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No, iPhone isn't the only mobile game in town, but...

No, iPhone isn't the only mobile game in town, but...
You don't have to be a fanboy to hail Apple's announcement last night that it's now sold more than 37 million iPhones and iPod touches. Games developers are certainly cheering.

That's a 37-million-strong install base of powerful 3D-capable gaming handsets with their own slick applications store (and billing mechanism) built in. Not to mention the proven appetite for games among these users.

It's no wonder there's a talent drain towards Apple on the part of developers. Mobile studios are abandoning Java in their droves.

Console developers who were never interested in mobile are now saddling up for the App Store. And the only action in terms of hot mobile gaming startups (whether publishing, development or tech) is, yep, on iPhone.

Isn't it tempting to prick this hype balloon, though?

We can think of a few reasons, including Apple's need for better recommendation and discovery tools to help users find the good stuff among the App Store's 35,000 applications; and its still-shadowy approvals process - developers are being rejected for misusing icons in their apps, while apps that rip off Donkey Kong or involve shaking virtual babies to death make it through.

But another line of... not quite attack, but analysis, is to look at Apple's install base in the wider context of the global handset market. It's still a niche. At least compared to the billions of Java handsets out there.

A piece on Games Brief headlined 'The iPhone hasn't actually changed the game at all' went down this route earlier this week, digging into comScore data on mobile games purchasers in the UK.

It highlighted the fact that out of nearly two million Brits who bought a mobile game in January, 337,000 were iPhone owners, compared to 565,000 owners of other smartphones, and nearly 1.1 million Java handset owners.

“For all of the excitement over the iPhone, it hasn’t had as much of an impact as commentators (including me) have tried to make out,” writes Games Brief's Nicholas Lovell.

There's a good point here, which is that there's a big addressable base of Java gamers out there, even if they're only 2.7 per cent of UK mobile users.

And yet these figures only tell half the story. The biggest hole is that they don't include the iPod touch. Sure, it's not a phone, but when developers are considering which platforms to make games for, it's a big part of the App Store's appeal.

Second, the comScore figures quoted only count the number of mobile game purchasers. They don't show how many games they bought, how much they spent, and whether they come back every month. This, I suspect, is Apple's trump card.

iPhone's impact on mobile gaming isn't about pure handset sale numbers. It's about the experience of finding and paying for games, and it's also about the costs of development and return on that investment for developers.

Or, to put it another way, developers are weighing up releasing a game for two devices on a 70:30 revenue-share split with Apple, or releasing a game for hundreds of J2ME handsets - some of which are rubbish - on a lesser revenue share even before you consider the cut taken by the aggregator you'll probably have to work through to get on-portal.

Apple HAS changed the game in that sense. Hugely. And this is where claims from rival manufacturers or operators that they can out-scale Apple require a grilling.

So Nokia says its Ovi Store will support 50 million handsets when it launches in June - but that's a theoretical 50 million, because people will have to download the Ovi Store client. And we know how well that went with N-Gage.

So Google's Android is set to catch fire in terms of handset shipments over the next 12 months? Fair enough, but there's some serious work to do on Android Market judging by developers' comments.

So RIM shipped 26 million BlackBerry handsets in its last full financial year? But how many of them will download the BlackBerry App World client - and when they do, how excited will they be about the chance to buy Java games for nearly eight quid?

There's always a 'but.'

Scale is just one element in what's required for a successful mobile apps store - it counts for little if it's not backed up with great apps (obviously) and a great user experience - and that includes billing.

With that in mind, Ovi Store is just as interesting for Nokia's plans to offer personalised app recommendations to users, based on their buying habits, friends' purchases and current location.

In short, convincing games developers to throw their weight behind your mobile platform isn't about telling them how many millions more customers you have than Apple.

It's about convincing them that they can find a big audience for their games and make decent money from your platform, whatever their size or marketing budget.

That's how Apple has changed the game for this industry. And it's why calling 37 million devices a niche - even if that's true in the context of overall handset shipments - won't slow down that talent drain of developers until the other elements are in place to give the App Store a run for its money.
Stuart Dredge is editor of PocketGamer.biz, and is currently writing the next edition of our Mobile Games Trends report - about which you can find more details here.

Contributing Editor

Stuart is a freelance journalist and blogger who's been getting paid to write stuff since 1998. In that time, he's focused on topics ranging from Sega's Dreamcast console to robots. That's what you call versatility. (Or a short attention span.)

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Sarah Thomson
You just nailed it right on the head Stuart. Bingo.