Interview: Apple talks iPhone games and the App Store
It might be a logical move, given the inherent connectivity of the iPhone and Apple's desire for a unified consumer experience.
But then again, developers like Demiforce and Aurora Feint are coming up with their own community tools, so perhaps there's no need for Apple to get involved.
When we sat down with Apple's senior product manager for iPhone worldwide product marketing Eric Jue today in London, it was one of our key questions.
Is Apple planning an Xbox Live? The company doesn't talk about rivals' products and services, but on the general subject of connected gaming, it seems happy to let developers get on with it.
"We have a very open platform, with technologies built into it that are free to developers through the SDK and the APIs," says Jue.
"So if somebody wanted to develop that then they certainly could. It's open to the developer community and wherever they want to take the platform."
However, Jue seems enthusiastic about the potential for connected gaming on the iPhone, whether local - he says his team has been loving the Wi-fi multiplayer on ngmoco's upcoming WordFu - or online.
In fact, he sees the potential for social games as being significant. "There's a whole lot of activity around the social networking side, including location-based social networking applications like Loopt and Whrrl," he says.
"You could take that the next step further and combine it with Facebook or MySpace and a gaming experience, but I haven't seen anyone pull those things together yet. There's been a lot of talk about it though."
Recommendations and discovery
More prosaically, what is Apple doing to improve the discovery process on the App Store?
The company is rightly proud of going from 500 to over 15,000 apps in its first six months, but that's bringing challenges both for iPhone owners - how do they find the good stuff? - and for developers worried about their apps not being able to cut through the noise.
"We're hearing the same thing," says Jue. "We're all learning as we march down this road together, but you're right: with 15,000 apps out there, it is a little bit harder to find applications."
He cites two ways Apple is trying to combat the problem. There's the editorial content within the App Store itself - the featured applications - which he says are being changed daily to ensure users always see fresh apps when they return to the store.
Then there's the iPhone Your Life section of the Apple website, which Jue says is an example of the company "being much more pro-active about highlighting certain applications".
"There's a lot of websites like yourselves doing reviews and top ten lists and trying to get a bit more visibility for some of the better apps," he says.
"It's all starting to happen, but we're looking at more ways too. It's going to be an evolving story."
What about a version of the Genius recommendation technology that Apple uses for music in the iTunes desktop application, except for apps in the App Store? Is that possible?
"Certainly it's possible, yeah," says Jue. "I can't comment on anything that we may or may not be doing in the future, but it's a good idea. We already do it for music, so it's certainly possible to do."
iPhone game pricing
The other issue at the front of game developers' minds for iPhone is pricing.
While the smaller firms are busily amassing knowledge on the impact of price changes at the lower end of things (examples are here and here), larger publishers are worried that they could invest more in big games and then see them buried below the hundreds of cheaper titles.
That's where this rumour that Apple is planning a premium $19.99 games section for the App Store springs from. We broke the story last month, and US sites have since followed it up and confirmed it's on the cards.
So, is it happening? Jue bats the question straight back. "Are we creating a new category? People can charge those prices now - they can charge whatever they want to charge. We haven't publicly talked about any new format to the store or creating a new category though."
Fair enough: it's up to Apple when it announces any new initiative of this kind. However, the rumour does fall into a wider trend pushing iPhone in the direction of more hardcore games, and the higher prices that the companies who make them would like to charge.
Does that risk under-selling what's perhaps iPhone's more important gaming facet - its appeal to more casual gamers? Jue says Apple isn't being swayed either way.
"We're much more open - we didn't really have a pre-defined idea for how iPhone would play in the games space," he says, stressing that the platform is powerful for a lot of things besides gaming.
"Medicine is coming on board, business too. Lots of other people are exploring the power and utilisation of technologies in the iPhone. So where it goes with developers and the gaming world is fine by us, but we're not trying to steer it down one particular path."
Location, location, location
In terms of other developments in iPhone gaming, Jue is excited about the potential for using the device's GPS functions.
"Gaming is going to be one of the areas that takes advantage of location," he says.
"You can do virtual scavenger hunt type experiences, and you've got the camera and networking in there besides GPS. You could do a Dungeons & Dragons type thing on the city streets... There are so many cool things. It's just a matter of time before these games get developed."
But with 17 million iPhones sold so far, and more than 500 million apps downloaded from the App Store, Jue is mainly looking forward to the ongoing improvement in the quality of iPhone games in 2009.
"The sophistication is getting better and better," he says, citing Gameloft's Hero of Sparta as an example of the second generation of iPhone games.
"Better graphics, better levels and worlds, better interaction, better sound... Everything is marching down the path where we're getting more innovative stuff, more creative stuff and more sophisticated stuff. And then we have multiplayer coming in, so we have a lot going on."
Our thanks to Jue for his time. During the interview, he also showed us new iPhone games Tiger Woods 09 and Let's Golf, Sway, Peggle, WordFu, Alpine Racer, and Zen Bound - which he cited as more examples of the new breed of iPhone games.