iOS Gaming Thoughts, Part 1

Warning – this is a rambling rant, based on little experience. It is all speculation on my part – I’m not saying these things will happen, merely musing on what it could mean it they did. Don’t take it too seriously.

As I mentioned on the VL Twitter feed, I now have an iPod Touch. I guess that means I should take a serious look at some iOS games.

I’ve mentioned it briefly in the past, but I’ve been a supporter of iOS gaming, even if I haven’t played on it. The hardware is powerful and plentiful, and the motion control/touch screen combo can be used to great advantage by clever developers. I can’t see it ever replacing my DS or PSP, but it will definitely live along side them.

That being said, I don’t think the platform is all sunshine and rainbows. iOS gaming has the potential to be many things, and the direction I think it should go is not the direction I think anyone wants to take.

To illustrate what I mean, today I came across an old article from early 2010, wherein developer NGmoco stated that they would not be working on Rolando 3. The reason was not due to a lack of sales, but because NGmoco has adopted the so called “freemium” business model for iOS apps, which the Rolando games don’t really fit into. Near as I can tell, the “freemium” concept is everything we feared about the Xbox Live Marketplace back when the 360 launched. You release the basic version of your game for free, and sell add ons for it. These add ons can range from levels, to characters, and who knows what else.

Now, I’m not really sure why Rolando 3 can’t be done this way, but more importantly, I would never want to see it happen. I still haven’t played the series, but my impression is that it is fairly rich in content, like a full fledged DS or PSP game. I wouldn’t want to see that split up by level or character, even if it could, technically, be done.

To me, the cancellation of Rolando 3 says a lot about the business of iOS development. One of the defining characteristics of iOS apps is that they’re so cheap. Even certain games come to the platform costing less than they do on Xbox Live or Steam. Somewhere along the way, developers learned that if your price your software for only a couple bucks, people will be prone to impulse buys. You make your money through volume. This is at least one good way of selling your product, but the freemium concept is takes it one step further. If a cheap game sells lots of copies, then splitting it up into cheap pieces should sell more.

But to do this, you need to make a certain kind of game. Something simple, so that the free version doesn’t feel incomplete, and the additions can be equally silly and disposable. A console, or even DS/PSP-level game goes against this approach. Even old arcade games like Contra look more complex than something like Angry Birds.

The last piece to this puzzle are the users. They need to actually accept both the freemium pricing scheme, and the simplicity of the games. I get the sense that they approve on both counts. Advocates of iOS gaming often argue that it is much easier to pick up and play a simple game on their iPhone than it would be to whip out a DS. Read enough of these testimonials, and you begin to read between the lines. I agree that portable games should play well in short bouts, but my definition of “short” is somewhere around 15 or 20 minutes. For these users, even that is too much time. They think of games as lasting for five, maybe ten minutes. I once saw someone brag about playing is iPhone while waiting in a dentist’s chair.

Call me elitist, but statements like that fill me with despair. I love games, and desperately want more time to play them. But I was also taught at least some social graces, so I know when it is time to sit still and be quiet. If I’m waiting for half an hour, I do like having some entertainment. But if you can’t wait five minutes in a dentist’s chair, it isn’t the DS that has failed.

I won’t deny that what I’m complaining about is exactly what “Core” gamers insinuated about the Wii. But it feels different to me. The Wii introduced different kinds of games into the market, but the patterns are the same. Sometimes crap sells, sometimes quality doesn’t, but sometimes the reverse is true. My fear with is not that iOS gaming will destroy Nintendo or Sony with a flood of crap, but that it may threaten them by changing the value of gaming. That rather than being able to accommodate multiple levels of complexity and length, gaming becomes a throwaway distraction whose sole purpose is to sate increasingly diminishing attention spans.

The best way I can possibly put it is this – I don’t mind if a game is mindless entertainment. I don’t care if something isn’t a provocative piece of art. I do, however, believe that the best solution lies somewhere in the middle, and that iOS developers have the ability to take simplicity (and nickel n’ diming) to the extreme. I have a list of games to buy for this iPod which only continues to grow. It’d break my heart if there came a day when games like Rolando, the Cave shooter ports, or Game Dev Story were deemed too risky.

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