iPhone games publisher Ngmoco head Neil Young today opened GDC with a rousing keynote heralding the big changes Apple’s touchscreen device has brought to the games market for developers and publishers.
Young also revealed that Ngmoco will later this year make its back-end platform for iPhone games – which incorporates analytics and an Xbox Live-style friends list – available to all of the games industry.
Describing the mobile games industry as "lame" before iPhone came along, Young recapped how Apple has broken the mobile sector’s staple pillars of carrier domination, organisations which handle the ‘unexciting’ porting across multiple handsets, and most importantly delivering compelling mobil hardware.
Until iPhone, mobile handsets were "very limited in the capability – they were just really horrible to use. It was difficult to get to the software and have fun on them."
So iPhone has been a ‘genesis’ for the mobile games industry, he added, describing the device’s arrival two years ago "as important as the introduction of VHS or the NES."
And, it’s stronger than rival handheld consoles, he added.
"As a games machine this device was so much better than anything else that has come before it. It enables handheld console quality and frictionless distribution – it’s better than the DS and PSP because it is connected, you have a direct relationship with customers."
Young then outlined how the iPhone has changed the industry in four key areas: the market, games themselves, game making and publishing.
Young recapped key data for the device, pointing out the 800m App Store downloads of the 25,000 apps available, and how 165 apps are released released every day.
Despite the fact this means that the App Store is incredibly ‘cluttered’, the point to envy is how Apple has normalised digital distribution of game content, said Young.
He said: "Apple have trained 30m people to download and and install applications on their phone where ever they are. It is an amazing process we are witnessing."
And as games are largest part of the App Store, this is an "awesome opportunity" to generate revenue.
In terms of the games themselves, "it’s clear already from a graphics standpoint that the quality of IPhone games is eclipsing its console counterparts," said Young.
He demoed an Ngmoco collaboration with Dutch studio Rough Cookie on Star Defence, the firm’s first entry into the tower defence category – and a high end one at that, which Young described as "a dramatic improvement" in graphics for the genre.
But graphics aren’t everything, he added, and in order to really succeed on iPhone, the games industry "needs to learn from Nintendo" and how it turned the DS into a games phenomenon.
Young explained: "Nintendo was able to win [the battle against PSP] by combining great software along with hardware it understood very well. If Nintendo made the iPhone what would hey focus on? I think they would build games that could only be on the iPhone and took advantage of what that device has in it natively. The designs would be progressive, discontinuous and would have the users and context always in mind. They would recognise this device is always on, always with you and always connected to the network."
Those are the things the games industry must bear in mind when making iPhone products, he added.
So social gaming "is going to move from being a game type to a feature that permeates many of the games you see on the Ap Store today" he said, pointing out that things like online multiplayer games are enabled by the SDK 3.0 plus functions like VOIP and in game commerce.
"The challenge for games makers it how we bring all that together into great play experiences," said Young, saying to focus on all aspects of the iPhone’s hardware and not just the immediately game-relevant aspects: "We need to leverage every part of the device for games – the contact list, the media, the camera, the GPS, everything that makes this unique."
For developers, iPhone has proven to be an antidote to a tough economic climate, said Young.: "There is a general malaise over the game industry today. But with iPhone there has never been a better time to be an independent. The gap between job security has changed pretty significantly over the past year."
Apple’s $99 iPhone dev kit offers ‘incredible tools’ unlike any other platform, he added: "I’ve made games for a long time from things like Colecovision, and I have not seen tools that are as robost and adaptable as the tools Apple has given us.
"The bad news is that it is so easy to make things is that it contributes to the clutter- and even really good games aren’t that successful."
So games developers must appreciate that the iPhone also changes the lifecycle of games, said Young. Ngmoco’s UK-developed Rolando has been regularly updated with DLC since launch, with a sequel on the way in June – just over six months since the debut of the first game – that will follow the same patter.
"The iPhone has changed game making – and you have to respect and embrace this new lifecycle," said Young.
Likewise this has changed the attitude to publishing, key for Ngmoco which has been commissioning and publishing games content for iPhone since its founding in June 2008.
"The role of a great publisher is to help make the very best games above all else, and get those games in front of as many people as we possibly can," said Young.
"The App Store has revolutionised distribution but it hasn’t revolutionised publishing.
When we think about being a publisher it’s about knowing and communicating with our customers," but instead of standard PR and marketing, Ngmoco’s advantage is its platform said Young.
Built into every Ngmoco game, the Ngmoco platform provides analytics for its titles and allows live tuning for software. It also provides a unified friend list and will expand further with the release of the iPhone SDK v3.0.
"We are asking how we can be a better publisher," said Young, explaining that so far Ngmoco has so far commissioned software, providing direction on ideas and tech and finance, right through to pure publishing – but that’s it.
That will change later this year when Ngmoco opens the platform up to consumers – and the industry, allowing publishers and developers to utilise the platform and add their branding to it ("Ngmoco will be subtly in the background," said Young).
Young added that the idea is that the Ngmoco platform can add sophistication and a unified front to all iPhone games, including a way to address clutter.
"High quality games will find their way to the surface in that kind of ecosystem," he said.
"iPhone is the new everything," concluded Young. "It is not just a ‘mobile games platform’ but a gaming platform in its own right. We’ve only just begun to see what you can do on this device."