So are cheap iPhone games killing the industry or not?

Epic Games, the mighty and historic development studio, once believed that budget iPhone apps were killing the video game industry. Back in April, president Mike Capps said to IndustryGamers in April: “If there’s anything that’s killing [the retail games business] it’s dollar apps. How do you sell someone a $60 game that’s really worth it? People are used to paying 99 cents.” An interesting point raised by a company constantly producing brilliant triple A titles but only a few months later it appears they’ve changed their mind (via CVG).

At the Unreal University event in London, hosted by Epic about using the Unreal Development Kit for games, European territory manager Mike Gamble said the company “didn’t believe” all the nonsense that big budget titles were “going away because the cost is huge and content on App stores is 99c.” But whereas Capps’ comments may have come from the heart, Gamble’s might just be originating from the marketing table. He spoke to over 100 attendees at the event and encouraged them to use the Unreal Development Kit as it could help them create some the of the very best game experiences on any platform and that hardcore games on iOS devices offered a great opportunity for upcoming devs. “Experience tells us that if you create content with high production values the audience will buy it,” said Gamble. “You’re customers, what would you prefer to do: Buy a game like Infinity Blade for $6 with plenty of gameplay, good production values that offers a visceral experience; or pay 99c for something you play once and never ever go back to?”

Not all budget games fit into this category however though the number that does certainly outweighs those who don’t. He continued, urging the young devs to use their experience as gamers as a starting point for making games. “The proof for us has been Infinity Blade. It’s a triple-A quality title built and shipped late last year. So far, we’ve earned more than $11 million of revenue from it – that’s after Apple have taken their cut.” Gamble then said there is an audience who want bigger and better games on their mobiles possibly suggesting there isn’t enough of these games to satisfy them all.

There’s no doubt Apple and its competitors are literally in the pockets of hardcore gamers who prefer a lengthier experience for a few quid instead of a shorter forgettable one. Companies like Gameloft price their games around £4-5 which all sell tremendously but that could be to do with then being clones of existing franchises. Nevertheless, it still proves Gamble’s comments to have some truth as do the sales figures of £5.99 games like Real Racing 2 and even the expensive Square Enix RPGs currently on the App store. But time and time again, the biggest sticking point is a lack of physical buttons and uncomfortable implementation of virtual analog sticks. Again, Epic’s Infinity Blade showed that intelligent game design can do away with traditional inputs and work just as well.

The problem with the cheap price point for mobile games, which yesterday went up from 59p to 69p, is that it exists at all. I think the early day self-imposed necessity to release a game for so cheap has left a lasting impression in the minds of users who are reluctant to pay more. Expensive games do sell as Gamble points out but I still see a hell of a lot of App Store user reviews bitching that a game cost more than 59p. But as more and more top quality, higher priced games get released, this mentality should hopefully disappear.

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Apple, in ten years time, all this will be yours…

Phil Harrison helped the launch of the original PlayStation all those years ago and was on board right up until the early days of the PS3 where he once famously said rumble for controllers was ‘so last-gen’. But poor Harrison was merely playing the PR game and only said that because Sony was in the middle of a legal battle and not his true feelings. Now he’s no longer at Sony but an advisory for a cloud-based delivery network, Harrison’s thoughts aren’t murky with legalities but clear and most recently, rather divisive.

In an interview by Edge magazine a couple of weeks ago Harrison spoke about future of gaming and how, in ten years time, Apple will eventually become the games industry. Why? Because of the “proliferation of devices,” he said. “You’ve got iPhones, iPads, iPods, which are all part of the same ecosystem; the speed at which Apple sold 15 million iPads is phenomenal. And the number one activity on an iPad, according to some reports, is games, and I think that will only continue.” He went on to praise the App Store for how well it’s integrated and how easy it is to buy things. One click and you have content straight to the device. Harrison called it elegant and continuously refined but as an owner of Apple products, I’m not sure elegancy is a word I’d use.

But it’s the talk of Apple becoming the industry because of the size of its market which is really interesting. With that logic surely the Wii is currently the console industry, Primark is the epitome of fashion and Call of Duty: Black Ops is the best game ever made. Sheer volume doesn’t directly equate to an absolution of an industry. Yes, it means those markets are currently healthy but I would propose the notion that it shows Apple are capable of making a powerful entertainment device which gaming is a by-product. Apple’s approach to gaming, best seen in their press conferences, isn’t one that fills me with confidence of an overall take over of the video games industry. They talk about it but with the mediocre response to Game Centre, the praise and boasting, what little there is, centres around the tech driving it not the experience itself.

Other companies have done well to capitalise on the success of iPhones and iPads  but there is still a huge separation between the majority of games you find on those systems and the ones seen on traditional consoles. Often they try and emulate each other with varying results. One major issue, which is pointed out time and time again, is the lack of a physical controller, mainly the analog stick. Look how important it was for Sony to include a second stick on the PSVita and how awkward it can be for virtual versions to run on touchscreens. To become not just a leader but an industry itself, you’d have to better what came before and that goes for all aspects, not just sell lots of your device.

Mobile developers and publishers can be handsomely rewarded for their games but the 59p model does come with a few restrictions. Lets say the average gamer buys three titles a year and spends £120 doing so. Compare this to a purely mobile gamer who buys 59p games. They have to buy 203 of them in order to match the average gamer’s spend. And while there maybe well over 203 budget titles hitting the App store each month, that shows another problem with this market, it’s almost too big for its own good. Perusing a bloated store with games of drastically varying quality can only take up so much of anyone’s time before it becomes laborious. There would have to be some major changes in how the App Store works over the next ten years for it to be the ultimate place to shop. In that time who knows, Sony and Nintendo could perfect their digital distribution methods. We’ve already seen a huge improvement from Nintendo with the eShop on 3DS.

There’s no denying the popularity of Apple products. Selling 15 million iPads in nine months is superb but Microsoft are shifting a ridiculous number of Kinects with around 10 million of them already in homes worldwide. Is that too a contender for games industry? There’s no doubt Apple have been eating away at the traditional gaming space and the 59p experience has changed the habits of spending but I don’t know if ten years is enough for it to go from where it is now to ruling the entire industry, supporting the kinds of games found on todays consoles and PCs. I do like Phil Harrison, I think he’s a great personality and was a valuable asset to Sony but have to agree to disagree with him on this one.

Review: DAGi Capacitive Stylus (iPad)

Steve Jobs once said that if you need to use a stylus on one of their iDevices, Apple had failed. However that hasn’t stopped consumers from wanting to use something other than their fingers and equally had little effect on the companies who make them. Considering the amount of drawing applications and the potential for the iPad to become a serious artistic tool, finding a good stylus among the many iPad accessories is essential. Most are fat with a rubber tip and resemble a swollen pencil but DAGi have made a thinner alternative that also offers a remarkable amount of precision.

Using the stylus for drawing works surprisingly well because of the clever design. DAGi replaces a rubber tip with a clear plastic disc that has a red dot in the centre. When held correctly, the red dot is the exact spot of contact between stylus and screen. It’s almost as if you’re painting with a laser sight. It must be said though because of the shape of the tip, there is a certain sweet spot for using the stylus. Drawing still feels natural and you won’t be holding the touchscreen pen at any obscure angles but it’s worth mentioning if you’re fussy about such things.

The Apps I used as a test for the pen were Brushes, Adobe Ideas and Facebook. The first two were to see how semi-professional art applications work with the stylus and they do so very well. If you’re going for detail and don’t want to keep zooming in to 400% or more, having fundamentally a red dot to follow makes everything a lot easier. As for Facebook, that was used to see how well the stylus handles as a navigational tool for people with portly digits. Again, it came up trumps, scrolling through screens and entering text wasn’t a problem at all.

Despite Jobs’ condemnation of iPad styluses, the DAGi Capacitive Stylus is a great accessory for anyone who wishes to sketch or draw precisely. I would argue that using one doesn’t mean Apple has failed but rather that DAGi have succeeded.

Sony join the tablet fight

The idea of a tablet was once no more than a sci-fi dream however now it’s one of the hottest pieces of electronics with Apple leading the pack through their iPad range. Since the explosion in popularity of the original iPad, every Tom, Dick and Acer are building their very own tablets and this Autumn will see Sony join the party. Announced yesterday (via Telegraph) in a press conference, the company revealed the S1 and S2, two touch-only devices with two apparently different purposes.

The S1 is your standard iPad contender boasting a nine inch screen and Android’s Honeycomb operating system. Its design is meant to invoke the feeling of holding a magazine, tapering at one end but thick at the other. The S2 on the other hand is more of a portable web browsing device with a clamshell style which opens up to reveal not one but two 5.5 inch 1024×480 screens. Both are naturally WiFi, 3G and 4G enabled and both will come with the PlayStation Certified label meaning they’ll be able to play PS1 games and whatever else Sony approves for its mobile devices.

I get the S1, it’s Sony’s tablet which can stand up to the competition but the S2 puzzles me and I wonder if Sony are getting a little confused too. We already have a mini tablet to to speak, capable of playing PlayStation Certified games. The Xperia Play or PlayStation Phone as it’s been dubbed. A big factor of that is the physical buttons which Sony have marketed as being ‘needed’ for mobile gaming. So why now are we to received a dual-screened device whose games will be controlled just like any other touchscreen platform? To me, the S2 and Xperia Play will be fighting against each other in some ways with one boasting real buttons for real controls and the other following along with the Smartphone crowd. Maybe that’s it, maybe the Xperia Play will be the chosen platform for gamers who scoff at iPhone and Android gaming and the S2 is there for those who prefer something more casual. It does look a bit like a mock-up for a DS 2 before the 3DS was announced.

With these two systems, Sony doesn’t want to beat Apple but instead sit firmly in second place by 2012. Or at least that was their outlook last year so their aspirations may have changed since then. It’s a very tough market to jump into and Sony are renowned for making bits of hardware so the brand could be what drives sale of the S1 and S2 when they’re released in Autumn. Whether I fully understand the purpose of both tablets is irrelevant because tablets are big business now and there almost feels as if companies don’t necessarily need a reason to release one other than to be one of the choices for consumers. And like the Xperia Play, I’m really quite intrigued to see where Sony takes these tablet.

Your definitive way to play

In an effort to boost their status within the gaming community, Apple have hired two key members from Nintendo and Activision to help promote the iOS as the definitive gaming platform. Robert Saunders, who is currently working for Nintendo UK, is leaving to join Apple at the end of April for a PR position specifically created to focus on Apps while Activision’s PR director Nick Grange will look after iPad hardware (via Appleinsider).

The creation of both positions and head-hunting of two traditional video game veterans shows Apple’s dedication to iOS and the devices it’s found on. But they’re going to have a hard time convincing the sternest of critics that iPads and iPhones have become the definitive way to play games. It’s true, iOS games are vast in quantity with more and more people using them for entertainment purposes however that doesn’t necessarily make them replacements for console and PCs just yet. If such a claim is to be based on the sheer number of players, Facebook would surely be on top with Farmville and Cityville leading the way. Regardless of semantics, we still have a clear divide between the casual and hardcore audiences because of the kinds of experiences that appeal to each demographic. An overwhelming majority of iOS games are of a shorter bite-sized nature and even the grander ones work better when split up this way. Controls have become a big issue too with mechanics and gameplay being scaled down to make up for a lack of precision.

I’m not against this type of game, far from it if you see some of the games covered in my review section but everything has its place within the industry. In a report from the end of last year, Smartphone gaming has risen 43.8 percent whereas those found on DS and PSP fell 13 percent. Great news for Apple and Android for that matter but being mobile phones, it’s a hell of a lot easier to get into hands than it is for systems that predominately focus on video games. They are a threat, no doubt about it just as is the iPad with a recent survey showing 84 percent of owners using the tablet for gaming. Whether or not those games are comparable to ones found on traditional platforms is still to be understood but the potential market is growing seemingly everyday. I’m yet to be convinced that the iOS can be considered definitive but I’m keen to see how Saunders and Grange try and prove that it is. Who knows, they may just win me over forcing me to eat my words good and proper. To be honest I’d rather that and have more quality gaming experiences than the alternative.

The force is weak with this one

UPDATE: Because of all the noise Kotaku made when reporting the pulling of Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner, LucasArts has allowed the game to stay on the App Store. For now. There may not be any kind of timescale for when the game has to come off but you can be sure that one day it will so if you’re at al interested, you may want to pick it up sooner rather than later. The cynic in me is saying the move is nothing more than a publicity stunt aimed at obtaining those last few purchases while the situation is still fresh in our minds. The rest of me thinks it’s LucasArts doing something cool for someone else.

In November last year, I reported about an iPhone game that uses the Star Wars license in a new and interesting way by incorporating an Augmented Reality feature. Star Wars Arcade: Falcon Gunner put you in the seat of the Millennium Falcon’s gun turrets, filling the screen with TIE fighters as you twist and turn to shoot them all down. I bought it, I played it. It’s cool though my compass kept crapping out on me obscuring the view for some reason but still, SWA:FG is a fun and innovative little shooter. Or it least it will be remembered that way because come March 31st, the game will be yanked from the App Store, possibly for good (via Kotaku).

The reason isn’t sinister or anything to do with Apple themselves but an unfortunate loss of licensing. THQ Wireless who had held the right to distribute Vertigore’s Falcon Gunner which uses the intellectual property of LucasArts. But THQ have lost those rights meaning the distribution of games using it has to stop. In the world where that distribution is digital, Falcon Gunner will simply disappear. If you already own it like I do, fear not, nothing is going to happen to your copy or at least that’s the general consensus, it just won’t be able to be downloaded ever again.

Why this particularly sucks is how it highlights one of the problems to a future where games are sold only via digital distribution like some industry insiders believe will happen. With a physical disc, you’re more likely to find a copy kicking around in various locations if production halts or you could even borrow it from a mate. It’s a lot harder if not impossible to do the same when the process is purely digital.

The future of 3DS

With the UK launch of the 3DS looming on the horizon, Chris Kohler of Wired sat down with the man behind the third dimension, Hideki Konno, producer of the upcoming handheld firing questions at him specific to the automatic system update feature. If you’re a console owner, you can relate to the sometimes barrage of firmware upgrades, particularly on the PS3, that have altered the way we play with them significantly over the years. Nintendo could have a similar intent to reshape the 3DS as it ages with the first example coming in May with the addition of an eShop and web browser.

The last generation of Nintendo handhelds offered a clunky online multiplayer experience so this time around, the company are trying to position the 3DS more in line with current hardware by allowing the user to trade their friend code with others to then see what they’re up to and the games they’re playing. But that’s it. No chatting, no game invites no real communication at all. Konno hinted to Kohler that a messaging service may be headed in a later update: “We are going to be making updates to the system, and I think [text chat could be] something that would be really interesting to do.” I hope so or it would feel like the online functionality has been left unfinished. A crying shame when the system is full of such promise for a thriving online community. The fear of unwanted text messages or game request from those will ill-intent is a barrier that a little common sense can overcome.

One area that Nintendo lags behind all other systems is their approach to demos, or rather lack of. They flirted with the idea for WiiWare games a while back but only released a select few for a short amount of time. Similarly, the Nintendo channel offers a few DS downloadable demos which tend to generate a flurry of excitement from fans so the reluctance on Nintendo’s part is even more bizarre. But Konno argues whether or not demos are actually worthwhile. It’s not that they can’t be done on the system as he said entire games could be automatically sent to your 3DS. Konno simply isn’t sure whether they’re effective: “There are cases where people play a demo game and they’re satisfied with that play experience and they don’t buy the game. There are also times when they play a demo and think, ‘Wow, this is great, I’m going to buy this when I have the chance.’ So whether or not it’s an effective use of resources, I’m not sure.”

I think the key is making a good demo, one that teases your interest leaving you wanting more and not seemingly showing you everything the game has to offer. It’s true, a bad demo can be disastrous, take Hour of Victory on the Xbox 360 for example. That played terribly in demo for leaving gamers soured by the experience. But on the other hand, the necessity to include a demo version of every arcade game has helped those with decent tasters to go on and become profitable titles. A quality demo can be crucial and should really be the norm what with ever expanding game prices compared to the ever shrinking budgets of players.

Speaking of budgets, Konno was asked about the possibility of sales or reductions for games akin to that of Steam and the App Store with his response confirming Nintendo’s defiance of the flexible pricing scheme: “If what you’re coming up with [is something like] the Apple iTunes store, where people can freely set their prices, I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” adding,  “Having a business model that allows for the prices to be driven down that low, as a developer it’s kind of scary because we want to protect our content, and the only way we can justify creating good content is if it makes business sense. It’s more than a pricing issue, it’s a company value. We want to compete with ideas, we want to surprise our consumer base.” I like the idea of competing with ideas rather than price tags but ultimately, price flexibility is what a large proportion of people would want. If you have a great idea that goes on sale for a week, it’s more likely to give a boost to sales than a crappy concept which is always cheap. At the moment, Nintendo are still in a strong position but with a market as fickle as that of video games, it could change rather quickly.