At E3, it was surprising to note the number of iPhones we saw among both industry professionals and the press. Everyone was using their handsets to make calls, to update their Twitter feeds, but most striking was the number of people gaming on the hardware. At that point, the iPhone as a gaming platform was barely a week old, but everyone played iPhone games as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The market is there, as is the talent; it's hard to talk to a developer who isn't working on or at least considering at least one iPhone game.
Talk to people in the industry, however, and it seems that, oddly enough, the people least enthusiastic about iPhone games may be the Apple hierarchy.
Does Steve Jobs care about games?
Ars spoke to Joseph Olin, the president of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, and he had strong words about Jobs' support of the gaming aspect of the iPhone business strategy.
"In terms of the accelerometer, nice screen, decent computer power… yeah, you could make games on it if Steve Jobs wanted to encourage more games to be made. It will be interesting to see how that evolves," he told Ars. We asked if he really thought Jobs wasn't being encouraging to game developers. "Not in the least," he said.
He then retold the story of how Steve Jobs caused Trip Hawkins to start EA because of the lack of support for gaming at Apple. "If it wasn't for Steve Jobs basically saying 'don't waste my time with games' we would not have Electronic Arts."
Simply looking at numbers, Olin downplays the hype surrounding the phone. "They sold a million [iPhones] first week, 12 million sold supposedly in the first generation, there are a 100 million plus DSes… I don't think we're quite there yet."
John Carmack of id software was just as blunt when he spoke to Eurogamer. "The truth is Steve Jobs doesn't care about games. This is going to be one of those things that I say something in an interview and it gets fed back to him and I'm on his shithead list for a while on that, until he needs me to do something else there. But I think that that's my general opinion. He's not a gamer," Carmack stated.
"It's difficult to ask somebody to get behind something they don't really believe in. I mean obviously he believes in the music and the iTunes and that whole side of things, and the media side of things, and he gets it and he pushes it and they do wonderful things with that, but he's not a gamer," Carmack continued. "That's just the bottom line about it."
And does it matter?
The other side of this coin is the odd reality that gaming on the iPhone may not need Steve Jobs. The handsets are selling very well, on par with most other "real" gaming systems. There is clearly money to be made here, too, as the most popular downloads listed on iTunes are games. The iPhone is receiving wide industry support. It's possible that the iPhone is such a game-friendly device, with such an attractive market-share, that the gaming portion of the business will take care of itself.
There are a few off-putting things about dealing with the iPhone from the developers' perspective, however. There is only one way to sell your games, and of course that avenue is controlled completely by Apple (which takes a hefty cut).
Developers and publishers don't even have a way to give copies of their games to reviewers. In more than one case, we've seen companies send Ars iTunes gift certificates for us to redeem to buy their games in order to review them. There is also the case of patches, the sad lifeblood of many games, and it has been reported that each patch has to be approved by Apple, a cumbersome and time-intensive process.
All about the games
Apple as a company may not be friendly towards game developers and publishers, but for now everyone is willing to look past any inconveniences to sell their games on the iPhone.
Surprisingly, the games are good. MotionX Poker is one of the best casual games I've seen in a long time, and Labyrinth shows just how sensitive the accelerometer is. Both Bubble Bash and Diamond Twister from Gameloft are fun takes on well-worn ideas. And with id talking about iPhone games and Spore coming to the platform, the more hardcore gamers should be taken care of as well. (Here's a hint: download the proof of concept Cube Runner and think about what that would look and feel like as a full game.)
Olin points to the popular games we've seen: card games, Tetris, a Madden title coming up, and he seems to think that most cell phone gaming companies are missing the point.
"What actually resonates, having spent earlier parts of my life doing cell phone entertainment and voice entertainment… there are very few examples of entertaining games that play to what the device is actually designed to do, which is to promote voice, personal communication of live emotion. Someone will figure that out."
Whether or not that breakthrough will come via Apple however, is an open question. Even without support or understanding from Jobs, iPhone gaming has become a big deal. If the quality of the better games stays high, we may be looking at a competitor for both Sony and Nintendo, even if Apple cares nothing for the rivalry.