as they suit gaming on the move perfectly. They provide short, rewarding bursts of gameplay that is easy to pick up and play. They’re simple, colourful, provide a quick thrill and often have catchy theme tunes or sounds. There’s no complexity, long-term commitment or super-long button-tapping combinations. Titles like Cat Physics and Peggle are prime examples; both display the whole level on one screen and whilst providing a challenge, the rounds are short and instantly rewarding. Their rules are simple and no commitment to learning advanced play mechanics is required. Whether more ‘hardcore’ titles will succeed on this platform is yet to be seen, and is entirely down to market demand (i.e. us, the gamer).

To my surprise the iPhone works exceptionally well as a mobile gaming device. The touchscreen is responsive, display bright and audio well supported if you’re using respectable headphones. Purchasing new games is effortless as well as receiving updates. As a mobile phone it isn’t expected to outperform hardware devoted to gaming on the move, and those looking for a dedicated source might be more inclined to check out the upcoming Nintendo and Sony systems. Still, it’s early days yet and the future will no doubt bring many more changes.

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Over the next few days we’ll be reviewing a range of iPhone titles, interviewing iPhone game developers and looking at the titles we’d most like to see appear in the App Store. Keep an eye out for articles over the next few days.

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

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