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SXSW 2009: iPhone: The New Gaming Platform


A group of iPhone game developers got together for an SXSW panel that might as well have been a prolonged high five. They like the platform, and they like all the money that they've gotten from early App Store adopters. ngmoco's Stephanie Morgan, iPhone Dev Camp's Raven Zachary, Aurora Feint's Danielle Cassley, and Pangea Software's Brian Greenstone highlighted the advantages of the platform, and talked about their own game development processes.

Morgan offered rationales for the iPhone's superiority over other devices: it's capable of higher-quality games than most mobile platforms, with no variation between models and a "frictionless" distribution model. In her estimation, it exceeds handheld game consoles in that it's always on, and always with its owner, and has a wide-open market for third-party games (which means no Nintendo to compete with). Despite most iPhone games being designed for casual play, sessions can be surprisingly long -- the average Rolando session is around 22 minutes.

Greenstone offered numbers for Pangea's releases: the biggest, Enigmo, sold 810,000 units, with a two-week port time from Mac to iPhone, and zero development costs. The profits were around $1,500,000. But Enigmo benefited from a release concurrent with the App Store launch. Because the market is so new and so wide, it can be difficult to commit money to iPhone projects -- there's no way to know if they will be successful. Responding to an audience question, Greenstone later called the iPhone a "mini-Mac," saying that he was done with Mac development.

Cassley talked about the design of the "asynchronous MMO" Aurora Feint, whose ability to record play sessions as "ghosts" allows people to play against friends whenever they decide to play. The strategy has worked: Aurora Feint has been downloaded over a million times, and the touches added to make the game feel more social (including a scrolling chat ticker) have been spun off into a toolkit for other iPhone developers called OpenFeint.

Following the discussion, the panel answered questions, providing advice on marketing (Greenstone suggests lots of review copies to blogs and popular YouTube reviewers), development (treat the iPhone as a true gaming device, and integrate the iPhone's capabilities into the game design in a non-gimmicky way), and pricing (Morgan suggested introductory prices to get the title into the top 100 on the App Store, then raising).

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