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On the evolving challenge of creating casual iPhone games

Apple's iPhone has forged innovation in the mobile game space — touch screen interface, novel digital distribution, and more. Perhaps the most interesting change is the redefinition of what makes a "casual" game.

Once a race to produce the most visually realistic titles, today's games industry is courting perhaps the most diverse audience ever — Nintendo's Wii and DS handheld proved just how successful a game publisher can be in targeting this diverse audience, even to the detriment of the competition (witness Electronic Arts' recent troubles, which can be blamed in part on their failure to embrace Nintendo's platform).

Those who pick up a Wii controller or even a PSP handheld expect to devote a certain chunk of time to playing games; even the most casual titles deliver a certain level of experience and accompanying learning curve.

Enter Apple's iPhone, which is redefining the category even further: iPhone users rarely "sit down" to play an iPhone game, no matter how engaging — they play waiting in line at the post office or during a quiet moment at work or while writing blog posts (just kidding).

This isn't to say there's no room for more structured, traditional games — Subatomic Studios' super-successful tower defense title Fieldrunners comes to mind — but for many iPhone developers, "casual" is taking on a new meaning.

Apple recently released a list of the top 20 paid apps (link launches iTunes) — of those, 15 are games, most of which can be launched and delved into in mere seconds.

Generally speaking, this has no effect on game quality, but it does present unique challenges to iPhone developers. Namely, creating an experience that is familiar with little or no learning curve yet interesting despite abrupt pauses in gameplay.

This early in the iPhone lifespan many games' uniqueness turns on interfaces and control schemes that utilize the iPhone's unique features (accelerometer controlling character movement, for example).

As the App Store begins to mature, developers will be able to rely on such simple solutions less and less; hardware features will change, as will user expectations. The challenge will be how best to provide a more varied experience — using the accelerometer to control one aspect of movement while touch gestures control another, for example — that can still be picked up and enjoyed almost instantly by the end user.

Even now, with the third iPhone interation on the horizon, gamers expect a certain level of novelty; witness the tepid response of Konami's Metal Gear Solid Touch, which provided simplistic touch-to-shoot gameplay that elicited mostly yawns from critics.

Obviously change of this sort will happen gradually as the iPhone market ages. The winners of tomorrow will be the developers who can adapt the quickest to meet these evolving challenges head on.

Dane Baker is a producer at DoeDoe Games (http://www.doedoegames.com), a small Tennessee development company focused on developing games for Apple's iPhone. He can be reached at [email protected]

© 2009 Dane Baker. All rights reserved.

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