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In-Depth: iOS, Flash Devs Cautiously Optimistic Of Apple's New Tools Policy

iOS and Flash game creators say that Apple's looser dev tool policy is a step in the right direction -- but many game makers expressed concerns to Gamasutra, from performance to piracy.

Kris Graft, Contributor

September 10, 2010

5 Min Read

This week, Apple and its magical CEO Steve Jobs decided to loosen restrictions on the use of third-party development tools for App Store games and apps. Maybe Jobs had a change of heart (he hasn't historically favored Adobe's tools, for instance), or maybe Federal Trade Commission pressure nudged him in this direction. Whatever the reason behind the decision, it means that the thousands of developers experienced with Adobe's Flash development tools can now (theoretically) port their games onto the extremely popular App Store more efficiently. For many developers, the decision could open up an entirely new, gigantic and potentially lucrative market. But iOS and Flash game makers that Gamasutra talked to weren't overly optimistic about the announcement. While most developers we spoke with said the move was a step in the right direction, they were also largely cautious. App Store 'Still Falls Short' For Flash Devs "There will be a hell of a lot more apps submitted, but now that there are published guidelines people are more forewarned and shouldn't be too surprised if apps are rejected," said Chris Harris, co-founder of Bloons creator Ninja Kiwi. "That said, it will be even more important to stand out from a production quality standpoint. It's likely that the best apps will continue to be coded natively for some time, although being able to choose your tools from more than one provider will encourage competition and therefore better tools will evolve," Harris predicted. "I'm all for low barrier to entry; it's what's made the Flash games industry blossom. Standing out will be the key." Jim Greer, CEO of GameStop-owned Flash gaming community site Kongregate said that Apple's decision to allow for other development tools "is the way that Apple's going to continue to get the best content on their devices." But he also said Apple's change "still falls short of what you can do on Android right now, because obviously the Flash player won't play on Apple devices." Amid the public exchange between Jobs and Adobe regarding Flash support, in May Kongregate inked a deal with Adobe to bring several dozen Flash-based browser games to Google's Android 2.2 OS. Despite the negative Android comparison, Greer acknowledged "the fact that our developers can take their source code and use Adobe AIR tools to package it for iPhones means that the 32,000 games that we currently have will be a lot easier for developers to re-target and re-purpose. So we're interested in working with our developers in doing that." Greer did not go into any further detail on Kongregate's Flash-to-iPhone initiatives, but did hint that something along those lines was in the works. Performance Anxiety And Piracy Semi Secret Software's Adam Saltsman, the indie guru behind games including the Flash and iOS title Canabalt, said that Apple's move to lift third-party tool restrictions won't affect his work much, because his studio was already re-writing "a lot of stuff" in the Apple-friendly programming language Objective-C. Saltsman said he coded iOS games in Objective-C for "performance purposes," and while he said his use of the programming language might have technically fell into the "illegal pile" according to Apple's previous restrictions, Semi Secret "never received anything from Apple except encouragement to keep doing whatever it was that we were doing." Technical performance can be an issue when porting specific Flash games over to the App Store, said William Fong, co-founder of Astro Ape Studios, which developed the 400,000-user-strong iPhone social game Office Heroes. "The loosened middleware restrictions are also categorically a good thing -- though it remains to be seen if apps using conversion tools can translate well with good performance and deliver a good user experience," he said. IOS performance of AIR-compiled Flash games was also a concern for Matthew Annal, the UK-based co-founder of stylish indie retro Flash game site Nitrome. The company is currently working on its first iPhone game, Super Feed Me. "We have mixed feelings on the announcement," he said. "On a positive front, being Flash developers that are also already developing for iPhone, there will be some benefits from having access to the Flash compiler for iPhone." But the tools are not a magic coversion bullet, he said. "It does not in most cases give us the ability to simply compile our existing games and [have] them run on an iDevice, as the performance of the conversions doesn't seem that great. But there will be benefits if a game is built with the iDevices in mind in tandem with a desktop release." Of the developers we spoke with, Annal was the only one to bring up the concern that the loosened restrictions could open up more opportunities for software piracy on iDevices. "[Piracy] has already been evident in the App Store previous to this, and I can only see [it] spiraling with the ease at which someone could decompile our games are recompile them for iPhone using the Flash tools," he said. "Time will tell, I suppose, if it is of more benefit or hindrance to us." "This Situation Hasn't Changed" There are still some companies that don't favor Adobe's tools, though. Days before Apple's third-party dev tool announcement, online webgame company Spil Games threw its weight behind Apple's previous position, saying Jobs "was right when he said Flash isn’t working on mobile systems," and that HTML5 would overtake Flash in three years. But while Spil Games has recently taken steps to support HTML5 games on its portals, most of the games it hosts are still in Flash -- and will now be directly compilable as native apps for iOS devices. Still, Spil's external communication manager Scott Johnston said, "As far as Spil Games is concerned, we stand by our position that HTML5 is the future of mobile gaming." He contends, "This is because HTML5 removes all barriers to entry and leverages the power of the web to ensure that mobile gaming is open to everyone (from developers to publishers). There are no installation procedures for users or 'walled gardens' to go through to get to an app, and developers only need to develop a game once and deploy it broadly." "As far as we can tell, this situation hasn’t changed this week."

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Kris Graft


Kris Graft is publisher at Game Developer.

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