One of the biggest paradigm shifts in video game history happened nearly ten years ago, and the game industry is still playing catch-up.
While gaming on mobile devices has been around for more than two decades in one form or another, it wasn’t until the summer of 2008, and the launch of Apple’s iOS App Store, that mobile gaming became an instrumental, defining element of video games.
That July 10th, 2008 launch brought with it about 500 apps, including three dozen or so video games, and the first steps toward the ubiquity of gaming.
During last week’s Game Developer Conference, smartphone gaming wasn’t just some ancillary element of the show or subject of topical discussion; it was as entwined in game development talks as graphic fidelity, artificial intelligence and storytelling methods.
Epic Games CEO and founder Tim Sweeney kicked-off his annual state of the company presentation at the show by calling the “mobile game revolution” one of the greatest events in the history of the game industry.
“Now is a really exciting time both for gamers and game developers,” he told the audience in the theater and those watching a live stream. “Right now we are ten years into the mobile gaming revolution. This is a revolution that’s brought more than 3.5 billion new computing device owners into the market in the form of smartphones and tablets and billions of new gamers. So it’s one of the greatest events in the history of the game industry.”
Almost more importantly, though, Sweeney noted that while that 2008 event initially split the game industry into two halves - high end gamers and gaming and casual gamers - a new trend “upending the game industry” is seeing that split disappear as the games made for consoles or computers are now showing up nearly unaltered on smartphones.
“This is inherently a flight to quality,” he said. “Gone are the day of ports.”
Apple Talks iPhone Gaming
While Sweeney’s proclamation may be surprising to some who play games, smartphone game development has been steadily marching toward this moment since 2008 and the release of titles like Trism and Crash Bandicoot Nitro Kart 3D.
Last year’s release of Lineage II in South Korea was a pivotal moment and foreshadowed the coming of mainstream, high-end games to the mobile platform. That was followed by Chinese developer and publisher Tencent’s continued push of high-fidelity, high-end gaming on the smartphone. Titles like smartphone MOBA Arena of Valor were made from the ground up not just for mobile gaming, but competitive, esports gaming on the smartphone. In the weeks leading up to GDC, a series of surprising announcements hit that highlighted this shift even more. Survival game ARK: Survival Evolved and wildly successful battle royale games PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite both received smartphone versions of the game. Fortnite’s supported smartphone players gaming with people on console or PC with essentially no difference.
Greg Joswiak, Apple vice president of iOS, iPad and iPhone marketing, tells Glixel that while games have been a big business for the App Store and iPhone for a long time, he thinks that the trend is at an “incredible tipping point, with amazing stuff going on.”
He attributes this to two major factors:
“One is augmented reality and that we’re enabling people to take this thing people have dreamed about it and put it on the phone,” he said. “The second thing is that we’re really seeing for the first time, really true current-generation console gaming coming to the iPhone in a completely fully-fledged state. Not the console game that existed on a two-year-old console, not scaled down games, not a companion app. It’s the real game running on the iPhone, and that’s because we’ve enabled it with hardware and software.
“This is a testimonial of what we are doing for iPhone. This is going to be a bright new world and one we are really excited about.”
Back when Apple launched the App Store in 2008, the company didn’t know what exactly to expect, he said. “ We thought maybe we’d get 50 apps to start, but on the first day we had 500, and we thought that was an omen. But I’d be lying if I said we thought it would be as revolutionary as it would become. It’s changed the world. It’s changed the way software is written and distributed. It’s changed the gaming industry.”
Epic’s Sweeney noted in his talk that gaming on smartphones involved a lot of small steps before it got to the point it’s at today. Joswiak also noted that the early successes on the iPhone were in casual gaming, but said that the continued advancement of technology in the phone lead to better and bigger games.
Today, about 90 percent of iPhone owners are on the most current iOS, he said. And that shows that when Apple rolls out advancements in software, there are a lot of people there to take advantage of it. And that sizable pool of users draws a big interest from game developers.
“When you talk to developers they say they need a couple of things: the technology to support what they need to do, technology in both hardware and software. And customers. We have over a billion active devices. We bring everything they need.”
Game Makers on iPhone Gaming
Ryan Cash, founder of Alto’s Odyssey developer Built By Snowman, said that the iPhone X is to the point now that there really aren’t too many limitations when it comes to creating games for the device.
“You have this amazing screen, amazing sound, things like haptic feedback and you really just always have it on you,” he said. “For us, it’s an exciting opportunity to get games in front of people who don’t necessarily play games. And if you’re going to have one computer in your life, it’s going to be a smartphone.”
Dan Gray, head of Monument Valley developer ustwo games, sees the iPhone as a collection of things he finds amazing. More importantly, though, he says he’s excited about how games continue to evolve on the device.
“I think the thing I’m most excited about is that mass audiences are starting to learn that you can tell stories and have characters in these games,” he said. “That wouldn’t have been the case not so many years ago. These games were seen as a time killer only.”
SpellTower developer Zach Gage said that iPhone gaming has sort of normalized recently. “It used to be like ‘What’s going to be on the iPhone?’ And then it was this discussion about how the iPhone had no buttons. Then people wondered if there would be console games on the iPhone and then there were, and then it was fun games and then indie games. Now people have phones, many people have phones instead of a console, and you can play games on them. You can play indie games, big triple-A games. This is a thing that is just normal.”
All three noted developers said that it isn’t just about the ubiquity of gaming and the iPhone, but also about how it has changed the process of sharing games and getting people to play games.
Gage points out that he recently helped bring award-winning game Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy to the iPhone. So now, when people watch the game in action on Twitch and decide they like it, they just pull out their phone and buy it. “They don’t sit there and go, ‘Oh, do you think it’s on the iPhone?’”
Cash points to the iPhone’s multi-touch screen as a chief enabler of the spread of games on the device. “Having a mult-itouch piece of glass to work with gives you a completely blank canvas,” he said. “It’s so accessible. I’ve seen babies swiping on iPads. Touch is such a human instinct. I think it’s always going to be a part of gaming and experiencing anything.”
Gray says that accessibility is one thing that attracted him to iPhone game development. He worked on traditional, big, console and computer games for years at places like Lionhead and Hello Games. “I remember thinking I hated the idea that I would tell my family and friends what I was making and they would have no idea what I was working on,” he said. “Now I feel like I can give someone the gift of game. They are going to download it while they’re sat at the table.”
Gage also points to the influence a game created for such a ubiquitous platform can have. “How can you not want to be involved,” he said. “Being able to go to people who’ve not had this experience and be the first person to give them that experience.”
He also noted that the platform allows him to communicate his art - which happens to be games - to so many different sorts of people than would normally examine or interact with art. “Mostly art is talking to rich people and other artists.”
The Future of iPhone Gaming
While smartphone gaming is now starting to compete on a more level field with computer and console games, it also continues to transform not only where a game is played, but how and when.
“The biggest thing that mobile has brought to us is the concept that we have a computer with us that is with us all of the time and not just with us all of the time, but on and with us all of the time,” Gage said. “That has totally transformed the kind of interactions that was designed for games. Now you have games that can be played in 30 seconds, games that you can play for six months at a time. That is really changing a lot of stuff. The entire landscape is shifting. We have a computer with us all of the time now, and we can access it instantaneously.”
Gray is excited about the possibilities brought with the iPhone X’s new facial recognition technology. “You can have characters that know if you’re happy or sad or anxious. It won’t be long from now that you will be able to create characters that feel personal for you, know what you like, how you’re feeling and recognize you.”
Apple’s Joswiak sees augmented reality as a big element of future gaming on the device. “I get very involved with developers and working with new API,” he said. “I don’t recall as much excitement as I’ve seen with AR API with anything we’ve done in years, maybe going back to the App Store.” We are enabling the stuff that people wanted to do for years.”
He said that AR, which launched in September, already has 2,000 apps that support it. “That’s pretty amazing. The drawing board for most app development is more than just a few months. Yet we already have so many apps. Imagine what you’re going to see in the future.”
Joswiak added that Apple is going to try and continue to stay ahead of the competition in both hardware and software so it can continue to have a “compelling story to tell our developers.”