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WWDC 2009: 10 lessons learnt about the future of iPhone gaming

WWDC 2009: 10 lessons learnt about the future of iPhone gaming
As with all conferences, the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference 2009 was a whirly gig of new knowledge, plausible rumours and plain speculation. So there are plenty of talking points that can be pulled out of this vortex. Here are ten of the topics discussed that we considered the most important.

And yes, some are contradictory but that doesn't mean they all won't come true, at least in different sectors of the industry.

1. More and more games

Almost all iPhone game developers we spoke to are increasing their number of releases. Maximum development cycles remain six to three months but many companies are also looking to release much smaller, viral games and entertainment apps. Dev times for these are anything from a couple of weeks to a month.

The thinking is so many games are being released on the App Store, there's less point spending a long time polishing your game. Best take a shotgun approach and immediately support any success with fast updates and sequels.

2. Average prices will continue to drop

As more, smaller games are released, the average price of apps will drop as developers find it increasingly difficult not to launch at an introductory price of 99 cents. Most companies we spoke to consider $3.99 as an absolute price ceiling unless their game was a big license or triple-A title.

3. Micro-transactional slice-and-dice

Both the release bubble and price deflation will be reinforced by the introduction of micro-transactions in the 3.0 OS update. This is particularly the case as you will only be able to charge for micro-transactions on paid apps.

Once again, the idea will be to release at 99 cents and then make the real revenue selling in-game items that take the toil out of level progression. This, perhaps more than any other factor, will drive price deflation on the App Store.

4. Cheap games are long term suicide

The contrary attitude, particularly from more established developers, states that selling games at 99 cents - despite micro-transaction support - isn't sustainable even for the smallest companies. Of course, there will be some examples of success, but the majority of examples of using 99 cents for both the razor and the razor blades will end in failure.

Indeed, one publisher claims that in terms of the top 100 games on the App Store, average prices are now rising as a segment of the audience comes to realise the best, most innovative games are defined by their $5+ price point.

5. Fragmentation raises its ugly multiple heads

Compared to the spaghetti junction of mobile development, the App Store will long remain an oasis of serenity but fragmentation is increasing. Developers already have to deal with the minor differences between the original iPhone, iPhone 3G and the two versions of iPod touch. The iPhone 3G S will add another option.

Most obvious is the much improved processing capability will enable higher quality games, at least in terms of bumping up the graphics. A more subtle point is because 3G S content is likely to be contained within the same download binary - we don't believe Apple will allow a separate version for 3G S releases - the size of binaries will increase, perhaps doubling in the case of some titles, making downloads more cumbersome.

6. When to support 3.0 and 3G S?

Everyone loves the new features contained within the 3.0 OS. Micro-transactions, push notification, peer to peer connectivity, voice chat, streaming video and audio, even the in-built compass has its fans. And, of course, no game developer worth the name is going to turn down the option of more processing capability in terms of iPhone 3G S.

But the question of when to add support, especially for 3.0, is causing furrowed brows. In particular, Apple's decision to charge iPod touch users $10 to upgrade means that 20 million of the 40 million App Store-capable devices will follow a much longer upgrade path.

The result is that while everyone is planning such content, they're all waiting for someone else to prove such features are economically sustainable first.

7. The first million dollar iPhone game

We're pretty sure it hasn't happened yet, but there have been several rumours about a couple of iPhone games that cost over $500,000 to develop. More typically, studios are regularly spending $250,000 on their products. The one million dollar game will happen sooner than you think however. It will likely be an MMOG, and if it’s a success, be very afraid.

8. If you don't have community, you'll die alone

Social networks will be a single biggest push for future iPhone games with leaderboards and friend challenges viewed as necessary element: even the most simple 99 cent puzzler should have them.

Thirdparty middleware such as the OpenFeint platform - which just launched its 2.0 version and is already used by over 400 developers - offer far deeper features. It's also cheap enough to quickly become the de facto standard in terms of the level of integration with Facebook, as well as lobbies and chat rooms that operate across the games of many different developers.

The addition of Xbox Live Arcade-style achievements and gametags as in OpenFeint v2.0 will only increase developers ability to hold player within the games that use it.

9. Discover more discovery channels

Getting people to find your game on the App Store is a big hassle for developers and while we're sure Apple will continue to improve this on device and through iTunes, publishers will aggressively push such features too.

We expect to see this in terms of in-game channels and the rise of publisher subscriptions - via micro-transactions - and offers delivered in-game via push notification. Shared community features also provide great opportunities for cross-selling.

In addition, there have been rumours that Apple will allow developers to bundle games in a similar way to the 2-for-1 deals currently used by mobile publishers to shift back catalogue.

10. Piracy

Not widely spoken about, especially on the record, but iPhone piracy is certainly out there and growing. One developer told us he thought it was running at about 25 percent on iPhone - compared to 90 percent for his Java games.

Both Apple and developers will have to think and act smartly to ensure a lid is kept on the one issue that could derail the otherwise cloudless sky of iPhone development.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at PG.biz which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.

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