In Defense of iPhone Games

The market for iPhone games isn’t slowing down. The initial deluge of titles was looked at skeptically, and the rush of people purchasing games for their expensive toy was seen as a temporary justification for owning such an extravagant phone. There are 165 games being added to the iTunes App Store daily, a staggering number that dwarfs even the most hectic of holiday release schedules.

Despite this, core gamers (and oh, how I hate the core/casual dichotomy) sneer at the idea of iPhone games. Their attitude is similar to how I think film buffs view the idea of watching films on their phones (for an elegant summary of this sentiment,just watch this video of David Lynch expressing his feelings on mobile video). The experience differs fundamentally from playing a game on a home console. For people whose entire concept of gaming is tied to a television screen, I could see why it would be easy to dismiss iPhone games. They’re probably doing it out of fear. If developing an iPhone game and getting it into the top 100 is so profitable, who in their right mind would dedicate resources to making triple-A titles?

Speaking personally, I myself am a “core” gamer, if that’s even an applicable term anymore. Despite my affinity for deep, complex games on Xbox 360, I’ve come to appreciate iPhone games. I purchased my iPod Touch as a productivity tool. The idea of having Remember the Milk and Mint in the palm of my hand was too tempting to pass up.

When I received my Touch on Christmas day, the first game I bought was Rolando, published by ngMoco. ngMoco’s founder, Neil Young (not the musician) recently evangelized for the iPhone at GDC, hailing it as a revolution for the games industry. Rolando sold me on this idea before he even said the words.

Rolando is ridiculously underpriced for the quality and quantity of content you’re getting. It’s a game I could see going for $30 on the DS, or $50 on the PSP. Why, instead, develop it for iPhone and sell it for a third of its value? First, it’s a game that utilizes the functionality of its platform to such a degree, I can honestly say that it couldn’t be done anywhere else. Second, it could have been a grand experiment for the company. The overriding philosophy of iPhone marketing is “profit by a thousand cuts.” And it worked.

The fact that all iPhone games fall below the $10 mark is pure genius. I’m one of those people who has a price threshold for hesitating about purchases. That threshold usually hovers around 20 to 30 dollars. My rule beyond that point is to allow myself one day for every $10 a product will cost, then make my decision. If a product falls below that price point, I could buy it all day. Just clicking and clicking with no regard for the fact that the sum total is WAY above what I’m comfortable spending.

Case in point would be a game like Bejeweled 2. At $3, it’s the steal of the century. I have no need to justify that purchase, beyond thinking to myself “well, I’ll just not buy that second beer at the bar later.”

The amount of time I’ll spend with these games works similarly to how much I’ll spend on them. For as much as I loved Fallout 3, I recognized that I would need at least two hours to even start getting into the meat of a playing session. As such, there were days I simply couldn’t justify putting it into the system. I had better things to do.

However, with games like Bejewled, Rolando, or Word Fu, the time investment is so far below my threshold that I don’t think twice about whipping out my iPod and playing a 5 minute game… Then another… Then another.

This raises the idea that iPhone games are like the fast food of gaming. Cheap enough to purchase without thinking about it, and insubstantial enough to warrant repeat indulgence. It’s easy to view this as a derisive comparison until you realize that fast food, like iPhone gaming, is a lucrative industry. Also, unlike fast food, playing Bejeweled on the iPhone won’t lead to an early death.

What’s great about iPhone games is that the successful ones are designed in such inventive ways. It took a while for developers to fully grasp the platform, but these growing pains didn’t last nearly as long as they did for developers making games for the DS. If you’ll remember, we had to suffer through nearly two years of ports with dubious and half-assed touch screen support before we got to the truly unique stuff. If Rolando can be seen as the herald for the iPhone coming of age, then its adolescence only lasted about six months.

There’s a beauty in the economy necessary to develop a game suited to the mobile platform. Concessions need to be made, and what results is an experience that’s distilled to its purest form. Few games have gotten away with straight-across adaptation to the platform. Sim City is an example of a game that works very well on the iPhone, despite the fact that it’s so cluttered with information that it should never have been successful.

“Core Gamers” who profess to love the craft of game design should take notice of this economy, and realize how stripping away the bloated trappings of cinematic experiences has caused renaissance in how games are played. There’s no excuse for such a young art like video games to stagnate, and sadly that’s happened. It’s a joy to witness new ideas and mechanics being born, and to see their designers getting compensated for it.

The stakes are low, the teams are small, and there’s no corporate structure interfering with the designer’s ideas. It’s great, and there’s no reason to think that casual mobile gaming can’t coexist with core experiences on the consoles. If anything, triple-A developers can learn from their iPhone counterparts, and deliver a greater volume of compelling content at lower costs.

The rules are being rewritten by ngmoco, PopCap, and the new Nintendo. I dread the day that Peggle comes out for the iPhone. When that game drops, so will my will to do anything else. However, before I drop into (further) obscurity, I’ll manage to write one more sentence: “Give it a try, and don’t be mad when I say ‘I told you so.’”