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iPhone Gaming: 10 predictions for the App Store

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iPhone Gaming: 10 predictions for the App Store
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You don't need us to tell you that iPhone gaming is hot.

Just ask Steve Jobs, whose recent 'Let's Rock' event included two game demos (even if he didn't play them himself).

Or ask Sega, which sold more than 300,000 copies of its Super Monkey Ball in a matter of weeks after the App Store's launch.

Or ask Trism developer Steve Detemer, who's made $250,000 from that game in a few weeks too. iPhone games are big business for developers both large and small. So what now?

The first few months of the App Store have thrown up some surprises, and given us a good sense of how the iPhone is likely to develop.  Here's eight predictions for how iPhone gaming will evolve in the coming months.

1. Lots more console ports

If console publishers were a bit blasé about iPhone before, the huge success of Super Monkey Ball and Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D has ensured they aren't now. It seems clear that big console brands will be big sellers on the iPhone.

With that in mind, expect a barrage of PS2 ports to hit the App Store in the coming months as other publishers seek to follow Sega and Vivendi's success on the platform.

The risk is that much of this will be shovelware, with little thought for how these games could be adapted to the iPhone's specific capabilities. However, the example of EA's Spore Origins, which uses the iPhone's camera to innovative effect, hopefully hints that there's scope for more imagination.

2. Apple getting more hands-on with the App Store

Apple has created the market for iPhone games, sure, but in the early months of the App Store, its approach to developers and game retail was often perplexing.

There were quirks in the App Store, such as the ability for customers to review games they hadn't bought, and the way of sorting New Releases based on their most recent updates.

Meanwhile, some apps were arbitrarily removed, others went live days before their publishers expected them to, and numerous developers spoke of Apple being not as responsive as they'd hoped.

Teething problems? Maybe. But the success of iPhone gaming means Apple is likely to get more hands-on with the sector. This is undeniably a good thing when it comes to sorting out those quirks (as Apple has done already).

But with more than 1,000 games now available, smaller developers are wondering whether Apple getting behind games means bad news for them, and good news for larger publishers - just as it has in mobile.

3. Social games coming from Facebook to iPhone

The only gaming platform with as much buzz as iPhone right now is Facebook (and, by extension, social gaming across all social networks). So far, there hasn't been much crossover between the two, but that's going to change in the next few months. In fact, it's already happening.

SGN is one of the leading lights of the nascent social gaming industry online, and it released its first iPhone game this month. Freebie title iGolf was downloaded by more than 500,000 iPhone users in its first week on the App Store.

That guarantees more games from SGN, and its rivals. This'll be boosted by the rollout of Facebook's Connect platform - an SDK that will (among other things) allow iPhone applications to tap into people's existing network of Facebook friends.

In other words, the most popular Facebook games will soon be coming to iPhone, from firms like Playfish, Zynga and others. That means more iPhone games built around connectivity and social interaction - and a new wave of competition for the publishers already involved in the App Store.

4. A new wave of advergames

Many of these predictions aren't particularly difficult - it's just a case of looking at what's been popular so far, and assuming there'll be more of it in the next few months.

Advergames are a good example of this, and one that we've already explored in a feature on Brands like Audi, Carling, Lucasfilm and Fox have already launched free advergames for iPhone, with several riding high in the App Store charts.

So far, these branded games have either had good novelty value (e.g. iPint) or innovative game ideas (Fox's Ambush). The key thing is whether that trend continues, or whether the App Store is inundated with less appealing advergames.

5. Pricing will top out at £5.99, but skews lower

Cast your minds back to June this year, and an interview with LemonQuest's CEO Ignacio Cavero. "We're going to see a new generation of games," he said. "Take a look at what Apple is preparing for iPhone. Their games will be sold in iTunes for €17-18."

That hasn't quite come to pass. In fact, iPhone games are topping out at the £5.99 mark here in the UK, and skewing lower, particularly for casual games. Gameloft slashed the price of its casual titles within a week of the App Store launch, for example.

It now seems that there IS a ceiling on iPhone game prices after all, and that publishers are increasingly prepared to drop below it to stimulate sales after the initial spike.

That trend will continue - it's hard to see any publisher trying to sell one of their iPhone games for, say, £10 in the near future. Is this a problem? Not necessarily, thanks to the 70-30 revenue split, and the (theoretically) increased volume of sales.

6. Indie studios will have big hits

Developers are justifiably excited about the App Store, because it makes the playing field much more level than the mobile operator decks. That Trism example earlier shows the potential rewards for an independent developer with a strong idea and the means to fully realise it.

Marketing? App Store hits are being generated as much through word of mouth as through traditional promotion.

Create a buzz on the Mac blogs, and you can have thousands of Apple fanboys downloading your game within minutes, or feverishly commenting on when they can get hold of it, if it's not out.

Games that have benefitted from the blog effect already include IUGO's Toy Bot Diaries and Digital Legends's Kroll - both from independent developers. You can add to that list Firemint's Real Racing and TAG Games's Astro Ranch, two titles which aren't even due out until next year.

Indie studios can have hits on the App Store, and judging by the promotional spots given to their games by Apple on the store itself, Apple seems keen to foster this. Expect to see more developers going it alone in the coming months.

7. Advertising will play more of a role

Just as ad-supported games are gaining some traction in mobile, so they may become more of a factor on iPhone (note, this is separate to the pure advergames discussed earlier).

A number of mobile advertising networks are targeting iPhone - AdMob has been one of the most bullish - and they're keen to find ways of incorporating their ads into iPhone games.

It remains an open question how happy Apple is with this trend though - at least one ad-wrapped iPhone game has mysteriously disappeared from the App Store since its launch.

8. More games will use the iPhone's specific features

Let's face it: many of the games on the App Store right now are, if not quite rush jobs, certainly developed and released against strict time pressures.

Given the relatively small gap between the iPhone SDK's release and the launch of the App Store, it's no surprise that many games feel like first-generation titles, with some being little more than tech demos with a game structure loosely wrapped around them.

iPhone isn't the first gaming platform to have this. But you can be sure that the next wave of iPhone games will be richer and will make use of more of the device's features. Expect more titles using the camera, the GPS and particularly the connectivity.

If this first phase has been about getting games onto the iPhone and learning the lessons, the second phase will see those lessons being put into practice.

9. A solution to the problem of free demos

This is less of a prediction, and more of a hope. As you'll know, there's currently no official system of providing a try-before-you-buy demo of an iPhone game.

As a result, many developers have opted for the 'Lite' approach, where they release a separate version of their game for free, with a few sample levels so that people can try it, then (hopefully) upgrade to the full version. Check out the Free Games chart on the App Store, and you'll see it's increasingly dominated by these Lite games.

There's clearly a demand from developers and publishers to release iPhone demos, so it wouldn't be surprising if Apple answered that with a more structured system. Even a 'Lite Demos' category would be a start.

10. Casual games publishers move in more

If you read today's interview with PlayFirst boss John Welch, you'll have caught a sense of his enthusiasm about iPhone as a gaming platform. More specifically, he saw it as much more akin to his company's existing Mac publishing than to mobile phones.

PopCap is another casual publisher that's already made its first move into iPhone, with Bejeweled 2. The interesting thing is that both companies have chosen to handle iPhone in-house, rather than work through licensing partners in the mobile sector.

The net result of this (and other trends) is that iPhone is shaping up as the most cosmopolitan battleground for gaming yet, with titles coming from console publishers, casual firms, mobile developers, and social gaming outfits like SGN.

Not to mention the new breed of iPhone-specific developers like Ngmoco and Gogii, and any Web 2.0 developers who fancy turning their hands to game ideas. It's good news for Apple, and iPhone gamers.

Those are our predictions, but what do you think? Post a comment letting us know your views, either on what we've said, or adding your own predictions for how iPhone gaming will evolve.