WWDC 2009: The future for iPhone games

And why it'll mean big budget rises for developers

WWDC 2009: The future for iPhone games
This is a guest column written by Nigel Little, managing director of UK mobile games developer Distinctive Developments.

As WWDC comes to a close it’s worth reviewing what’s been announced and what this will mean for iPhone gaming going forward from a game developer’s point of view.

The word that sums up the conference would be ‘evolution’ rather than ‘revolution’. We had announcements of new Mac laptops; small increases in specification and price reductions.

We had the announcement of the new iPhone 3G S and we had renouncements of the improvements we already knew about in form of the iPhone OS 3.0. And, as a developer, I can only say I was relieved but at the same time excited.

It allowed the conference to focus on talking to developers to make sure they understood the technical details of these complex features, so we can start adding them right away and bring in a new round of innovation.

Let’s just recap the new features in iPhone OS 3.0 that are most relevant to games:

  • In-app purchasing of additional content so you can buy additional levels, etc

  • Push notifications to show the user the game requires their attention

  • Peer-to-peer networking over Bluetooth for multiplayer games

  • Voice chat over Internet so you can talk to your opponents while playing

If you've been in the mobile games industry as long as I have, you’ll know we’ve been talking about having these sorts of features for many years.

At mobile games conferences we used to talk endlessly about 3D and online multiplayer games but they never really hit the mainstream until iPhone came along.

So, to be progressing into features like in-game voice chat this quickly is amazing and I, for one, am really excited about the possibilities of these brand new features.

And, if that wasn’t enough Apple also announced a new device – the iPhone 3G S – with some very cool games features:

  • OpenGL ES 2.0 support that will produce graphics beyond PSP quality

  • Increased processor speed and memory that will enable better gameplay

  • Better camera and video capture, great for user-generated content

  • Hardware compass that will allow for better augmented reality games

Some of the effects that can be achieved with OpenGL ES 2.0 in combination with the extra memory and processor speed are staggering for a mobile device. The games that are made possible by these features are incredible.

Added to that the new device is backwardly compatible so people who upgrade, and many will, will be able to play all the games they’ve already bought. It’ll certainly be a very tempting proposition for mobile gamers.

Of course, drooling over new features is only one side of the story. Developers are businesses and one word of caution is that all these extra features will require larger budgets and that’s probably going to require a step change in pricing on the App Store.

Producing the content that does the new iPhone justice is going to cost at least 1.5 times what it does now and justifying that when the installed base is zero is a tough call.

Bigger developers and publishers will, of course, be able to take the risk but we’re going to see even more polarisation between the games smaller developers are making as compared to the well-funded larger companies.

From the very start it is evident that Apple are at the top of their game. From a purely engineering point of view it was impressive to see how Apple introduced the new features and how well they integrated into their existing systems and software.

Nothing seems to be bolted on at the last minute and even under intense questioning from developers the new features were clearly well thought through. To my eyes it looked like an elegant swan but I’m sure underneath there was a lot of furious paddling.

So I leave WWDC with some uncertainty about the business model but once again excited to be involved in this industry we call mobile gaming.

And one more thing, Steve Jobs wasn’t in attendance but we all had so many exciting possibilities to think about that hardly anyone mentioned it.

Distinctive Developments' iPhone games include Flip Zoo, Anytime Pool and Rugby Nations 09. For more information, see its website.

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