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iLang Syne: A Guide To iPhone Game Development In 2009

Veteran developer Alessi looks at the state of the iPhone/iPod Touch game market in 2009, mapping out the pitfalls, engine choices and opportunities of making games for Apple's hit device.

[In this in-depth Gamasutra feature, veteran developer Alessi looks at the state of the iPhone/iPod Touch game market in 2009, mapping out the pitfalls, engine choices and opportunities of developing for Apple's hit device.]

With the holidays behind us,  the development path for the iPlatform -- iPhone and iPod Touch -- is coming to a crossroads.

Will the iPlatform live up to its overwhelming promise, or will it fail to deliver truly meaningful gameplay experiences by nickel-and-diming users with free or extremely inexpensive gimmick content?

In this article, we'll analyze the iPlatform's past, present, and future to determine what pitfalls developers should be aware of before taking the plunge in 2009.

The Past

The iPlatform awoke in beta form during February 2008. During this time, developers large and small signed up in excitement to develop for the device that made Star Trek look ancient. Apple unleashed a powerful and easy-to-use SDK.

The word on the street was that the iPlatform was more powerful than even Sony's mighty PSP for gaming applications. Looking at the power of the hardware, the ease of iTunes for app delivery, and the cellular phone cornerstone of this platform, it was easy to see why this might be the way of the future.

Not all was rosy, though. Developers had to deal with a restrictive NDA, which caused the flow of information to travel like molasses. Developers like id's John Carmack said that Apple's devices would revolutionize mobile development, and it sounded great.  Perusing Internet forums, however, showed a different side of the story. Developers struggled with a cumbersome code-signing process.

Apple's G4 computers, still widely used, were not compatible out of the box, or supported by Apple's iPhone SDK. Through some hacks, it was easy to get a G4 to work with the iPlatform simulator, but getting an app onto an actual test device was nigh impossible.

To get in on this promising platform, one had to pony up for an Intel-based Mac. There was a lot of promise for the platform, but there were legal restrictions, information bottlenecks, and additional costs even for long-time Mac developers.

The Present: Tools & Finances

As we now know, the stumbling blocks of early iPlatform development were actually minor. Developers overcame the code-signing niggles, Apple dropped the restrictive NDA, information flowed more freely, and people were making money.

For a developer looking at the iPlatform today, there are many development options -- not just Apple's SDK, but dedicated game development tools such as Unity, ShiVa, and Torque. The cost is obviously higher, but the rate of production may be equally so.

The minimum price of entry for a completely green Mac developer is $1,144.54 at current exchange rates. The breakdown of this total is $99 for Apple's development program, $599 for an Intel Mac Mini, $229 for a second Generation iPod Touch, and $217.54 for StoneTrip's ShiVa, the cheapest complete game engine for the iPlatform. The free game iBall3D was developed using ShiVa, and has gone on to see more than 850,000 downloads.

Many developers have used Torque at some point in time. The engine is an indie development staple, and some would argue that the iPlatform is the ultimate indie destination.

Currently, only the 2D version of Torque is available for the iPlatform. The price of entry is $500 on top of a pre-existing Torque Game Builder (TGB) Pro Indie license ($250).

Furthermore, there's an additional $100 per-title fee. The total for an Apple development newcomer using this platform, then, is $1,677.00.

That comes out to a $532.46 gap in the cover charge from ShiVa. However, it might be worth your time if you've already developed a TGB game and simply want to port it over to the iPhone.

The last card in our current hand is Unity. The price of entry is steeper than ShiVa, but not as steep as Torque. The minimum grand total using this solution is $1525.00.

The Unity components are an indie license for $199, and an additional $399 for the iPhone Basic license. Already, a host of great Unity-developed titles have been launched for the App Store including Bubble Bang, Crazy Snowboard, and my personal favorite, Debris.


The Present: Hardware Considerations

Deciding whether to use one of the available engines or use the bare iPlatform SDK is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to developing a game for Apple's revolutionary new devices.

One of the first pitfalls to be aware of is that iPlatform development may be close to console development -- but it's still not console development. If a game is developed in conjunction with a second generation iPod Touch, then iPhone and first-gen iPod Touch users may complain about choppy framerates. 

The iPlatform devices all use a Samsung ARM SoC 620 MHz processor, but earlier devices are limited to 412 MHz by Apple's firmware.  On the other hand, the second Generation iPod Touch is clocked to 533 MHz.

This speed divergence is in addition to other differences, such as the lack of a camera or microphone in the iPod Touch, the lack of GPS in all but the iPhone 3G, and finally, the various audio output options for all devices.

Music and iPod are nearly synonymous, and the iPod touch definitely does music. However, 1st generation iPod Touches do not have a built-in speaker, and rely on headphones for sound.

Second-generation iPod Touches do include a speaker, but its sound quality leaves much to be desired. Both iPhones include a more robust speaker that can actually produce something resembling bass.

Effects that sound decent on an iPhone begin to sound like insect chatter on a second generation iPod Touch, though. As a result, special low-range filters must be applied on sound effects to avoid the potential cricket convention.

While it may seem logical that users will realize the puniness of their iPod Touch speaker, it would not be wise to rely on that logic. Sound effects should be optimized to sound crisp and clear through all audio output options.

These hardware variances are subtle but they do produce challenges. The audio differences are something that even a console developer can expect, but the differences in CPU performance present a clear rift in the iPlatform-as-a-console concept.

Developing a 3D game for the iPlatform almost requires the developer to have an iPhone or original iPod Touch device. When dealing with 3D games running in the 10 to 25 FPS range, 5 FPS becomes a precious commodity, and represents a large percentage of a game's overall flow.

The Present: iTunes & Marketing

With the technical details out of the way, only Apple's iTunes Connect and the App Store remain as challenges on the road to riches during the iPresent. Of course, this is where the real challenge exists. With over 2,000 games in the App Store, it's hugely important to nail the application and release process.

Apple's iTunes Connect allows for an app profile to be created without attaching a binary. Be aware, though, that it's possible for an app to get stuck with this release date instead of the actual date that the app becomes available to the public.

The company can manually adjust for this, but there seems to be a bug in the system that will not allow the "release date" to be changed from the date that the app's profile was created. As a result, a game can instantly go DOA by getting buried under the heap of new apps released daily.

This is simply one minor point in the barrier to financial success on the iPlatform. Designing a great icon, choosing the proper screenshots, and describing a game succinctly are all hugely important to distinguish a game from the rest of the herd. Potentially the most important aspect of a game's presence in the App Store is insc what category the game is contained.


TouchSoft Mobile's Pizza Dash

While there seems to be a slew of racing games for the iPlatform, there are actually fewer pages (three) of racing games than any other category other than RPG (two).

The result of this is that Pizza Dash has a pretty good chance of catching a user's attention, even though it's sitting right next to Ferrari GT: Evolution. Conversely, there are 49 pages of puzzle games, which, makes it pretty tough to compete with Enigmo.

At IGC, 2007 Halo designer Alex Seropian said "be original"; nowhere does this apply more than on the App Store. Creating a genre defying game can help tremendously in an attempt to get noticed.

Thinking outside the box allows placement of a game inside multiple low-competition genres on the App Store, and increases the probability that users will actually click on the game's icon as opposed to scrolling on to the next page of needles in the proverbial haystack.


The Future: A Glass Content Ceiling?

With the iPlatform-past now long gone as it grows into a viable gaming platform, and the iPlatform-present generating revenue, things seem to be looking bright. Don't be fooled, though. The iPlatform's future is anything but certain.

Although there's a chance to make millions, most won't. There are even reports of zero sales for paid apps. With so much competition, it's inevitable that some good apps will never get noticed. 

Furthermore, in the iPast, many games started life at $9.99 but they quickly retreated to $0.99 territory. Revenue per unit sold is very low, and this could potentially create a glass ceiling for content quality.

Companies such as Gameloft are attempting to raise the roof with titles like Brothers in Arms and Hero of Sparta. However, rival titles like Billy Frontier and Nanosaur 2 are selling for 1/10th the price and deliver arguably similar quality content.

Will players jump to the $9.99 price point for mobile applications?  Early signs indicate that some titles like BIA can succeed, but it's unknown if this will be the exception or the rule. Furthermore, will it be profitable for larger publishers to support the iPlatform at $9.99, or will they need more money to support the iPlatform in addition to the DS and PSP platforms?

The Future: Developer Innovation

Still further into the future, the question of technology comes up. As with all new devices, the revolutionary quickly becomes the ordinary. The iPlatform really has a lot of room for innovation even beyond touching and tilting in the palm of a player's hand.


Freeverse, Inc.'s Moto Chaser

Freeverse recently showed a demo video of Moto Chaser running on a TV by using the undocumented MPTVOutWindow options of the iPlatform's 2.2 SDK. This means that the iPlatform could potentially replace not only traditional portable consoles, but that it could also barge in on Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony's home console market.

Many developers may dismiss this feature as a mere novelty. That would be a dangerous assumption -- on par with the assumption that Nintendo would not succeed with the Wii.

Imagine a room with five tech savvy friends. Obviously they all have iPhones or iPods, but only one is a true geek and carries the A/V cables. This über-geek hooks his/her iDevice up to the TV and the other 4 gather around for an impromptu Wii-style play session.

The device chained to the TV acts as a server and the other 4 become iMotes.  The last remaining component is an iSports game. Don't bother checking; the name already belongs to another app.

This is beginning to sound interesting. Unfortunately, Apple will not approve any application using an undocumented feature of the SDK such as MPTVOutWindow. Technically this theoretical iSports game could be on the market right now -- Apple's iron-clad grip on the iPlatform acts as a bottleneck for developer innovation.


The Future: Going Green & Avoiding Idiocracy

No platform has had so much potential to unsettle the status quo of the game industry like the iPlatform. With the whole world going green in the ecological sense, the iPlatform's download-only content delivery system places the iPlatform in the environmentally-friendly crowd.

After watching Wall-E, The 11th Hour, and most of all Idiocracy, you might think that consumerism (involving physical products, of course) is the enemy. Not to mention the fact that it's difficult to find a living space with enough closets to hold generations of game cartriges, CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs. The iPlatform is way ahead of the game on this front.

The Future: Mobile Competition

The iPhone recently became the top-selling handset in the U.S. With less than two years on the market, this is a grand feat. One potential pitfall, though, is hardware development lag. If there's one industry more volatile than the game industry, it's got to be the mobile phone industry.

New devices are introduced at an alarming rate. The iPhone still has an advantage in terms of hardware over most of its touch screen contemporaries, and the App Store pushes the platform over the top. 

However, due to these spectacular victories, it's easy to see Apple resting on its laurels and not taking the device into the future in terms of hardware. It's even easier to envision a competitor like Google beating them on the software front. Can Apple compete against dedicated hardware and software giants working independently on what they do best?

In terms of hardware, Apple needs to support cutting-edge technologies that can be used for social fun. Remember the example involving five friends, A/V cables, and a Wii Sports style game? Ditch the A/V cables and the TV.

People want to be mobile with all the amenities. Future revisions of iPlatform devices need some form of integrated shared display. They need a projector that can generate a communal image on any surface or at the very least a wireless broadcast feature.

This sort of hardware will enable true impromptu play sessions. Just imagine how much more interesting (or possibly embarrassing) waiting in line for The Dark Knight at midnight would have been with technology like this?

Back on the software front, Google is waiting patiently. The iTunes and App Store interfaces are slightly cumbersome. Currently, iPlatform software is more worthwhile than software for Google's Android mobile platform, but it's still very early. One factor that could determine the race is search.

End users need to be able to find, purchase, consume, and link software quickly. Apple's current implementation is good but not great. Google is known for creating extremely quick, lightweight, and just plain elegant web based software.

It's obvious that hardware represents the milestones of the race, but that the efficiency of the software powering new age mobile devices will be what propels the competitors from one milestone to the next.

Conclusion

Some great developers have created some great games, which have earned great support from players on the iPlatform. Only the future can tell us whether the iPlatform will live up to the developers' New Years Resolutions for which it has potential.

Hardware, software, creativity, mobility, sociability, and most importantly fun will determine the fate of the platform for game development.

In closing, have fun while creating software for this revolutionary new gaming platform no matter which engine, genre, or price point you choose but be weary of the pitfalls and keep an eye on the future, it's constantly evolving. Thanks for reading and have a great new year!

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