[In a Gamasutra special feature, we talk to five leading iPhone game developers, including the makers of hit titles Rolando, iShoot and Flick Fishing, on the state of making games for Apple's explosively popular platform.]
As both a gaming handheld and smartphone, on paper, the iPhone has very few weak spots -- and fewer by the day. But what the spec sheet doesn't convey is how quickly the iPhone as a gaming platform is evolving.
Some developers -- those who don't subscribe to the Get-Rich-or-Die-Spamming school of iPhone development -- are using this opportunity to rethink the art of making games from design, promotion, and updates.
We rounded up five heroes of the App Store and got them talking about not only how the iPhone is changing development, but how development is changing the iPhone.
"There are some games that should not be made for the iPhone, but there's also a huge group that should," begins Bruce Morrison, senior producer at Freeverse -- the mobile game company responsible for such successful apps as SlotZ Racer and Flick Fishing. "With the iPhone we get to strip out all the extra crap and focus by narrowing the gameplay."
Part of this need for focus arises from the way consumers play games on their phone, mostly in transit. As Simon Oliver, the developer of the critically acclaimed app Rolando puts it, "Portable gaming is all about convenience."
And Ian Marsh, a one-man-development team credited such hits as Textropolis and Scoops, explains that "The biggest advantage the iPhone has over other platforms is that it is a phone or iPod -- a device carried around by millions of people every day. That option to play is suddenly always there, just an unlock swipe away."
Ethan Nicholas' iShoot
And it's this idea of convenience that meshes so well with relatively simple game mechanics. Morrison expounds on the point by praising another participant, Ethan Nicholas, the recently day-jobless creator of iShoot. "If you look at the top 10 games, they all have a focus. iShoot didn't try to build a social network, it focused on what was core to the game, shooting."
And yet focusing on one particular aspect of a game, especially on a device with no tactile buttons, can be head-spinning for a developer. "There is a different mindset you have to get into with iPhone games," continues Morrison. "The lack of tactile buttons is a huge obstacle. And I think it's interesting that every person here has overcome the need for physical buttons."
But where the lack of tactile buttons represents a significant challenge to developers it also makes the device more accessible. "I definitely agree with Bruce that the absence of physical buttons does present a significant challenge and requires considerable thought to work with, but with care and attention most genres can be represented well," says Oliver.
"The immediacy and accessibility of the accelerometers and touchscreen make it a really un-intimidating device to use," continues the Rolando developer.
Consider then that Rolando, one of the most well received games on the platform utilizes simple tilt-based controls and an inviting, bubbly cartoon art-style. The final control scheme and mechanics took considerable effort, though. "The very first control scheme [for Rolando] was command-based, more like Lemmings or an RTS," says Oliver.
"The idea was that you would pan around, select the little creatures and instruct them to do things by swiping on the screen -- such as roll left, right, stop or jump -- and they would just carry on until told to stop. The trouble is that controlling them became a bit of a nightmare as they were always rolling off the screen, doing unusual things and generally dying."
"As the control scheme evolved, it definitely affected genre -- originally there was considerably less emphasis on the platforming element, with the main focus being on puzzle and strategy," says Oliver.
"Personally, I find this one of the most exciting aspects of iPhone development, as it offers you the chance to really explore and create on this new canvas, as opposed to creating within an established genre on an established device."
This new canvas does indeed provide new and intriguing gameplay aspects, many of which are increasingly social due to the hyper-networked nature of the device. Morrison and Freeverse, for one, have employed various social gaming aspects.
"The iPhone gives us developers a lot of freedom to try new cool things that other consoles and handhelds restrict," he says. "Flick Fishing has sent out over 150,000 Brag Emails since we launched the feature and SlotZ Racer lets you email tracks to friends."
Other social games like Mafia and Parallel Kingdom use email, SMS and location data from Google Maps to enhance gameplay. Nicholas has recently added online multiplayer to iShoot, but contemplates the use of location based gaming.
"I'm thinking about [a location based game] inspired by, say, Tradewars 2002 which pays attention to your real location and has you trading and interacting with other nearby players. One of you guys go ahead and build that, because I want to play it," he invites.
But where social gaming presents a number of avenues for new styles of gameplay it can also aid in promotion and advertising. "Access to contacts allows for social and viral game features, which are especially important when your game relies on being spread by word of mouth," says Marsh.
For a platform that relies on digital distribution instead of traditional retail outlets, word of mouth and viral promotion are a tremendous part of selling iPhone games. Morrison and Freeverse employ a multi-pronged strategy.
"We are lucky to be and older established Mac company with existing relationships with gaming press and online ad agencies," he says. "We do a standard press release, as well as social media. We have a large Twitter following where we frequently post promo codes and discount coupons."
Smaller operations like Marsh and NimbleBit have taken full advantage of social media due to time and budget constraints. "The first few days your app's life are probably the most important. Towards the end of development I start building a buzz on social websites, Twitter, iPhone forums, and YouTube. Plus, all of my games have links to the rest of my games in the App Store, and I try to coincide necessary updates to my other games with any new releases."
Still, there are other unorthodox ways to drum up interest in your game; James Bossert and his game Whack 'em All being the prime example. "Originally, we had 10 sales a day when we released our paid game, but then it was pirated and we saw 400 [illegal] daily downloads."
"When we contacted the pirate and asked him why he was pirating the app and blogged about it, we got a ton of free exposure via articles on torrentfreak, Digg, Reddit, News.com, and more. The exposure we got this way was probably the second biggest reason why our game got into the top 25."
"Cross promotions also work pretty well. We trade about a 1,000 clicks per day with Zynga Live Poker. This type of thing could help the longevity of your app in the top 100."
Breaking into the Top Paid Apps list remains crucial to a game's viability, and as such the App Store, Apple's submissions/digital distribution/reviews portal ultimately holds the keys to the kingdom.
For the most part, upstarts like Bossert and Marsh laud Apple's policy and openness as it allows small operations such as theirs to flourish. "The great thing about developing for the iPhone to us is the relatively low barrier-to-entry. You pay apple to become a developer and you're off and running. No publishers, no agents, no big companies to mess with," says Bossert.
"Prior to the App Store, you needed to go through a long and tedious approval process with each of the [telecom] carriers independently."
Marsh agrees, saying, "Removing concept approval as Nintendo have done with the Wii opens the door for many serious developers with their original and unique ideas." Although he does caution that "it also opens the shovelware floodgates."
With such an open agora, the fruits of success are plentiful for newcomers like Marsh and Bossert, but the laissez-faire game development has an ugly side, Marsh cautions -- and it appears to be shaping the economics of the App Store.
"The simple fact is that if you look at the history of the App Store, the cheap simple content rules the roost. Top spots go to stuff like Koi Pond, iFart, and iShoot rather than epic role playing or simulation games," says Nicholas. "It's difficult to sell even a $9.99 app on the iPhone, and the increasing perception of this has led to shovelware. This is having an unfortunate effect on the iPhone ecosystem, where 90% of the apps out there just plain suck," he concludes.
Bossert agrees: "It's a bit frustrating, really. Keeping things simple is good though, I think Ian does a fantastic job with his games in that respect, but hopefully the better apps will rise to the top and set an example."
And yet that may be exactly the problem. "It's really interesting to me that at this point in time, Whack 'em All and Rolando are competing against each other. We never intended to compete with a game with the complexity, depth and production values of Rolando."
To combat this race to ninety-nine cents, however, Simon Oliver, the creator of Rolando, contemplates bracketing off the Top 100s into separate dollar amounts: "The primary factor in sales and exposure is of course the top 100 list, and while the price cuts that people are willing to make to get into that list are understandable, they are definitely having a significant effect on the perceived value of Apps. High-budget games are clearly going to struggle on this platform."
On March 17th, Apple, with an ear toward developers' pricing gripes, unveiled an in-app DLC feature to be included with the iPhone's 3.0 software. The logic was, of course, that developers can still charge low prices for relatively simple apps, but then build in additional content and features at additional cost without resorting to free updates or sequels.
Marsh, Bossert and Nicholas are pleased with the feature, saying that it is an improvement overall and provides more ways for developers to earn revenue. Bossert, however, admits concern that Apple does not allow free games to up-sell premium content.
Morrison remains lukewarm, however, saying, "It solves part of the problem. Of course, now it's even harder to justify a $4.99 price tag. I can't believe I just said that," referring to the negative reviews based on price, and the insane lengths users will sometimes go to procure a download code.
Says Nicholas, "I've had a number of people email me to complain that $2.99 was, and I quote, 'very expensive' for a game, and could I pretty please give them a free copy of it?"
Once you've gotten your game onto the App Store, though, that essentially lets the ratings genie out of the bottle. Ratings represent a crystal clear channel for users to vent frustrations, offer advice and sometimes leave glowing 1-star reviews -- whether developers want it or not.
All of the developers express frustration with uninformed or outdated reviews. Apple has addressed this issue with version-tagging reviews, but the Rate on Delete function remains, receiving universal disdain from the panel.
"It's a very bad feature," says Morrison. "It promotes negative reviews." Bossert agrees, "I think it's crap." Nicholas and Oliver come back with a simple solution of perhaps prompting a user to give a rating after they've launched an app five or ten times, which draws approval from the other developers.
Still, out of the chorus, there are some voices with reasonable requests and thoughtful advice. "Most suggestions from customers are consistent with the aims of the game," says Bossert. "We often have a list of potential updates and improvements, and customer feedback can help us re-prioritize that list." Marsh agrees, saying that "User reviews can quickly alert the developer to bugs and missing features."
But with reviews on the forefront of every App Store page, and developers that are eager to please, can user feedback drown out design docs or alter the artistic intent of a game?"
Morrison and Freeverse have taken a firm stance in the past. "We really only go after a new feature that fits in with what we want to do. Many people have asked for protected species of fish/sharks/whales in Flick Fishing, but we will not let you fish for endangered species, even virtually. It's a stance we wanted to take."
Nicholas too takes the hard line. "I'm not saying that players are dumb or anything like that -- just, well, if Miyamoto had listened to my suggestions after playing Mario 3 for twenty minutes, it would have been a terrible game."
iPhone development and the App Store itself remain very much a work in progress, which makes it one of the most exciting platforms to watch.
As we've seen through Apple's updates, there's constant give and take among not only developers and gamers, but also Apple itself by constantly refining the App Store. Overall, developers sound pleased with the Apple's support.
"Many issues devs reported have been addressed nicely," says Bossert. "I think their response has been great. They're giving the creative devs even more tools and APIs," says Marsh. Nicholas also agrees, saying, "I don't know about everyone else, but I got everything I was hoping for and more with this update."
Of course, he later Tweets his frustration during the iPhone 3.0 event, "Arg, I really need the iPhone developer portal to actually be working now! Yes, I know 3.0 is exciting, but stop killing the servers!"